No, The Second Amendment Was Not Primarily About Suppressing African Americans

The media has given highly favorable coverage to a new book by Dr. Carol Anderson, chair of Emory University’s Black Studies Department, that argues that “[the Second Amendment] was designed and has consistently been constructed to keep African Americans powerless and vulnerable.”  In interviews with media outlets like CNN and NPR Anderson’s theory is not challenged on the history and purpose of the Second Amendment. Like the contested claims of the “1619” project (which posited that slavery was the motivation for the establishment of the colonies), there might be a reluctance by academics to raise the countervailing historical sources out of fear of being labeled insensitive, defensive, or even racist.  However, this is not a new theory and, while there were concerns at the time about slavery and uprisings, the roots of the Second Amendment can be traced largely to England and the fears of government oppression. The point is not to dismiss this consideration for some pro-slavery figures at the time but to put those statements in a more historically grounded and accurate context.

The book, “The Second: Race and Guns in a Fatally Unequal America,” is the latest work of Anderson who previously published “White Rage: The Unspoken Truth of Our Racial Divide.”  NPR bills its interview as “Historian Carol Anderson Uncovers The Racist Roots Of The Second Amendment.”

In truth, this is not a new theory and was long preceded by more detailed accounts by figures like Carl Bogus who wrote the 1998 work The Hidden History of the Second Amendment. Carl T. Bogus, The Hidden History of the Second Amendment31 U.C. DAVIS L. REV. 309 (1998); see also Carl T. Bogus, Race, Riots, and Guns66 S. CAL. L. REV. 1365 (1993). These works are worth reading as are the writings of my colleague Robert Cottrol (and my former colleague) Ray Diamond. See Robert J. Cottrol & Raymond T. Diamond, The Second Amendment: Toward an Afro-Americanist Reconsideration80 GEO. L.J. 309 (1991).

Bogus highlighted the quotes used later by Anderson, including a warning by Patrick Henry that the Constitution gave too much power to the federal government in the “common defense” and did not leave enough powers with the states to defend themselves. Bogus asked “What was Henry driving at? In 1788, Americans did not fear foreign invasion.  Nor did Americans still harbor the illusion that the militia could effectively contest trained military forces.” His answer was slavery and its preservation.

Slavery was a matter discussed both at the Declaration of Independence and during the Constitutional debates. There were those who were concerned about efforts to abolish slavery as well as slave uprisings. However, the Second Amendment does not appear the result in whole or in large part due to those fears. The right to bear arms was viewed as a bulwark against oppression of citizens by the government. In Northern states where slavery was not as popular, the Second Amendment was an important guarantee against that danger of tyranny. For example, the Pennsylvania Constitution (that preceded the Constitution) included these provisions:

That the people have a right to bear arms for the defense of themselves and their own state, or the United States, or for the purpose of killing game; and no law shall be passed for disarming the people or any of them, unless for crimes committed, or real danger of public injury from individuals; and as standing armies in the time of peace are dangerous to liberty, they ought not to be kept up; and that the military shall be kept under strict subordination to and be governed by the civil power.

The inhabitants of the several states shall have liberty to fowl and hunt in seasonable times, on the lands they hold, and on all other lands in the United States not enclosed, and in like manner to fish in all navigable waters, and others not private property, without being restrained therein by any laws to be passed by the legislature of the United States.

New Hampshire, New York, Rhode Island and other states had similar precursors to the Second Amendment.  The Framers had just overthrown a tyrant and the image of the militia and the famed “Minutemen” remained fixed in the minds of many at the time.

James Madison captured this purpose in in Federalist No. 46 when he noted that a small federal standing army would be opposed by “a militia amounting to near half a million of citizens with arms in their hands” which would be able to defeat a tyrannical standing army. He was highlighting “the advantage of being armed, which the Americans possess over the people of almost every other nation”

Likewise, important contemporary writers at the time connected the Second Amendment to values heavily steeped in the shared history from England. There were also strong cultural and practical value placed on gun ownership, a right that was limited in England. This was still a young country where many lives along the frontier and relied on guns to sustain themselves and their families in terms of both security and sustenance. There was also a deep-seated mistrust of both a standing army and a centralized government.

That is evident in St. George Tucker’s American edition of Blackstone’s Commentaries (1803). In his publication of Blackstone, Tucker added two footnotes that reflected the thinking of many Framers:

[fn40] The right of the people to keep and bear arms shall not be infringed. Amendments to C. U. S. Art. 4, and this without any qualification as to their condition or degree, as is the case in the British government.

[fn41] Whoever examines the forest, and game laws in the British code, will readily perceive that the right of keeping arms is effectually taken away from the people of England.  The commentator himself informs us, Vol. II, p. 412, “that the prevention of popular insurrections and resistence to government by disarming the bulk of the people, is a reason oftener meant than avowed by the makers of the forest and game laws.”

Tucker later explained this point further:

“This may be considered as the true palladium of liberty . . . . The right of self defence is the first law of nature: in most governments it has been the study of rulers to confine this right within the narrowest limits possible. Wherever standing armies are kept up, and the right of the people to keep and bear arms is, under any colour or pretext whatsoever, prohibited, liberty, if not already annihilated, is on the brink of destruction. In England, the people have been disarmed, generally, under the specious pretext of preserving the game: a never failing lure to bring over the landed aristocracy to support any measure, under that mask, though calculated for very different purposes. True it is, their bill of rights seems at first view to counteract this policy: but the right of bearing arms is confined to protestants, and the words suitable to their condition and degree, have been interpreted to authorise the prohibition of keeping a gun or other engine for the destruction of game, to any farmer, or inferior tradesman, or other person not qualified to kill game. So that not one man in five hundred can keep a gun in his house without being subject to a penalty.”

There are a myriad of historical sources expounding on this rationale for the Second Amendment. The Supreme Court has itself highlighted that rationale in its discussions of the history and purpose of the Amendment.

The Anderson book effectively repeats the arguments of Bogus but she offers a far more fluid and casual treatment of the history, as is evident in a recent interview:

“…George Mason. Patrick Henry and George Mason really teamed up like tag team taking on the Federalists and the Constitution. What they argued, was that the Constitution put control of the militia under federal control. That meant that Virginia would be left defenseless, as they saw it, when there is an uprising. When there is a slave uprising, that they could not count on the North. They could not count on the federal government and those in Congress to deploy the militia to help out in the midst of a slave revolt.

And they were like, ‘you know, the North detests slavery and we will be left defenseless. I mean, can we really count on those folk?’ and Madison is arguing, ‘look, you got the Atlantic slave trade. Look, you got the three fifths clause. Look, you got the fugitive slave clause, you’re protected.’ And Patrick Henry’s like, ‘No, we are not.’ And so you started seeing the momentum for a new constitutional convention. And that was the last thing James Madison wanted, because he’s like, ‘if these folks get another bite at this, we’re gonna end up with the Articles of Confederation again’.”

This is the payoff to Patrick Henry and to George Mason. Look, the militia is here. And what it does is it says that the feds cannot interfere with the militia. You are safe to have your militia to defend against slave uprisings. So sitting here in the Bill of Rights, we have an amendment that is about denying Black people their rights.”

That is not, in my view, an accurate account of what was said by some of these figures and, more importantly, what was the primary motivation for the Second Amendment.

While I disagree with the analysis and conclusion, I value the discussion of how slavery may have impacted this and other amendments. Slave revolts were a concern in the South and that fear no doubt reinforced the desire to have a guaranteed right to bear arms, particularly for slave holders like Patrick Henry. I simply disagree with the sweeping generalizations and conclusions reached in the book. Moreover, this is not a new theory as suggested in these media accounts. Indeed, the case was made stronger by academics like Bogus and the general subject is presented with far greater depth and understanding by academics like Cottrol and Diamond.

266 thoughts on “No, The Second Amendment Was Not Primarily About Suppressing African Americans”

  1. With respect to anonymity – inconsistency is inherent – unavoidable.

    That inconsistency is CAUSED by those who post anonymously – and it is their responsiblity.

    Even actual error on the part of others – is still the responsibility of anonymous posters.

    As I noted – you are not free to impose a duty to sort out your identity on others.
    It is irrelevant that you think that tools exist that with some effort specific anonymous posters can be sorted out with reasonable error rates.

    You can not obligate others to do so.
    Nor hold them accountable for errors in determining identity where YOU choose to obfuscate identity.

    I would further note that YOU choose to post anonymously.
    In doing so you are clearly stating that you do not WANT others to identify you.

    You rant about inconsistency – yet your argument is the most inconsistent of all – you choose to obscure your identity and then demand that others guess at it.

    I am not apologizing for any inconsistency in dealing with the identity of anonymous posters.

    It remains impossible – as a consequence of YOUR choices to do so accurately.

    Therefore I and others are free to guess – or not as we choose – consistently or inconsistently and whatever errors we make are YOUR problem.

    This is part of the price of anonymity

  2. I have never argued that you were NOT free to say what you wish.

    The primary constraint I have sought to impose on you – is not what you SAY but what you DO – and specifically where you use FORCE.

    You can nearly always presume that when you say “You are free to do ….” – That I agree – so long as you are neither using force or advocating for the use of force.

  3. You keep omitting the exclusion of force from what you are free to do.

    We are or should all be free to do almost anything we please.

    You nearly always argue for greater actual freedom that I – because you include the freedom to FORCE others to do as you please.

    There is no general freedom to use force. The use of FORCE must be justified.

    When you adovocate for the use of force – as by government – you are obligated to justify that use of force.

    Justification is NOT merely asserting a potential benefit, It REQUIRES proving a benefit greater than all harms – even that might not be sufficient, but that is required.

    Nor can you merely presume that benefit – you must prove it.

  4. “You know for a fact that your comments sometime appear without your name.”
    Correct – sometimes I notice and correct that – regardless, all anonymous comments should be treated with the same lack of credibility, resting solely on the contents of a specific post.

    I would further note that the fact that I occasionally fail to provide an identity – tells me absolutely nothing about other anonymous posts.

    I Know which few anonymous posts are mine. But anyone else is just guessing. Even if I claim ownership – you can not know that I am not lying.

    “You also know for a fact that many anonymous comments were not written by you. Therefore, you can know that anonymous comments are not written by a single person.”
    Correct, i can know that those comments i wrote were by me, and those I did not write are not.
    That is all i can know.

    Further I can not credibly share that knowledge – I can tell others which are by me, but they have no reason to accept that claim.

    We see the same thing with the Federalist papers – which were written by madison, hamilton and jay under pseudonums.

    Today we STILL do not know for certain who wrote several of them.
    And those were not litterally anonymous.

    “If you’ve paid attention, you’d also know that Young has previously pointed out that some of his comments post anonymously. Your “pal” Allan / S. Meyer admits that he frequently posts anonymously, sometimes adding “SM” at the bottom and sometimes not.”

    While I find adding a signature to the bottom of a post a poor substitute for an actual ID – and I would note that it is possible to spoof posts with signatures trivially. Those STILL and NOT anonymous posts.

    A signature is a weak form of ID. Not anonymity.

    “That’s how you know that anonymous comments correspond to more than just you and one other.”

    Of you routinely add a signature to your posts – it is not an anonymous post – it is a weakly identified post.

    Look at my posts regarding anonymous posts. Is there any that were replies to someone who used a signature ?

    “”NO ONE is able to distinguish between them in a way that can be trusted. ”

    On the contrary, people who pay attention to their content, writing style, etc. can often distinguish them, just like we can distinguish among people by their appearance.”
    That is called guessing. And the error rate will be high.

    I do not disagree that it is possible to make a good guess. You may even be right 90% of the time – with significant effort.

    But it is still a guess and still you are burdening others to establish your identity, your credibility or lack.
    And you are doing so in a fashion that leaves you open to a high probabilty of eventual error.

    I recently chose NOT to replay to a messy post probably from you. But the post was so muddy it was impossible to tell whether it was left or right or what actual positions were being attacked.
    I could guess – but I could not know.
    So I decided that anything that unclear did not require a response.

    Had the post had a signature, or an id – I could have known the actual position of the author.

    ““You may be right that S. Meyer is Allan.”

    He’s admitted it.”

    Not that I have seen.
    And I do not care.

    “’I will treat anonymous posts as from the same or different person as seems fit to me at any time. ”

    Glad to know that you have no desire to be consistent in your behavior.”

    Perfectly consistent.

    “”You have no right …”

    Actually, every person has a right to believe and to say what they want. If it’s a T/F claim, they might be right or wrong. If it’s an opinion, they can have their opinion and you can have yours. You can try to insist that your opinion is the “right” one, but others are still free to have other opinions. You cannot dictate other people’s beliefs or statements.”
    Correct, but not relevant to the discussion.

    You do not have the RIGHT to force a duty on others. Such as demanding that others figure out which anonymous posts are yours.
    When you do so – each of us is free to decide or NOT as we please. Further should we Err – the responsibility is YOURS, not theirs

    Addressing your “points”.
    What is true is true – period.
    What is false is false.

    Human inability to know whether something is true or false with certainty does not alter that true is true and false is false.

    There is not some amorphous catagory call opinion where all opinions are equal.
    The human inability to know with certainty what is absolutely true and what is absolutely false does NOT preclude humans from knowing what is PROBABLY true and what is probably false.

    Most assertions are absolutely and knowably false – atleast in the context of reality.

    Of the remainder most are probably false. Of what is left, a few are near certain to be true and most are to varying degrees probably true.

    Whether you like it or not – we can determine the probable truth of most things.

    I would note that while this is epistemologically true – it is also true in physics and science.

    All opinions are NOT equal. They are not all equally likely to be true.

    In most instances the difference between a truth (or falsity) and an opinion – is just the probabilty of truth.

    Many things are pure opinion – they have no truth value at all.
    e.g “I like Blue better than green”.

  5. Their is acceptable as singular when the noun is indefinite. Jeff Silberman is not indefinite.

  6. I strongly suspect that Babbit’s family is more offended by your failure to understand that she was murdered than my spelling of her name.

    People mangle my name all the time – and it is a pretty trivial name to get right. That is not rude.

    I strongly suspect that families of the dead are more concerned about the accuracy of representations of the Shoah than how I spell it.

    Personally I think it is morally repugnant to deflect to arguments about spelling in order to avoid confronting your own error regarding facts.

  7. ““Ask the FBI. It’s their information.”

    I’m asking you. It’s your claim.”

    Nope, it is FBI data – data that is confirmed independently by WaPo’s newspaper clipping service agregating crime data.

    Goggle is your friend. These are trivial to confirm.

    “My answer is that group statistics depend on how you bound the who is in/out of the group. If you don’t like that answer, too bad.”
    Partly correct. When the body of data is large and classification error is inherently small the results are robust – even if you nit pick about bounds.

    Regardless you are deflecting – if there is a consequential error in the FBI or WaPo data – make that claim sufficiently clearly that the rest of us can verify it. While I would prefer that you prove your claims – as you are not a trustworthy source.

    Regardless, I can test your claims – if you actually make them clear enough that I can independently establish whether your criticism is both valid and consequential.

    Are you claiming the FBI data had bound or grouping errors ? If so what are those errors ? Why should we beleive they are significant ?

    Put simply – make an actual argument.

    Saying – I do not like your results and because I do not like them – there must be some statistical error – is not an argument.

    Young presented specific testable claims. These are from readily available sources. You can personally easily verify the claims if you choose. FBI crime statistics are not secret.

    Do you have specific testable objections ?
    Not so far.

    ““Army study and report. I only relay it.”

    Another claim that you haven’t substantiated.”

    Google is your friend.

    Young is poster with an identity – I can gage his credibility based on past posts

    You are anonymous – you have no credibility.
    There is no reason to trust anything you post.

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