The Corner

Flippant Frummery


Writing about the Black Panthers and gun rights, David Frum begins well — which is to say, with a quotation from me — but quickly reverts to First Order Frummery.

”The purpose of having citizens armed with paramilitary weapons is to allow them to engage in paramilitary actions.” That sentence is quoted not from the Black Panther manifesto, but from an article published just a few weeks ago in National Review by Kevin Williamson.

Before 1965, it would have occurred to precisely nobody that the Second Amendment guaranteed the right to organize private armies independent of the state.

The only way Frum could write that sentence is to have ignored the evidence in the piece of mine from which he was quoting or, more likely, to have failed to read it. If he had read it, he would have encountered the sentiment of Justice Joseph Story — who lived well before 1965 and who was not “precisely nobody” — which says the thing Frum says nobody said:

The importance of this article will scarcely be doubted by any persons, who have duly reflected upon the subject. The militia is the natural defence of a free country against sudden foreign invasions, domestic insurrections, and domestic usurpations of power by rulers. It is against sound policy for a free people to keep up large military establishments and standing armies in time of peace, both from the enormous expenses, with which they are attended, and the facile means, which they afford to ambitious and unprincipled rulers, to subvert the government, or trample upon the rights of the people. The right of the citizens to keep and bear arms has justly been considered, as the palladium of the liberties of a republic; since it offers a strong moral check against the usurpation and arbitrary power of rulers; and will generally, even if these are successful in the first instance, enable the people to resist and triumph over them.

Frum is here guilty of either willful ignorance or intellectual dishonesty. Such sentiments as Justice Story’s are of course not terribly difficult to document: It was hardly unthinkable to the gentlemen of the founding generation that an armed people might throw off a tyrant, since they had just done so. For the benefit of humanity, they published a famous laundry list of their reasons for doing so, and Mr. Frum might consider availing himself of their wisdom.

It is worth noting that taking up arms against an oppressive government is hardly unprecedented, even in modern American history. When the people of McMinn County, Tenn., petitioned state and federal officials for relief from their corrupt, violent, election-rigging local government, and none was forthcoming, they took up arms against the ruling junta in order to stop its stealing another election.

The Black Panthers were a criminal gang, but then so were a lot of Jim Crow-era sheriff’s departments. The fact that the Black Panthers cited the right to self-defense does not invalidate the Second Amendment any more than David Frum’s occasional descents into self-righteous inanity invalidate the First Amendment. 

*Edited for typo since original posting.

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