The Insurrectionist Myth

People seem to have forgotten why the Constitution was written. It was in large measure to form a strong national government to put down insurrections and rebellions that were threatening the nation under the Articles of Confederation.

Those who defend the Second Amendment most vociferously reject the premise on which the Second Amendment rests.

Recall the Second Amendment ratified by the states and certified by Secretary of State Thomas Jefferson: “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.”

Who regulates the militia? Government. Article 1, Section 8 of the United States Constitution: “The Congress shall have Power To provide for the 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.”

How can the Second Amendment protect the right of insurrection when it specifically refers to the right of citizens in the context of a well-regulated militia to put down insurrections?

The Second Amendment is not about arming citizens to overthrow the government. This claim, which we hear all the time, is patently absurd. No republic sets itself up for violent overthrow. That’s why it is illegal to try to overthrow the government. Trying to overthrow the government is treason, arguably the most serious crime a man or group of men can perpetrate.

Think about it. Why would the government recognize a right to engage in illegal activity? It wouldn’t. Surely if it meant to it would not leave such a right so elusive!

The Second Amendment specifically refers to the context of a “well regulated militia” which, in Article I, Section 8 of the Constitution, exists “to execute the Laws of the Union, suppress Insurrections and repel Invasions.” It makes no sense to believe that the framers of the US republican would organize militias to defend against insurrection and simultaneously arm citizens to rebel against the Republic.

James Madison was many things, but stupid wasn’t among them. When he proposed what became the Second Amendment, he introduced the matter this way: “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.”

The intent of his amendment is clear. States need a military to defend their government. However, standing armies are a threat to liberty. Therefore the people will be at the ready for the purposes outlined in the Constitution. This militia will be well regulated and comprised of persons trained to use arms for the defense of a free state.

Whether this makes sense to you or not, it is nonetheless the plain meaning of the text in every single rendering. It was clear to those who voted for it. In fact, the only debate the House and Senate had over this was a conscientious objectors clause that was struck from the final version. The idea there was that persons could opt out of the militia for religious reasons or other reasons of conscience.

It’s true that the Second Amendment is not about self-defense or hunting. Use of a firearm for self-defense is part of the larger right to self-defense, which is so fundamental as to be assumed under common law. Nobody thought you needed an amendment to protect such a fundamental right. Moreover, the use of firearms in hunting is simply using an effective tool in acquiring food. That was such a normal thing when the Constitution was written that nobody thought you would need to secure that right, either.

The Second Amendment has one purpose: assure the states that the people have a right to defend their interests against insurrection and invasion. When you don’t have a standing army, then your male population becomes an army at the ready.

Published by

Andrew Austin

Andrew Austin is on the faculty of Democracy and Justice Studies and Sociology at the University of Wisconsin—Green Bay. He has published numerous articles, essays, and reviews in books, encyclopedia, journals, and newspapers.

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