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The Second Amendment's connection to slavery

By Dick Ahles

Publication: The Day

Published April 07. 2013 4:00AM

For those who accept the NRA fiction that the Second Amendment is a God-given right that cannot be infringed or abridged, interpreted or altered, here's a little history that should disrupt that ill considered belief.

It tells us the Second Amendment was added to the Constitution, not to uphold the citizen's right to own and keep his guns but to uphold his right to own and keep his slaves.

You can read about it at length in a richly detailed and heavily footnoted 1995 University of California Law Review article, "The Hidden History of the Second Amendment" by Carl T. Bogus, a professor of law at Roger Williams University. He is also the author of a "a generally admiring biography" of the conservative icon William F. Buckley that has won critical praise from both The New York Times and Buckley's own National Review.

His law review study, sent to me by a reader, maintains that a well regulated militia may or may not have been considered necessary to the security of all the new states but for the slave-owning states, it was a matter of life and death.

This was especially true of the largest and most important state, Virginia, where 44 percent of its residents were slaves and the slim, white majority lived in fear that the new nation's concept of liberty and justice for all might prove contagious.

Slave rebellions were infrequent but horror stories about them haunted southerners. They especially dwelt upon an uprising in South Carolina on a Sunday morning in 1739 when slaves broke into a storehouse, seized guns and powder and marched south, killing whites and setting fire to their homes along the way. The colony's lieutenant governor rushed to a church and alerted the male worshippers, who were required by law to carry their guns, even to church. They left the service, pursued the slaves, killed scores of them and suppressed the revolt.

But the colonies did not rely on poorly trained militias in their revolution. A regular army, readied for battle by British-trained American officers and foreign sympathizers like the Prussian Baron von Steuben and the Marquis deLafayette, was hastily formed when colonial militias - minutemen, if you will - proved ill prepared at best.

South Carolina kept most of its militiamen at home out of fear of uprisings by their slaves and after the war, the South worried that anti-slavery sentiment would empower Congress to disarm the militias and destroy the region's principal instrument of slave control.

And so, before it voted to become the vital ninth state to ratify the Constitution, Virginia held a constitutional convention of its own in 1788 and passed a Declaration of Rights, including one that stated, "That the people have the right to bear arms; that a well-regulated militia, composed of the body of the people trained to arms, is the proper, natural and safe defense of the United States."

Note the similarity to the Second Amendment, as finally written by Virginian James Madison, a principal framer of the Constitution who originally opposed amending it. Madison changed his position after fellow Virginians passed their own declaration of rights, then blocked his quest for a Senate seat and only narrowly elected him to the House.

But also note how Madison reversed the Declaration of Rights text, putting not the right to bear arms first, but the reason behind that right, the need for a well-regulated militia. Contrary to popular myth, there was no public outcry for the right to bear arms, except in the new southern states. Also notice he omitted the words about a militia being a proper means of defense for the United States, possibly assuming that was understood.

Ever since gun control became an issue following the attempted assassination of Ronald Reagan, I have tried to understand why that awkwardly constructed amendment was written as it was, with so much emphasis on the need for a well-regulated militia. This study is the best explanation I have seen.

As the author states, "To bear arms was a term that meant participating in military affairs, not merely carrying a weapon" and with the southern states concerned about the future of slavery, that well-regulated militia was not a right, it was a means of survival.

Then, there is the more succinct observation by contemporary historian Gary Wills:

"One does not bear arms against a rabbit."

Dick Ahles is a retired journalist from Simsbury.

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