Right to keep and bear arms

III. England and Her Colonies


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III. England and Her Colonies

The revolutionary settlement that followed the accession of William and Mary gave the English people permanent security. England, however, had become the center of an Empire, and the relationship between England and the outlying territories raised legal and political problems.

When William and Mary, and, later, Queen Anne, all died without heirs, the Crown passed to the distantly-related House of Hanover in Germany. Uprisings led by the son and grandson of James II were suppressed in 1715 and in 1745, and Parliament felt it necessary to deprive the people entirely of the right to bear arms in large parts of Scotland.31

The history of the English colonies in America was closely intertwined with that of the Mother Country. The New England colonies had been settled by Puritan refugees from the early Stuart kings. When Cromwell and the Puritans carne to power in England, thousands of royalists fled to the southern colonies, swelling their populations.

The foundation of government in the colonies was the charter granted by the king. An important feature of a charter was the provision securing for the inhabitants of the colony the rights of Englishmen. For example, the 1606 Charter of Virginia contains this passage:

Also we do ... DECLARE ... that all and every the Persons being our Subjects,

which shall dwell and inhabit within every or any of the said several Colonies and

Plantations, and every of their children, which shall happen to be born within any of the

Limits and Precincts of the said several Colonies and Plantations, shall HAVE

and enjoy all Liberties, Franchises, and Immunities, within any of our other Dominions, to

30 Id. Securing the Peace in Scotland Act. 31 1 Geo. l.Stat. 2, c. 54 (1715).

all Intents and Purposes, as if they had been abiding and bom, within this our Realm of England, or any other of our said Dominions.32

During the seventeenth century and the first half of the eighteenth century, the North American colonies were essentially self-governing republics following the political and legal model of England. In 1720, Richard West, counsel to the Board of Trade, gave this description of the state of law in the colonies:

The Common Law of England is the Common Law of the Plantations, and all statutes in affirmance of the Common Law, passed in England antecedent to the settlement of a colony, are in force in that colony, unless there is some private Act to the contrary; though no statutes, made since those settlements, are there in force unless the colonies are particularly mentioned. Let an Englishman go where he will, he carries as much of law and liberty with him, as the nature of things will bear.33

The legal relationship of Britain and the colonies became more than an academic problem after the end of the Seven Years' War in 1763. That war, known in America as the French and Indian War, brought large British armies to colonies which had hitherto known no armed force but the colonial militia. The cost of the war was enormous, and the British government decided that the colonies should share it.

In his efforts to tax and govern the colonies, George III acted in two capacities: as King, armed with the prerogatives of his office, and as the agent of the British Parliament which at that time was under his personal control. The colonists acknowledged the authority of the King, but only in accordance with their charters and with the same restrictions that limited his power in Britain. Many of the colonists denied the authority of the British Parliament to regulate their internal affairs in any way.

Colonial resistance forced the British government to abandon the Stamp Tax, but Parliament passed the Declaratory Act in 1766 entitled "An Act for the better securing the Dependency of his majesty's dominions in America upon the Crown and parliament of Great Britain."

Whereas several of the Houses of Representatives in his Majesty's Colonies and Plantations in America, have of late, against Law, claimed to themselves or to the General

Assemblies of the same, the sole and exclusive Right of imposing Duties and Taxes upon his Majesty's Subjects in the said Colonies and Plantations; and have, in pursuance of such Claim, passed certain Votes, Resolutions and Orders, derogatory to the Legislative Authority of Parliament, and inconsistent with the Dependency of the said Colonies and Plantations upon the Crown of Great Britain be it declared ... That the said Colonies and Plantations in America have been, are, and of Right ought to be, subordinate unto, and dependent upon, the Imperial Crown and Parliament of Great Britain; and that the King's Majesty, by and with the Advice and Consent of the Lords Spiritual and Temporal, and Commons of Great Britain in Parliament assembled, had, hath, and of Right ought to have, full Power and Authority to make Laws and Statutes of sufficient Force and Validity to bind



the Colonies and People of America, Subjects of the Crown of Great Britain, in all Cases whatsoever.34

The colonists were free-born Englishmen and they were not willing to accept inferior status. They could not admit the authority of Crown and Parliament to bind them "in all cases whatsoever." They fell back on the doctrine of fundamental law as expressed in 1764 by James Otis:

'Tis hoped it will not be considered as a new doctrine, that even the authority of the Parliament of Great-Britain is circumscribed by certain bounds, which if exceeded their acts become those of mere power without right, and consequently void. The judges of England have declared in favour of these sentiments, when they expressly declare; that acts of Parliament against natural equity are void. That acts against the fundamental principles of the British constitution are void. This doctrine is agreeable to the law of nature and nations, and to the divine dictates of natural and revealed religion.35

The concept of fundamental law was developed and grounded squarely on the English legal tradition. In 1772, Samuel Adams wrote in response to another writer in the Gazette:

Chromus talks of Magna Carta as though it were of no greater consequence that an act of Parliament for the establishment of a corporation of button-makers. Whatever low ideas he may entertain of the Great Charter... it is affirm'd by Lord Coke, to be declaratory of the principal grounds of the fundamental laws and liberties of England. "It is called Charta Libertatum Regni, the Charter of the Liberties of the kingdom, upon great reason... because liberos facit, it makes and preserves the people free." ... But if it be declaratory of the principal grounds of the fundamental laws and liberties of England, it cannot be altered in any of its essential parts, without altering the constitution.... Vatel tells us plainly and without hesitation, that "the supreme legislative cannot change the constitution."

... If then according to Lord Coke, Magna Charta is declatory of the principal grounds of the fundamental laws and liberties of the people, and Vatel is right in his opinion, that the supreme legislative cannot change the constitution, I think it follows, whether Lord Coke has expressly asserted it or not, that an act of parliament made against Magna Charta in violation of its essential parts, is void.36

This statement of fundamental law later influenced the intellectual foundation of judicial review in the United States.

In order to sustain his claim of full and unrestricted sovereignty, George HI sent large standing armies to the colonies. America was outraged. The colonists drew their arguments from Whig political theorists on both sides of the Atlantic who maintained that standing armies in time of peace were tools of oppression, and that the security of a free people was best preserved by a militia.

The American colonists, who had always relied on their own militia, hated and feared standing armies even more than their English brethren. In quartering his redcoats in private homes, suspending charters and laws, and eventually imposing martial law, George III was doing in America

34 Declaratory Act, 6 Geo. 3, c. 12 (1766).


36 S. ADAMS, Candidus Letters (1772), in 2 THE WRITINGS OF SAMUEL ADAMS 324-26 (H. Cushing ed. 1906).

what he could not do in England. The royal prerogative had virtually ended in England with the Revolution of 1688, but the King was reviving it in America.

The Fairfax County Resolutions, drawn up under the leadership of George Washington and passed on July 18, 1774, reflect the colonial attitude in the year prior to the outbreak of war. Of particular interest is the following paragraph:

Resolved, That it is our greatest wish and inclination, as well as interest, to continue our connection with, and dependence upon, the British Government; but though we are its subjects, we will use every means which Heaven hath given us to prevent our becoming its slaves.37

In October of the same year, the First Continental Congress assembled and stated the position of the colonies in these resolutions:

Resolved,... 1. That they are entitled to life, liberty, & property, and they have never ceded to any sovereign power whatever, a right to dispose of either without their consent.

Resolved,... 2. That our ancestors, who first settled these colonies, were at the time of their emigration from the mother country, entitled to all the rights, liberties, and immunities of free and natural-born subjects, within the realm of England.

Resolved, ... 3. That by such emigration they by no means forfeited, surrendered, or lost any of those rights, but that they were, and their descendants now are, entitled to the exercise and enjoyment of all such of them, as their local and other circumstances enable them to exercise and enjoy.

Resolved, ... 4. That the foundation of English liberty, and of all free government, is a right in the people to participate in their legislative council: and as the English colonists are not represented, and from their local and other circumstances, cannot properly be represented in the British parliament, they are entitled to a free and exclusive power of legislation in their several provincial legislatures, where their right of representation can alone be preserved, in all cases of taxation and internal polity, subject only to the negative of their sovereign, in such manner as has been heretofore used and accustomed....38

After stating these general principles, the Congress listed specific rights that had been violated by George III, including the following:

Resolved, ... 9. That the keeping a Standing army in these colonies, in times of peace, without the consent of the legislature of that colony, in which such army is kept, is against law.39

37 Fairfax Co. Resolutions, (1774) in A. E. D. Howard, THE ROAD FROM RUNNYMEDE: MAGNA CARTA AND CONSTITUTIONALISM IN AMERICA 435 (1968).

38 1 JOURNALS OF THE CONTINENTAL CONGRESS 1774-1789, 67-68 (Oct. 14, 1774) (W. C. Ford ed. 1904-1907).

39 Id. at 70.

The colonists were asserting, in effect, that the restrictions on royal power that had been won by Parliament in its long struggle against the Stuart kings were binding against the sovereign, in favor of the colonial legislatures as well as Parliament. In order to make that claim good, the colonists were forced to take up arms.

IV. Popular Sovereignty and the New Nation

America's long war in defense of the rights of Englishmen began in 1775. Although many colonists still hoped for a reconciliation with the mother country, it was necessary to set up state governments in the interim. In Connecticut and Rhode Island, all that was necessary was to strike the King's name from the colonial charters, which continued to serve for many years as state constitutions.

In other states, written constitutions were drawn up. They generally had these features: 1) an assertion that political power derives from the people; 2) provision for the organization of the government with a three-fold separation of powers; 3) a powerful legislature with authority to pass all laws not forbidden by the Constitution; and 4) a specific bill of rights restricting governmental power in the same way that the English Bill of Rights restricted the King. It is important to emphasize that the concept of enumerated powers had not yet been developed, and that

rights were, as always before, conceived to be in the nature of restrictions on power, not as individual freedoms.40

The Declaration of Independence substituted the sovereignty of the people for that of the King, and appealed to the "Laws of Nature and of Nature's God," but it did not proclaim a social or legal revolution. It listed the colonists' grievances, including the presence of standing armies, subordination of civil to military power, use of foreign mercenary soldiers, quartering of troops, and the use of the royal prerogative to suspend laws and charters. All of these legal actions resulted from reliance on standing armies in place of the militia.

Although America repudiated the British King, it did not repudiate British law. The Constitution of Maryland, for example, declared:

That the inhabitants of Maryland are entitled to the common law of England, and the trial by jury according to the course of that law, and to the benefit of such of the English statutes as existed on the fourth day of July, seventeen hundred and seventy six, and which, by experience, have been found applicable to their local and other circumstances, and have been introduced, used and practiced by the courts of law or equity, ...41


For example, the Virginia Bill of Rights, adopted June 12, 1776, declared: "That a well-regulated militia, composed of the body of the people, trained to arms, is the proper, natural, and safe defence of a free State; that standing armies, in time of peace, should be avoided, as dangerous to liberty; and that in all cases the military should be under strict subordination to, and governed by the civil power." VA. CONST., Bill of Rights, § 13 (1776) in 7 CONSTTTUnONS 3814.

The comparable provision in Massachusetts was as follows: "The people have a right to keep and to bear arms for the common defence. And as, in time of peace, armies are dangerous to liberty, they ought not to be maintained without the consent of the legislature; and the military power shall always be held in an exact subordination to the civil authority, and be governed by it." MASS. CONST., Declaration of Rights, art. 17 (1780) in 3 CONSTITUTIONS 1892. (Considered in its context, the meaning of the "right to keep and bear arms" is clear. The words "for the common defence" makes it obvious that a collective right is intended. The people of Massachusetts did not want to risk a second British occupation.)

41 MD. CONST., Declaration of Rights, art. 3 (1851), in 3 CONSTITUTIONS 1713.

The War for Independence was fought by fourteen different military organization — the Continental Army under Washington, and the thirteen colonial militias. The debate over the relative merits of standing armies and the militia continued even during the fighting. A defender of standing armies, Washington wrote to the Continental Congress in September of 1776 as follows:

To place any dependence upon Militia, is, assuredly, resting upon a broken staff. Men just dragged from the tender Scenes of domestick life; unaccustomed to the din of Arms; totally unacquainted with every kind of military skill, which being

followed by a want of confidence in themselves, when opposed to Troops regularly train'd, disciplined, and appointed, superior in knowledge and superior in Arms, makes them timid, and ready to fly from their own shadows....

The Jealousies of a standing Army, and the Evils to be apprehended from one, are remote; and, in my judgment, situated and circumstanced as we are, not at all to be dreaded; but the consequence of wanting one, according to my Ideas, formed from the present view of things, is certain, and inevitable Ruin; for if I was called upon to declare upon Oath, whether the Militia have been most serviceable or hurtful upon the whole; I should subscribe to the latter.42

To maintain the supremacy of civil power over that of the military Article II of the Articles of Confederation provided that each state would retain "its sovereignty, freedom, and independence."43 A provision that "every state shall always keep up a well regulated and disciplined militia, sufficiently armed and accoutred" was included in Article VI.44 In contrast, the military powers of the United States rested in Congress were strictly limited; Congress could not maintain standing armies without the consent of nine of the thirteen states.

The government of the United States under the Articles of Confederation was weak. Experience was to show that it needed to be strengthened in its military powers.

V. Forging a More Perfect Union

When the War for Independence ended, the government of the Confederation was faced with one gigantic, insoluble problem — money. As troublesome as foreign and domestic bondholders were, there was one stronger pressure group that simply could not be ignored: the former soldiers who had been promised back pay and large pensions. Organized under the name of the Society of Cincinnati, these veterans were viewed with suspicion by many Americans, who nurtured fears of standing armies.

The danger to civil authority from the military was not entirely imaginary. In the summer of 1783 there was a direct attempt to coerce the Confederation into paying what had been promised to the army. Originally intended as a peaceful protest march on the capitol in Philadelphia, the ex-soldiers were soon "mediating more violent measures," including "seizure of the

42 Letter from George Washington to the President of Congress, Sept. 24, 1776, in 6 THE WRITINGS OF GEORGE WASHINGTON 110, 112 (J. Fitzpatrick ed. 1931-1944).


members of Congress."44 Alarmed, Congress adjourned and fled to Trenton, New Jersey. The soldiers eventually gave up, and the officers who led them escaped.

Following the abortive demonstrations in Philadelphia in the summer of 1783, Madison and other leaders felt the need to reorder the nation's military structure.

The other important military event that precipitated demands for a stronger national government was Shays' Rebellion in Massachusetts in 1786. Oppressed by debt, farmers in the western part of the state seized military posts and supplies and defied the state government. Although the insurrection was suppressed fairly easily and Shays himself pardoned, exaggerated reports of the uprising circulated among the states, and conservatives were aghast. Madison, in writing the introduction to his notes on the Federal Convention, lists Shays' Rebellion as one of the "ripening incidents" that led to the Convention.45

Thomas Jefferson, in contrast, was not alarmed by the apparent dangers of anarchy, and he criticized the clamor of the Federalists. Just after receiving a copy of the proposed Constitution, he wrote from Paris:

... We have had 13 states independent 11 years. There has been one rebellion. That comes to one rebellion in a century & a half for each state. What country before ever existed a century & a half without rebellion? & what country can preserve its liberties if their rulers are not warned from time to time that their people preserve the spirit of resistance? Let them take arms. The remedy is set them right as to facts, pardon & pacify them. What signify a few lives lost in a century or two? The tree of liberty must be refreshed from time to time with the blood of patriots & tyrants. It is natural manure. Our Convention has been too much impressed by the insurrection of Massachusetts: and in the spur of the moment they are setting up a kite to keep the hen yard in order.46

Whatever the merits of Jefferson's beliefs, they were not shared by the majority of the Convention, which wished to prevent insurrections by strengthening the military powers of the general government. The new military powers of Congress were listed in Article I,

Section 8 of the proposed constitution, and include the following authority:

To raise and support Armies, but no Appropriation of Money to that Use shall be for a longer Term than two Years;

To provide and maintain a Navy;

To make Rules for the Government and Regulation of the land and naval Forces;

To provide for calling forth the Militia to execute the Laws of the Union, suppress Insurrections and repel Invasions;

To provide for organizing, arming, and disciplining, the Militia, and for governing such Part of them as may be employed in the Service of the United States, reserving to the States respectively, the Appointment of the Officers, and the Authority of training the Militia according to the discipline prescribed by Congress;

44 Debates of the Congress of the Confederation (June 2, 1783), in 5 THE DEBATES IN THE SEVERAL STATE CONVENTIONS ON THE ADOPTION OF THE FEDERAL CONSTITUTION 93 (J. Elliot ed. 1836-1845) [hereinafter cited as STATE DEBATES].


46 Letter from Thomas Jefferson to William Stephen Smith, Nov. 13, 1787, in 4 THE WORKS OF THOMAS JEFFERSON 362 (P. Ford ed. 1892-1899).

The spirited debate over these provisions in the Federal Convention reflects the purposes and fears of the framers of the Constitution.

There was universal distrust of standing armies. For example, in June of 1787, Madison stated:

... A standing military force, with an overgrown Executive will not long be safe companions to liberty. The means of defence agst. foreign danger, have been always the instruments of tyranny at home. Among the Romans it was a standing maxim to excite a war, whenever a revolt was apprehended. Throughout all Europe, the armies kept up under the pretext of defending, have enslaved the people. It is perhaps questionable, whether the best concerted system of absolute power in Europe cd. maintain itself, in a situation, where no alarms of external danger c. tame the people to the domestic yoke. The insular situation of G. Britain was the principal cause of her being an exception to the general fate of Europe. It has rendered less defence necessary, and admitted a kind of defence wch. c. not be used for the purpose of oppression.47

The defense "which could not be used for the purpose of oppression" was the militia, which was still revered on both sides of the Atlantic, even with its shortcomings.

Yet, despite the preference for the militia, it was generally agreed that Congress must have authority to raise and support standing armies in order to protect frontier settlements, the national government, and the nation when threatened by foreign powers. However, a few members were still fearful. Elbridge Gerry and Luther Martin, both of whom later opposed the Constitution, moved that a definite limit — two or three thousand men — be placed on the size of the national standing army. Voting by states, as always, the Convention unanimously rejected the motion. The

judgment of Congress and the two year appropriation limitation were thought to be sufficient safeguards.48

The proper extent of federal authority over the militia was much more heatedly debated. The subject was introduced by George Mason, author of the Virginia Bill of Rights, who later opposed the Constitution, but who now maintained that uniformity of organization, training and weaponry was essential to make the state militias effective. His hope was that the need for a standing army would be minimized; perhaps only a few garrisons would be required. Mason's opinions were shared by Madison, who gave this analysis:

The primary object is to secure an effectual discipline of the Militia. This will no more be done if left to the states separately than the requisitions have been hitherto paid by them. The states neglect their militia now, and the more they are consolidated into one nation, the less each will rely on its own interior provisions for its safety, and the less prepare its militia for that purpose; in like manner as the militia of a state would have been still more neglected than it has been, if each county had been independently charged with the care of its militia. The discipline of the militia is evidently a national concern, and ought to be provided for in the national Constitution.49

47 1 THE RECORDS OF THE FEDERAL CONVENTION OF 1787, at 465 (M. Farand ed. 1911).


MADISON REARRANGED 513-26. 49 Id. at 522.

Despite such explanations, there were still opponents to the militia clauses. Gerry, for example, declared:

This power in the United States, as explained, is making the states drill sergeants. He had as lief-let the citizens of Massachusetts be disarmed as to take the command from the states and subject them to the general legislature. It would be regarded as a system of despotism.50

Later, as the Convention moved toward resolution of the issue, Gerry marshalled his final arguments. One can sense his feeling of outrage, as he solemnly warned of the dangers of centralized military power: "Let us at once destroy the state governments, have an executive for life or hereditary, and a proper Senate; and then there would be some consistency in giving full powers to the general government...."51 But as the states are not to be abolished, he wondered at the attempts that were made to give powers inconsistent with their existence. He warned the Convention against pushing the experiment too far. Some people will support a plan of vigorous government at every risk. Others, of a more democratic cast, will oppose it with equal determination; and a civil war may be produced by the conflict.

Madison rose immediately and answered Gerry in these words:

As the greatest danger is that of disunion of the states, it is necessary to guard against it by sufficient powers to the common government; and as the greatest danger to liberty is from large standing armies, it is best to prevent them by an effectual provision for a good militia.52

The last discussion of the militia clauses took place on September 14, 1787, just before the Convention finished its work. Mason moved to add a preface to the clause that allowed federal regulation of the militia, in order to define its purpose. His proposed addition was "that the liberties of the people may be better secured against the danger of standing armies in time of peace." The motion was opposed as "setting a dishonourable mark of distinction on the military class of citizens," and was rejected.53

Thus ended the Convention's debate over the relative merits and difficulties of standing armies and the militia. The debate was soon to be revived, however, as the new nation prepared to consider the proposed new form of government.

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