In the Shadow of Militias

January 12, 2013

slave patrolHere’s what the Second Amendment says:

“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.”

This is the concise statement that has made it possible for the insane to orchestrate mass murders in the USA.

But how?

It is odd, but no odder than the manifestations of other philosophies. But hope springs eternal, so we typically set out to deal with fundamental inflexibility by resorting to attempts at understanding. We often do this in the face of futility.  Though it’s unlikely that any argument will lead the most ardent gun enthusiasts to betray their triggers, for the sake of less blood and fewer fatalities the rest of us might start a conversation here:

Just what is a militia?

Variously defined a militia is: a body of citizens enrolled for military service called out periodically but serving full time only in emergencies; a body of citizen soldiers; all able-bodied males eligible for military service; citizens organized in a paramilitary group regarding themselves as defenders of individual rights against the presumed interference of the federal government.

Regardless of these definitions, however, a simple reading of the amendment does not appear to authorize unregulated individuals to bear arms, it’s opening clause sets a condition and establishes the premise for what follows. That this premise and condition has been glossed over by gun-lovers, the arms industry and the NRA is not surprising, nor is it surprising that the history of the Second Amendment is not well known. Much of politics is based upon ignorance —counts on it. It’s how media conglomerates run by men like Rupert Murdoch make profits. It’s is how amoral incendiaries like Rush Limbaugh make fortunes.

But another view of Second Amendment militias exists that’s more interesting than the typical observations about them; something that goes beyond interpretations by the gun lobby and people like James Yeager, CEO of a company he calls Tactical Response (Yeager, who famously responded to recent talk of gun control by saying in a video that, ” If it goes one inch further, I’m gonna start killing people,” which rationales, verbatim, are probably what explode in the skulls of the seriously deranged as they don camo, pack their semi-automatics and head out to set things right in their world).

Yeager, et al, like to say the constitutions framers intended that the rights to own guns and have militias were protected to save citizens from an out of control government. But in “The Hidden History of the Second Amendment”,  written in 1998 by law professor Karl Bogus (an unfortunate name for anyone writing a scholarly paper about anything) of Roger Williams University, sheds some interesting light on the origin of the Second Amendment. He said those militias and guns were intended to protect state governments from out of control slaves, which turns the traditional argument on its head.

Professor Bogus argues that “The Second Amendment was not enacted to provide a check on government tyranny; rather, it was written to assure the Southern states that Congress would not undermine the slave system by using its newly acquired constitutional authority over the militia to disarm the state militia and thereby destroy the south’s principal instrument of slave control.”

He explains, “The Second Amendment’s history has been hidden because neither James Madison, who was the principal author of the Second Amendment, nor those he was attempting to outmaneuver politically, laid their motives on the table.”

The professor is telling us that the militias referred to in the Second Amendment were militias created and regulated to protect white slave owners from slaves who might rise up and rebel against their oppression. He suggests that the amendment was written to assure the southern states that the new federal government would not upset the south’s economic applecart by doing away with the armed men they relied upon to protect them from uprisings of slaves. It was an amendment designed to convince slave-owning states that they could continue to suppress the hopes of their chattel.

Bogus’ well-documented paper notes that Virginia, in 1799, was on the cusp of its decision to ratify the constitution, or not, and the main question in the minds of Virginians was whether the new union would end slavery.

“Slavery was not only an economic and industrial system,” one scholar noted, “but more than that, it was a … police system.”

The South developed an elaborate means of slave control —a slave patrol of armed white groups, then called “militias”, who made regular rounds to assure that blacks were not where they did not belong or coming together in unauthorized gatherings. These militias —these patrols— also gave slaves a sense of the constant vigilance of their owners. The state, in fact, required plantation owners to participate in patrols and to provide their own arms and equipment.

Professor Bogus argues that it was clear that the Second Amendment was drafted to protect southern militias, not to authorize the general arming of individuals.

The irony that flows from this is that the defenses for, definitions of, and rationale explaining the Second Amendment, couched in arguments for “liberty” in the rantings of the NRA’s Wayne laPierre and embodied in men like James Yeager and Alex Jones are counter-factual.  The irony, according to Karl Bogus’ paper, is that the Second Amendment was a political expedient designed to maintain the enslavement of others. Talk about a bargain with the devil —should it come as a surprise that devilish bargains bring devilish results?

To make matters worse, even in the shadow of evil militias, Sandy Hook, men like James Yeager and Alex Jones and organizations like the NRA, we may not yet be learning our lesson  —we’re still dealing with the devil. We’re still arming demagogues and the deranged.

by Jim Culleny

Related: The Second Amendment was Ratified to Preserve Slavery


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