Law professor has a theory about the 2nd Amendment historians might want to considerHistorians in the News
tags: guns, gun control, slavery, Founding Fathers, school shootings, 2nd Amendment
Every mass shooting, like the most recent at Santa Fe High School in Texas that left 10 people dead, reignites a passionate debate over the Second Amendment. For many Americans, if there is an image that comes to mind when they think about that amendment, it is the musket in the hands of minutemen at Lexington and Concord.
A dramatic but little-known story reveals that a more accurate image may be the musket in the hands of slave owners. It explains why, when he entered Congress and wrote a Bill of Rights, James Madison included a right to bear arms, and why it included the clause “A well regulated Militia, being necessary to the security of a free State …”
The story begins in June of 1788. Virginia was holding a convention in Richmond to decide whether to ratify the Constitution the founders had drafted in Independence Hall the previous year. Eight states out of the nine necessary to adopt the Constitution had already ratified, but Rhode Island, North Carolina, New Hampshire and New York looked unlikely to ratify. All hope for the ninth hung on Virginia.
The Virginia convention featured a dramatic debate between federalists, who favored ratification, and antifederalists, who opposed it. The debate pitted James Madison, a federalist and the principal drafter of the Constitution, against George Mason, the intellectual leader of the antifederalists, and Patrick Henry, Virginia’s governor and a renowned orator.
Mason and Henry raised many arguments against ratification. One concerned the militia. To appreciate their arguments, we must bear three things in mind about the time and place of the debate.
First, the majority population in eastern Virginia were enslaved blacks. Whites lived in constant fear of slave insurrection. Everyone knew about the 1739 slave rebellion in Stono, S.C., when blacks broke into a store, decapitated the shopkeepers, seized guns and powder, and marched with flying banners, beating drums and cries of “Liberty!” Up to 100 joined the rebellion before being engaged by a contingent of armed, mounted militiamen. Scores died in the ensuing battle.
Second, the principal instrument for slave control was the militia….
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