Right to keep and bear arms


VI. The Ratification Controversy and the Bill of Rights

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VI. The Ratification Controversy and the Bill of Rights


The new Constitution was signed on September 17, 1787 and the contest over its ratification soon began. The controversy was carried on mainly through the printed media. It was an unequal contest because the proponents of the new government, who now called themselves Federalists, controlled most of the newspapers. The Antifederalists resorted mainly to pamphlets and handbills.

50 Id. at 521.

51 Id. at 523-24.

52 Id. at 524.

53 Id. at 525.

Because the Antifederalist effort was decentralized and local in nature, it is difficult to generalize about the arguments used against the Constitution. The unifying theme, to the extent there was one, was that the new government would overreach its powers, destroy the states, deprive the people of their liberty, and create an aristocratic or monarchical tyranny. In finding evidence of such dangers, the Anti-federalists often made inconsistent interpretations of what the Constitution provided. In the case of the militia powers, for example, it was said that Congress would disarm the militia in order to remove opposition to its standing army; at the same time it was argued that Congress would ruthlessly discipline the militia and convert it into a tool of oppression.

Bearing in mind the inconsistency of the Anti-federalist position, some of the pamphlets and articles will be examined in order to show how the fears of military power existed. One of the most scurrilous critics of the Constitution was "Philadelphiensis." His identity is uncertain, but he is believed to have been Benjamin Workman, a radical Irishman and a tutor at the University of Pennsylvania. His comments include the following:


Who can deny but the president general will be a king to all intents and purposes, and one of the most dangerous kinds too; a king elected to command a standing army? Thus our laws are to be administered by this tyrant; for the whole, or at least the most important part of the executive department is put in his hands.

The thoughts of a military officer possessing such powers, as the proposed constitution vests in the president general, are sufficient to excite in the mind of a freeman the most alarming apprehensions; and ought to rouse him to oppose it at all events. Every freeman of America ought to hold up this idea to himself, that he has no superior but God and the laws. But this tyrant will be so much his superior, that he can at any time he thinks proper, order him out in the militia to exercise, and to march when and where he pleases. His officers can wantonly inflict the most disgraceful punishment on a peaceable citizen, under pretense of disobedience, or the smallest neglect of militia duty.54

Another anonymous writer, Brutus, appealed to history as proof that standing armies in peacetime lead to tyranny:

The same army, that in Britain, vindicated the liberties of that people from the encroachments and despotism of a tyrant king, assisted Cromwell, their General, in wresting from the people that liberty they had so dearly earned....

I firmly believe, no country in the world had ever a more patriotic army, than the one which so ably served this country in the late war. But had the General who commanded them been possessed of the spirit of a Julius Caesar or a Cromwell, the liberties of this country ... [might have] in all probability terminated with the war.55


Still another unknown, styling himself "A Democratic Federalist," asserted that the Revolution had proved the superiority of the militia over standing armies:

Had we a standing army when the British invaded our peaceful shores? Was it a standing army that gained the battles of Lexington and Bunker Hill, and took the ill-fated Burgoyne? Is not a well-regulated militia sufficient for every purpose of internal defense?

54 Philadelphiensis' Letter, Independent Gazetteer (Phila.), Feb. 7, 1788.

55 'Brutus' Letter, N.Y. Journal, Jan. 24, 1788

And which of you, my fellow citizens, is afraid of any invasion from foreign

powers that our brave militia would not be able immediately to repel?56

Some writers, such as "Centinel," feared that national control over the militia would transform that bulwark of democracy into a tool of oppression:

This section will subject the citizens of these states to the most arbitrary military discipline: even death may be inflicted on the disobedient; in the character of militia, you may be dragged from your families and homes to any part of the continent and for any length of time, at the discretion of the future Congress; and as militia you may be made the unwilling instruments of oppression, under the direction of government; there is no exemption upon account of conscientious scruples of bearing arms, no equivalent to be received in lieu of personal services. The militia of Pennsylvania may be marched to Georgia or New Hampshire, however incompatible with their interests or consciences; in short, they may be made as mere machines as Prussian soldiers.57


Other Antifederalist propagandists believed that the true motive for assertion of national control over the militia was not to use it, but to destroy it, and thus eliminate any opposition to the new standing army. The Bostonian who used the pseudonym "John De Witt" asked these questions about the militia clauses:

Let us inquire why they have assumed this great power. Was it to strengthen the power which is now lodged in your hands, and relying upon you and you solely for aid and support to the civil power in the execution of all the laws of the new Congress? Is this probable? Does the complexion of this new plan countenance such a supposition? When they unprecedently claim the power of raising and supporting armies, do they tell you for what purposes they are to be raised? How they are to be employed? How many they are to consist of, and where stationed? Is this power fettered with any one of those restrictions, which will show they depend upon the militia, and not upon this infernal engine of oppression to execute their civil laws? The nature of the demand in itself contradicts such a supposition, and forces you to believe that it is for none of these causes — but rather for the purpose of consolidating and finally destroying your strength, as your respective governments are to be destroyed. They well know the impolicy of putting or keeping arms in the hands of a nervous people, at a distance from the seat of a government, upon whom they mean to exercise the powers granted in that government....

It is asserted by the most respectable writers upon government, that a well regulated militia, composed of the yeomanry of the country, have ever been considered as the bulwark of a free people. Tyrants have never placed any confidence on a militia composed of freemen.58


Anonymous pamphleteers and propagandists were not the only persons concerned about standing armies and the militia. Richard Henry Lee, in a letter that was widely circulated in Virginia, combined the contradictory arguments that the militia would be abandoned in favor of a standing

56 'A Democratic Federalist' Letter, Pa. Packet (Phila.), Oct. 23, 1787.

57 'Centinel' Letter, Independent Gazetteer (Phila.), Nov. 8, 1787.

58 'John De Witt' Letter, Am. Herald (Boston), De. 3, 1787.

army, and that the militia would be strengthened and forged into an instrument of tyranny. He foresaw that a small proportion of the total militia would be made into a select unit, much like a standing army, while the rest of the militia would be disarmed:

Should one fifth, or one eighth part of the men capable of bearing arms, be made a select militia, as has been proposed, and those the young and ardent part of the community, possessed of but little or no property, and all the others put upon a plan that will render them of no importance, the former will answer all the purposes of any army, while the latter will be defenceless.59

A necessary premise underlying Anti-federalist attack on the militia clauses of the Constitution was that these clauses operated to place exclusive jurisdiction over the militia in the hands of the general government. Though the Federalists denied this premise, it was affirmed even by Luther Martin and Elbridge Gerry, who had been members of the Federal Convention, but who now opposed the Constitution. Martin is particularly interesting because he advanced all of the contradictory arguments used by the antifederalists. Speaking on November 29, 1787 to the Maryland legislature, he said:


... Engines of power are supplied by the standing Army — unlimited as to number or its duration, in addition to this Government has the entire Command of the Militia, and may call the whole Militia of any State into Action, a power, which it was vainly urged ought never to exceed a certain proportion. By organizing the Militia Congress have taken the whole power from the State Governments; and by neglecting to do it and encreasing the Standing Army, their power will increase by those very means that will be adopted and urged as an ease to the People.60

Martin later invoked the opposite approach, that the militia would be subject to ruthless discipline and martial law, and would be marched to the ends of the continent in the service of tyranny. In a letter published on January 18, 1788, Martin wrote that the new system for governing the militia was "giving the states the last coup de grace by taking from them the only means of self preservation."61 Elbridge Gerry, like many of the pamphleteers, viewed centralized military power as inseparable from monarchy:

By the edicts of authority vested in the sovereign power by the proposed constitution, the militia of the country, the bulwark of defence, and the security of national liberty is no longer under the control of civil authority; but at the rescript of the Monarch, or the aristocracy, they may either be employed to extort the enormous sums that will be necessary to support the civil list — to maintain the regalia of power — and the splendour of the most useless part of the community, or they may be sent into foreign countries for the fulfilment of treaties, stipulated by the President and two thirds of the Senate.62


The supporters of the proposed constitution were well-prepared to meet these and similar arguments. They had the support of America's two national heroes, George Washington and Benjamin Franklin, and this helped make the Constitution respectable, as well as alleviating fears. Articles favoring the Constitution, such as the Federalist Papers, were often reprinted in distant states. Intelligent and well-educated, the proponents of the new government carefully and consistently answered the arguments of their rivals.

To the general argument that there were not sufficient restrictions on the power of the proposed general government, the federalists replied that no bill of rights was necessary. This was because the Constitution would establish a novel type of government, one of enumerated powers; restrictions were necessary only where full sovereignty was conferred. In Federalist Number 84, Alexander Hamilton made the argument in these words:

It has been several times truly remarked that bills of rights are, in their origin, stipulations between kings and their subjects, abridgements of prerogative in favor of privilege, reservations of rights not surrendered to the prince Such was MAGNA CHARTA, obtained by the barons, sword in hand from King John. Such were the subsequent confirmations of that charter by succeeding princes. Such was the Petition of Right assented to by Charles I, in the beginning of his reign. Such, also, was the Declaration of Right presented by the Lords and Commons to the Prince of Orange in 1688, and afterwards thrown into the form of an act of parliament called the Bill of Rights. It is evident, therefore, that, according to their primitive signification, they have no application to constitutions professedly founded upon the power of the people, and executed by their immediate representatives and servants.63


To particular criticism of the military clauses of the proposed Constitution, both Hamilton and Madison replied in detail in the Federalist Papers.

Hamilton denied that a standing army was unnecessary, citing recent experience:

Here I expect we shall be told that the militia of the country is its natural bulwark, and would be at all times equal to the national defence. This doctrine, in substance, had like to have lost us our independence. It cost millions to the United States that might have been saved....

The American militia, in the course of the late war, have, by their valor on numerous occasions, erected eternal monuments to their fame; but the bravest of them feel and know that the liberty of their country could not have been established by their efforts alone, however great and valuable they were. War, like most other things, is a science to be acquired and perfected by diligence, by perseverance, by time, and by practice.64

Hamilton did not, however, go so far as to say that standing armies were a good thing. Instead, he argued that a strong militia would minimize the need for them.65

63 THE FEDERALIST No. 84, at 536 (H. Lodge ed. 1888) (A. Hamilton).

64 Id. No. 25 at 150 (A. Hamilton).

Hamilton explained: "If a well-regulated militia be the most natural defence of a free country, it ought certainly to be under the regulation and at the disposal of that body which is constituted the guardian of the national security. If standing armies are dangerous to liberty, an efficacious power over the militia, in the body to whose care the protection of the state is committed ought, as far as possible, to take away the inducement and the pretext to such unfriendly institutions. If the federal government can command the aid of the militia in those emergencies which call for the military arm in support of the civil magistrate, it can the better


Madison also addressed himself to the fear that the new national government would disarm the militia and destroy state government. He first argued that the states would still have concurrent power over the militia, thus denying that the proposed Constitution gave exclusive jurisdiction over the militia to the general government. He also pointed out that the militia, comprised of half a million men, was a force that could not be overcome by any tyrant.66

The arguments of the federalists appear to have quieted the fears of their countrymen, since the early state conventions were all easy victories for the new Constitution. Between December 7, 1787 and January 9, 1788, Delaware, Pennsylvania, New Jersey, Georgia and Connecticut all ratified unconditionally and overwhelmingly; the vote was unanimous in three of these states. In Massachusetts, the contest was close. On February 6, 1787, the state convention ratified the new Constitution by a narrow margin.

On the other hand, Maryland overwhelmingly approved the Constitution on April 28, 1787. South Carolina was next, on May 23, 1787. Eight states had now ratified the document and only one more was needed. All of the ratifications, except Massachusetts, had been by majorities of two-thirds or more. The remaining states were to see close contests, and all of them would suggest that a Bill of Rights be added to the Constitution.

New Hampshire, on June 21, 1787, became the ninth state to approve the new form of government, thus assuring that the proposed Constitution would go into effect. The New Hampshire convention proposed some amendments in its ratifying resolution. Among the proposals were a three-fourths vote requirement for keeping standing armies, a flat prohibition on quartering troops, and a prohibition against Congressional disarmament of the militia. Although no records were kept of the debates, it seems likely that the delegates feared that New England's experiences with General Gage's redcoats would be repeated.


As yet undecided, Virginia was vital to the Union as the largest, richest, and most populous state. The Virginia convention was also important because it was the only one in which the military clauses of the Constitution were extensively discussed.

The main protagonist of the Virginia debates was Patrick Henry, backwoods lawyer, ardent republican, and incomparable orator. By means of the rhetorical question, Henry was able to capture the fears and emotions which led to the adoption of the Second Amendment:

A standing army we shall have, also, to execute the execrable commands of tyranny; and how are you to punish them? Will you order them to be punished? Who shall obey these orders? Will your mace-bearer be a match for a disciplined regiment? In what situation are we to be?...

Your militia is given up to Congress, also, in another part of this plan: they will therefore act as they think proper: all power will be in their own possession. You cannot force them to receive their punishment: of what service would militia be to you when most probably, you will not have a single musket in the state? for, as arms are to be provided by Congress, they may or may not furnish them....

By this, sir, you see that their control over our last and best defence is unlimited. If they neglect or refuse to discipline or arm our militia, they will be useless: the states can do neither — this power being exclusively given to Congress....

dispense with the employment of a different kind of force. If it cannot avail itself of the former, it will be obliged to recur to the latter. To render an army unnecessary will be a more certain method of preventing its existence than a thousand prohibitions upon paper" Id. No. 29, at 169 (A. Hamilton).


66 Id. No. 46, at 297-99 (J. Madison).

... If we make a king, we may prescribe the rules by which he shall rule his people, and interpose such checks as shall prevent him from infringing them; but the President, in the field, at the head of his army, can prescribe the terms on which he shall reign master, so far that it will puzzle any American ever to get his neck from under the galling yoke....67

While other critics lacked Henry's oratorical talents, they also feared disarmament of the militia by the new national government. George Mason, for example, spoke as follows:

... There are various ways of destroying the militia. A standing army may be perpetually established in their stead. I abominate and detest the idea of government, where there is a standing army. The militia may be here destroyed by that method which has been practised in other parts of the world before; that is, by rendering them useless — by disarming them. Under various pretences, Congress may neglect to provide for arming and disciplining the militia; and the state governments cannot do it, for Congress has an exclusive right to arm them ...68

Mason then went on to cite the case of a former British governor of Pennsylvania who had allegedly advised disarmament of the militia as part of the British government's scheme for "enslaving America." The suggested method was not to act openly, but "totally disusing and neglecting the militia."69 Mason said:

... This was a most iniquitous project. Why should we not provide against the danger of having our militia, our real and natural strength, destroyed? The general government ought, at the same time, to have some such power. But we need not give them power to abolish our militia ...70


In these words lie the origin of the Second Amendment. The new government should be allowed to keep its broad general military powers, but it should be forbidden to disarm the militia.

Madison, leader of the Federalist forces, still argued that the militia clauses were adequate as written. He said the states and national government would have concurrent power over the militia. In response to a question, he explained why the general government was to have power to call out the militia in order to execute the laws of the union:

... If resistance should be made to the execution of the laws, he said, it ought to be overcome. This could be done only in two ways — either by regular forces or by the people. If insurrections should arise, or invasions should take place, the people ought unquestionably to be employed, to suppress and repel them, rather than a standing army. The best way to do these things was to put the militia on a good and sure footing, and enable the government to make use of their services when necessary.71

67 Spoken at the Virginia Convention 3 STATE DEBATES 51-59.

68 Id. at 379.

69 Id. at 380.

70 Id.

71 Id. at 378.


It is interesting to note that Madison uses the words "people" and "militia" as synonymous, as does the Second Amendment, which he was later to draft.

The Federalists still maintained that a bill of rights was unnecessary where there was a government of enumerated powers. Governor Randolph, who had attended the Philadelphia Convention and had refused to sign the Constitution, but who was now supporting its adoption, spoke as follows:

On the subject of a bill of rights, the want of which has been complained of, I will observe that it has been sanctified by such reverend authority, that I feel some difficulty in going against it. I shall not, however, be deterred from giving my opinion on this occasion, let the consequence be what it may. At the beginning of the war, he had no certain bill of rights; for our charter cannot be considered as a bill of rights; it is nothing more than an investiture, in the hands of the Virginia citizens, of those rights which belonged to British subjects. When the British thought proper to infringe our rights, was it not necessary to mention, in our Constitution, those rights which ought to be paramount to the power of the legislature? Why is the bill of rights distinct from the Constitution? I consider bills of rights in this view — that the government should use them, where there is a departure from its fundamental principles, in order to restore them.72

This statement is very important, because it clearly explains how men in the eighteenth century conceived of a right. A right was a restriction on governmental power, necessitated by a particular abuse of that power.

The Virginia convention, however, decided that it would be wise to impose restrictions on the power of the general government before abuses occurred. So the delegates appended to their ratification resolution a long document recommended to the consideration of the Congress. This document is divided into two distinct parts: a declaration of principles and specified suggested amendments to the Constitution designed to secure these principles.


The declaration of principles tells much about the social and political philosophy of eighteenth century Americans. The theory of government as a social compact is affirmed. There are five provisions that relate directly to the background of the Second Amendment.

The third principle condemns the Anglican doctrine of nonresistance as "absurd, slavish, and destructive of the good and happiness of mankind."73 This is not surprising, since Virginia had recently disestablished the Anglican Church, and had taken up arms to resist the authority

of the head of that church.

The seventh principle is "that all power of suspending laws or the execution of laws by any authority, without the consent of the representatives of the people in the legislature is injurious to their rights, and ought not to be exercised."74 The attempt to assert such power had cost James II his throne and George III his American colonies, even though both Kings had been backed by powerful standing armies.

The seventeenth, eighteenth and nineteenth principles are as follows:

72 Id. at 466.

73 J. MADISON, THE DEBATES IN THE FEDERAL CONVENTION OF 1787 660 (G. Hunt & J.B. Scott ed. 1920).

74 Id. at 661.

Seventeenth, That the people have a right to keep and bear arms; 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 are dangerous to liberty, and therefore ought to be avoided, as far as the circumstances and protection of the Community will admit; and that in all cases the military should be under strict subordination to and governed by the Civil power.


Eighteenth, That no Soldier in time of peace ought to be quartered in any house without the consent of the owner, and in the time of war in such manner only as the laws direct.

Nineteenth, That any person religiously scrupulous of bearing arms ought to be exempted upon payment of an equivalent to employ another to bear arms in his stead.75

These words encapsulate the Whig point of view in the long debate over the relative merits of standing armies and the militia. The specific amendments that were proposed to protect these principles were:

Ninth, That no standing army or regular troops shall be raised or kept up in time of peace, without the consent of two thirds of the members present in both houses.

Tenth, That no soldier shall be inlisted for any longer term than four years, except in time of war, and then for no longer term than the continuance of the war.

Eleventh, That each State respectively shall have the power to provide for organizing, arming and disciplining it's own Militia, when soever Congress shall omit or neglect to provide for the same. That the Militia shall not be subject to Martial law, except when in actual service in time of war, invasion, or rebellion; and when not in the actual service of the United States, shall be subject only to such fines, penalties and punishments as shall be directed or inflicted by the laws of its own State.76

It is important for our purposes to note that there is no mention here of any individual right.




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