The meaning of words evolves over the centuries. This evolution causes confusion when contemporary readers try to understand the original meaning of old writing.
The verb “resent” for example, once meant to express emotion, good or bad, in response to the actions of others. In the 17th Century, a person might write honestly to a friend, “I deeply resent the wonderful box of chocolates you sent me.” A modern reader could easily misunderstand the meaning of “resent” in that sentence and believe that the writer felt angry at his friend.
I think this same problem bedevils contemporary discussions of the 2nd Amendment. The meaning of key words and phrases in the passage evolved over the last two centuries. Applying modern definitions of these words obscures the original clear meaning of the amendment.
The 2nd Amendment in its original form reads:
A well regulated Militia being necessary to the security of a free State, the right of the people to keep and bear Arms shall not be infringed.
Today, “regulated” most commonly means, “placed under government oversight.” Militia implies the civilian reserve of the national military. “security of a free state” means protecting the national government from external attack. “The people” means all citizens considered in concert. Given these modern definitions and shadings, a naive reader might interpret the 2nd Amendment as stating:
A military reserve, supervised by the national government, being necessary to protect the State from external attack, the right of the people collectively to maintain and use weapons shall not be infringed.
Indeed, many advocates of disarming law-abiding citizens argue that the 2nd Amendment does define merely the right of individual American states to maintain a military reserve for the federal government.
However, such a reading not only requires massive ignorance about the thinking and experience of the founders and their generation but also a lack of awareness of the changing definitions of words.
In 1792, “regulated” as applied to military matters contained no connotation of political oversight or control. Instead, it meant trained and organized. In a time when soldiers fought by moving in large, coordinated formations, order meant everything to military effectiveness. They used “regular” in the sense we use when we speak of of a regular angle or polygon. “Regulated” military units were organized into consistent, interchangeable units that made battlefield information management more efficient. “Unregulated” military units were just unorganized groups of men that could not fight as effectively as did “regulated” units. The use of “regulated” versus “unregulated” held no connotations of political control at all but merely described the units’ state of military organization.
With the passage of time, armies raised by centralized governments proved more organized than those raised by citizens. The phrase “regular army” evolved to mean one controlled by a centralized authority and “irregular army” evolved to mean an ad hoc one. The original use of the words to describe the organizational state of the army at any given time disappeared.
In 1792, “militia” held no connotations of a military reserve. Instead, the term applied entirely to self-organized groups of citizens operating out of their own shared authority. A “militia” differed from an “army” in that a central executive such as a monarch raised armies, but when citizens acted themselves they raised “militias”. Nothing in the use of the word “militia” prior to the 20th Century implied any degree of state sanction. In both colonial and frontier times, groups of citizens raised “militias” on their own authority at any time of their choosing and organized them as they saw fit. Prior to the Civil War, most campaigns against Native Americans were carried out by militias organized in frontier communities. Indeed, for people of the founders’ generation, no current American military organization would qualify as a “militia”. State executives were given the authority to call out the militia but the inherent moral and legal authority to form a “militia” rested with the civilian population.
In 1792, “free state” did not mean a country free from external attack but rather a non-despotic government.
In 1792, “right” meant an inherent ability instead of the modern sense of “granted privilege” or “entitlement.”
In 1792, “the people” definitely meant “each individual citizen.”
In 1792, “keep and bear” meant “possess and use.”
In 1792, “arms” meant “weapons.”
So, if we update the language of the 2nd amendment into its modern equivalents we get something like:
Well trained and coordinated groups citizens organized for military action being necessary to prevent the devolution of governments into despotism, the inalienable ability of individual citizens to possess and use weapons shall not be abridged.
Clearly, the founders (and all their fellow citizens who voted for the Constitution) viewed the widespread possession of weapons by private citizens as a bulwark against the evolution of the state into despotism. They remembered all too well that the Revolution began at Lexington and Concord when the British attempted to seize the weapons of the people.
Regardless of how one views the wisdom of gun control at any level, attempts to mutate the meaning of the Constitution should give everyone pause. If the Left can essentially define away the 2nd Amendment, that will set the precedent for the Right to define away another amendment. Before long, we might find we have no meaningful Constitution remaining and that we have no rights and liberties save those which the powerful elites du jour say we have.
Honestly interpreting the the 2nd Amendment in historical context protects everyone by preserving the Constitutional mechanisms that control the innately corrupting power of the state. Playing word games with the Constitution in order to solve a short-term problem will certainly backfire in the long run.
* The Unfolding of Language by Guy Deutscher p70-71
10 thoughts on “Reading the 2nd Amendment”
Next spring will prove very interesting indeed when the SCOTUS decides on DC vs. Heller.
We should also remember that the Founders were referencing relatively recent historical experiences — ones that had overshadowed political discourse throughout their lives. If any American state were t attempt secession tday, we would view that event through the lens of the American Civil War even though that event was almost 160 years ago. So the founders viewed these issues through the lens of the Glorious Revolution, which was only a century previous — they had known witnesses to those events in heir childhoods. And the English Civil War was no more distant to them than the American one is to us today. To them, the threat to the “security of a free state” was exemplified by the Stuarts trying to disarm citizens’ militias in the years before 1688, or the professional New Model Army marching into Parliament to dismiss the members they disliked by force of arms. The Second Amendment is a real reaction to real-world events — and it specifically endorses the fundamental concept of an armed citizenry.
James C. Bennett,
Good point. We forget how hard it is to put ourselves in the shoes of those who lived in other times.
In the 17th Century, a person might write honestly to a friend, “I deeply resent the wonderful box of chocolates you sent me.”
Unlikely, since chocolate suitable for eating was not invented until the 19th century. Before that, chocolate was only for drinking.
Just to nitpick.
Yes, my grandfathers were born in 1895 and 1896 — well after the Civil War ended. But I was struck, as a kid, by the way that it was still the central historical presence in their minds, and always remained that way even after WW1, the Depression, and WW2.
To my father’s parents, Douglas MacArthur was always primarily Arthur MacArthur’s boy, even after Bataan and Korea. They used metaphors like “Rock of Chicamauga” in everyday speech.
It’s easy to imagine that for the Founders, the Glorious Revolution was a constant presence in their minds.
James C. Bennett,
Yes, despite all the conflict that occurred between the Glorious Revolution and 1792, in terms of its impact on political theory and history the Glorious Revolution would have stood head and shoulders above all other events in the same time period.
Though shifted a generation later, I too still heard references to the Civil War from the old. “As bad as Shiloh” was one that stuck out.
“Yes, my grandfathers were born in 1895 and 1896 — well after the Civil War ended. But I was struck, as a kid, by the way that it was still the central historical presence in their minds, and always remained that way even after WW1, the Depression, and WW2”
Strom Thurmond won his first election – for county school superintendent, in 1923, I believe – on the strength of the Confederate Veteran vote. There are still a few – very few – living “Sons of the Confederacy”, old men whose fathers had been elderly war veterans who married young brides in the early 20th century and sired children. The last person born a Slave in the United States did not die until the late 1960’s.
Historical memory is longer than we think.
“A well regulated Militia being necessary to the security of a free State, the right of the people to keep and bear Arms shall not be infringed.”
I imagine the strongest argument by those opposed to the 2nd Amendment would be a “practical” one. That is, that “Militia” is equivalent to the state’s well-armed national guard and therefore individual citizens need not be armed. Certainly the national guard is a militia but it, in certain common social/historical circumstances, need not be the only militia required. Therefore, the practical argument doesn’t seem very strong.
Assuming for a moment that judicial activist outlook (that is, that militia = national guard) is adopted and a narrowing of the second amendment is rationalized then the SC is saying that the amendment is poorly written, or impractical, or unreasonable. This would, in general, be an argument that would be similar to arguments that lead to the repeal of the 18th amendment – practical arguments. Clearly it is not the place of the SC to, in effect, “repeal” it, narrow the meaning, or rewrite the amendment. I have little doubt though that some justices will take this tact.
It’s hard to see how this would be anything other than judicial activism. The one-sentence amendment is obviously purposefully broadly written allowing maximum freedom of interpretation and scope of action by the people. The founders clearly were not interested in putting fetters on gun owners. Now, it may be that the amendment is too broadly written for a safe, secure modern society. If so, then let the states and/or congress repeal it like the 18th was repealed (ahem, legally). It was broadly written on purpose and for the SC to interpret it narrowly would be a travesty. Article 5 must be invoked to change the second amendment or we are screwed (or, one might say, no longer living in a just, orderly, open, and representative republic).
I’d go further and say that even today “the rights of the people” generally does not mean a “collective right”, going to a government entity. Even in normal modern language “the right of the people” doesn’t refer to powers of states.
As for the interpretation of the rest of the amendment I agree, but don’t think its necessary as the only clause in the amendment that gives any power, right, or obligation is “the right of the people to keep and bear arms shall not be infringed”. The rest of the amendment, provides justification for, but doesn’t change the meaning of that phrase.
If you want a good illustration of the principle of the “general militia” in action as the Founders understood it look at the passengers of Flight 93.
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