The Founding Fathers on Gun Control

“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.” What did they really mean? What were they thinking?… Read on to learn what our founding fathers really said about the right to keep and bear arms.

TO TAKE ARMS AGAINST THE BRITISH
From “A Journal of the Times”, calling the citizens of Boston to arm themselves in response to British abuses of power, 1769:

“Instances of the licentious and outrageous behavior of the military conservators of the peace still multiply upon us, some of which are of such nature and have been carried to so great lengths as must serve fully to evince that a late vote of this town, calling upon the inhabitants to provide themselves with arms for their defense, was a measure as prudent as it was legal. It is a natural right which the people have reserved to themselves, confirmed by the [English] Bill of Rights, to keep arms for their own defense, and as Mr. Blackstone observes it is to be made use of when the sanctions of society and law are found insufficient to restrain the violence of oppression.”

ASSAULT RIFLES, COLONIAL STYLE
George Mason’s Fairfax County Militia Plan, 1775:

“And we do each of us, for ourselves respectively, promise and engage to keep a good firelock in proper order, and to furnish ourselves as soon as possible with, and always keep by us, one pound of gunpowder, four pounds of lead, one dozen gunflints, and a pair of bullet moulds, with a cartouch box, or powder horn, and bag for balls.”

GIVE ME FLINTLOCKS OR GIVE ME DEATH
Patrick Henry, 1775:

“They tell us that we are weak—unable to cope with so formidable an adversary. But when shall we be stronger? Will it be when we are totally disarmed, and when a British guard shall be stationed in every house? Three million people, armed in the holy cause of liberty, are invincible by any force which our enemy can send against us.”

THOUGHTS ON DEFENSIVE WAR
Thomas Paine, writing to religious pacifists in 1775:

The supposed quietude of a good man allures the ruffian; while on the other hand, arms like laws discourage and keep the invader and the plunderer in awe, and preserve order in the world as well as property. The balance of power is the scale of peace. The same balance would be preserved were all the world destitute of arms, for all would be alike; but since some will not, others dare not lay them aside. Horrid mischief would ensue were one half the world deprived of the use of them; the weak would become a prey to the strong.”

SOUND BITES FROM BEFORE AND AFTER THE REVOLUTION
Samuel Adams:

“Among the natural rights of the colonists are these: first, a right to life, secondly to liberty, thirdly to property; together with the right to defend them in the best manner they can.”

John Adams:

“Arms in the hands of the citizens may be used at individual discretion for the defense of the country, the overthrow of tyranny or private self-defense.”

Thomas Jefferson, in an early draft of the Virginia constitution:

“No free man shall ever be debarred the use of arms in his own lands.”

WE HAVE SEEN THE ENEMY AND HE IS US
Patrick Henry:

“Guard with jealous attention the public liberty. Suspect everyone who approaches that jewel. Unfortunately, nothing will preserve it but downright force. Whenever you give up that force, you are ruined. The great object is that every man be armed. Everyone who is able may have a gun.”

TREAD LIGHTLY
Thomas Jefferson’s advice to his 15 year-old nephew:

“A strong body makes the mind strong. As to the species of exercise, I advise the gun. While this gives moderate exercise to the body, it gives boldness, enterprise and independence to the mind. Games played with the ball and others of that nature are too violent for the body and stamp no character on the mind. Let your gun therefore be the constant companion of your walks.”

Noah Webster, 1787:

“Before a standing army can rule, the people must be disarmed, as they are in almost every kingdom in Europe. The supreme power in America cannot enforce unjust laws by the sword, because the whole of the people are armed, and constitute a force superior to any band of regular troops.”


ON THE ROLE OF THE MILITIA


James Madison, “The influence of the State and Federal Governments Compared, “46 Federalist New York Packet, January 29,1788:

“Besides the advantage of being armed, which the Americans possess over the people of almost every other nation, the existence of subordinate governments, to which the people are attached, and by which the militia officers are appointed, forms a barrier against the enterprises of ambition more insurmountable than any which a simple government of any form can admit of. Notwithstanding the military establishments in the several kingdoms of Europe, which are carried as far as the public resources will bear, the governments are afraid to trust the people with arms. And it is not certain that with this aid alone they would not be able to shake off their yokes. But were the people to possess the additional advantages of local governments chosen by themselves, that could collect the national will and direct the national force, and of officers appointed out of the militia, by these governments and attached both to them and to the militia, it may be affirmed with the greatest assurance that the throne of every tyranny in Europe would be speedily overturned in spite of the legions which surround it.”

James Madison, I Annals of Congress 434, 6-8-1789

“The right of the people to keep and bear…arms shall not be infringed. A well regulated militia,
composed of the body of the people, trained to arms, is the best and most natural defense of a free country…”


Alexander Hamilton, “Concerning the Militia,” 29 Federalist Daily Advertiser, January 10, 1788:

“There is something so far fetched and so extravagant in the idea of danger to liberty from the militia that one is at a loss whether to treat it with gravity or raillery. Where, in the name of common sense, are our fears to end if we may not trust our sons, our brothers, our neighbors, our fellow citizens? What shadow of danger can there be from men who are daily mingling with the rest of their countrymen and who participate with them in the same feelings, sentiments, habits and interests? What reasonable cause of apprehension can be inferred from a power in the Union to prescribe regulations for the militia, and to command its services when necessary, while the particular states are to have the sole and exclusive appointment of the officers? If it were possible seriously to indulge a jealousy of the militia upon any conceivable establishment under the federal government, the circumstance of the officers being in the appointment of the states ought at once to extinguish it. There can be no doubt that this circumstance will always secure to them a preponderating influence over the militia.”

Alexander Hamilton speaking of standing armies in Federalist 29

“…but if circumstances should at any time oblige the government to form an army of any magnitude, that
army can never be formidable to the liberties of the people, while there is a large body of citizens, little if at all inferior to them in discipline and use of arms, who stand ready to defend their rights…”

Richard Henry Lee, Additional Letters form the Federal Farmer, 1788:

“Militias, when properly formed, are in fact the people themselves and include all men capable of bearing arms. To preserve liberty it is essential that the whole body of the people always possess arms and be taught alike, especially when young, how to use them.”


Trench Coxe, writing as “the Pennsylvanian” in the Philadelphia Federal Gazette, 1788:

“The power of the sword, say the minority of Pennsylvania, is in the hands of Congress. My friends and countrymen, it is not so, for the powers of the sword are in the hands of the yeomanry of America from 16 to 60. The militia of these free commonwealths, entitled and accustomed to their arms, when compared with any possible army, must be tremendous and irresistible. Who are the militia? Are they not ourselves? It is feared, then, that we shall turn our arms each man against his own bosom? Congress has no power to disarm the militia. Their swords, and every other terrible implement of the soldier, are the birthright of an American. The unlimited power of the sword is not in the hands of either the federal or state governments, but where I trust in God it will ever remain, in the hands of the people.”

Thomas Jefferson

“On every question of construction [of the Constitution] let us carry ourselves back to the time when the Constitution was adopted, recollect the spirit manifested in the debates, and instead of trying what meaning may be squeezed out of the text, or invented against it, conform to the probable one in which it was passed.”

Rep. Elbridge Gerry of Massachusetts, spoken during floor debate over the Second Amendment [ I Annals of Congress at 750 {August 17, 1789}

“What, Sir, is the use of a militia? It is to prevent the establishment of a standing army, the bane of liberty…. Whenever Governments mean to invade the rights and liberties of the people, they always attempt to destroy the militia, in order to raise an army upon their ruins.”

George Mason, 3 Elliot, Debates at 425-426

“I ask, sir, what is the militia? It is the whole people, except for few public officials.”

Patrick Henry, 3 J. Elliot, “Debates in the Several State Conventions” 45, 2d ed. Philadelphia,
1836

“Are we at last brought to such humiliating and debasing degradation, that we cannot be trusted with arms for our defense? Where is the difference between having our arms in possession and under our direction, and having them under the management of Congress? If our defense be the real object of having those arms, in whose hands can they be trusted with more propriety, or equal safety to us, as in our own hands?”

ANTECEDENTS Connecticut gun code of 1650:

“All persons shall bear arms, and every male person shall have in continual readiness a good musket or other gun, fit for service.”

Article 3 of the West Virginia state constitution:

“A person has the right to keep and bear arms for the defense of self, family, home and state, and for lawful hunting and recreational use.”


Virginia Declaration of Rights 13 (June 12, 1776), drafted by George Mason:

“That a well-regulated militia, composed of the body of the people, trained to arms, is the proper, natural and safe defense 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.”

A proposed amendment to the Federal Constitution, as passed by the Pennsylvania legislature:

“That the people have a right to bear arms for the defense of themselves and their own states or the United States, or for the purpose of killing game; and no law shall be passed for disarming the people or any of them, unless for crimes committed, or real danger of public injury from individuals.”

ROUGH DRAFT
An amendment to the Constitution, proposed by James Madison:

“The right of the people to keep and bear arms shall not be infringed, a well-armed and well-regulated militia being the best security of a free country; but no person religiously scrupulous of bearing arms shall be compelled to render military service in person.”

THE FINAL DRAFT
The Second Amendment, as passed September 25, 1789:

“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.”

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