Americans historically have not just believed in the “right” to bear arms, but they have, more importantly, claimed an actual republican duty of all Americans to bear arms…
Every two years at Hillsdale College, I have the immense privilege of teaching three of our upper-level U.S. survey courses: American Founding (1753-1806); Democratic America (1807-1848); and Sectionalism and American Civil War (1849-1877). Though I have taught these courses now for eighteen years, I never find them anything but fresh and revelatory. And, of course, I’m always humbled and inspired to talk about the times, the ideas, and the men and women involved. I can state with certainty that there have been many, many times when Americans have proven themselves not only worthy of history, but also worthy of the very essence of humanity itself.
Though written by a Brit, these lines serve many American women and men well.
Death closes all: but something ere the end,
Some work of noble note, may yet be done;
Not unbecoming men that strove with Gods.
—Alfred Lord Tennyson
After a year of immense violence, at home and abroad, the subject of gun ownership is a sticky one, even at a place like Hillsdale. Let me state from the outset of this essay that I do not belong—nor have I ever belonged—to the National Rife Assosication or any equivalent group. That said, I grew up with guns of all shapes and sizes and variable firepower. Additionally, I love the Second Amendment to the U.S. Constitution. The Second Amendment is not just a right; it is an utter necessity to American freedom.
Having grown up as a libertarian in America, I am used to referring to the “right” to bear arms. As I study American history, however, I continually find that Americans historically have not just believed in the “right” to bear arms, but they have, more importantly, claimed an actual republican duty of all Americans to bear arms.
Aside from the pacifist Quakers, almost all colonial Americans believed it essential for personal well-being to defend oneself with personal arms. Granted, they generally armed themselves to fend off wild animals, American Indians, and phantom Roman Catholic papist-invaders, but arm themselves they did.
In the founding period, 1761-1793, Americans of every political persuasion believed that all citizens had not just the equal rights to life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness, but that they had to secure such rights through the ownership of weapons for personal defense. Just as no man turned to the government for his rights (given to him by Nature and/or God, not by positive law or government), he did not rely on a standing army to defend him or his loved ones. The true man bore arms as a duty, to protect himself, his family, his hearth, his ideas, and his faith.
If one expected to live as a free person, he must be willing to live and die as a free person. Perhaps one of the greatest paradoxes in the history of freedom is that there is no freedom and never has been without immense sacrifices. If you (yes, you) are not willing to defend what is yours, you have no right to its security. At least this was the thinking of American republicans at the time of the founding and well through the American Civil War.
Such has been the case in Western civilization since its origins at the Gates of Fire, as the 300 Sparatans gave their lives for the glory and honor of Hellas.
This attitude also helps explain why throughout Western civilization armed men are free men and vice versa. Hence, Americans always held a very mixed attitude toward the American Indian. While, on one hand, we saw them as savages, on the other hand, we deeply respected their willingness to lay down their lives for hearth and home. Crazy Horse, Sitting Bull, and Geronimo each fought vehemently against the United States, and each is a wonderfully American hero in his own way. The same is equally true of slave rebels such as Denmark Vesey and Nat Turner.
In 1863, through the state government of Massachusetts, Abraham Lincoln formed the first all-black regiments. They not only performed ably, they performed gloriously.
Beginning in January 1864, under the initial direction of the Irish Confederate General, Patrick Cleburne, the Confederacy argued fiercely about whether or not to arm black men, in order to defend the homeland. When the Confederate Congress refused to act, President Jefferson Davis issued General Order 14 on March 13, 1865: “No slave will be accepted as a recruit unless with his own consent.” Should he take up arms against the Union, the Confederate government would recognize him as possessing all of the “rights of a freeman,” Davis’s order concluded. In other words, the Confederate States of America would have ended slavery with or without the Thirteenth Amendment. President Davis’s order came far too late, for the first black troops to benefit from this order would not be trained or equipped by the time Robert E. Lee surrendered his Army of Northern Virginia in April of 1865.
As I type this essay, I appreciate the grave fears that many Americans have about personal ownership of firearms. It would also be foolish to ignore the outrageously complicated laws across these United States dealing with the manufacture, the sale, the possession, and the carrying of private firearms.
Additionally, one only has to see the typical response by the United States government since the horrific tragedies of 9/11. Since that fateful day, the government has created a myriad of new police forces, spy agencies, and bureaucracies to “protect” the American people from terrorism. If any of these new creations have succeeded directly, the United States government has not proclaimed their successes.
While I believe that the denial of our Second Amendment rights is utterly and completely unconstitutional, both sides of the debate speak in terms of “rights”—which is understandable given that the Second Amendment is in the “Bill of Rights,” and the actual language of the text is in terms of “rights.”
I wonder, however, if the debate would find some clarity if we instead spoke and wrote in terms of a “duty to bear arms” rather than a “right to bear arms.” Certainly for the vast majority of America’s history, as noted above, it was as expected that a man would defend himself as it was that he would feed himself. In a famous 1921 case, Brown v United States, Justice Oliver Wendell Holmes declared, “A man is not born to run away.”
While I believe forcing an American citizen to bear arms is as unconstitutional as denying his right to bear arms, I would certainly appreciate a society that encouraged the safe use of arms, beginning at the youngest age possible. Imagine how many crimes could be prevented—especially those involving the innocent—if the perpetrator had to think about his actions and their likely consequences should he initiate undue force and violence against another. Further, imagine how many fewer violations of our civil liberties there would be by law officials. Still further, imagine how difficult it would be for any of our foes to cross our oceans and invade if they knew the extremely high cost such an invasion would incur. We know that by roughly 1778 or 1779, Parliament knew it could not defeat the American population, not because of the Continental Army (which is greatly disliked), but because it would have to commit genocide to rid itself of the citizen militias. The British, thank God, were not willing to take the war to such a level.
We often teach our young to be responsible and to be virtuous. We hope they will become independent in religious matters, economics matters, and political matters. Why not in matters of personal defense? If we can trust each man with the vote, certainly we can trust each person with personal protection.
Books by Bradley J. Birzer may be found in The Imaginative Conservative Bookstore.