Since Jan 18, 2000
History of the Right to Keep and Bear Arms
By Vin Suprynowicz, assistant editorial page editor of the Las Vegas Review-Journal.
Because for a thousand years, no village of peasants with their scythes and pitchforks could stand up to a mere handful of the helicopter gunships of that time, the mounted knight in his coat of mail.
Only the landed gentry could afford a warhorse and a suit of armor. Let even three or four of these medieval equivalents of the Abrams tank enter your village, and the peasant's only hope was to drop to one knee and plead for his life. Take the cattle, take our daughters, use them as you will ...
Why did this ever change? Do you think it's because the guys in charge just got tired of having it all their way?
Of course not. This changed in the mid-1400s, at Crecy and Agincourt, when mere English commoners found they could destroy the cream of the French aristocracy--drowning thousands of armored noble knights in the mud beneath their own toppled horses--by dint of one simple, technological advance: the Welsh longbow, an inexpensive weapon best deployed by large gangs of anonymous peasants.
The French considered this so barbarous they threatened to cut off the index and middle fingers of any English archers they caught, rendering them incapable of using their dreaded bows. The Brits responded by defiantly waving these two fingers in the air--or sometimes just one of them.
Far from banning them from bearing arms, by the 16th century English law actually required commoners to practice their archery at least one weekend per month, to remain ready should the king need them. Suddenly--coincidentally?--the "rights of Englishmen" began to be interpreted to mean the rights of commoners under the law, not just the rights of nobles, as envisioned in the Magna Carta of 1215.
This new state of affairs reflected the new reality of the field of battle, where commoners could and did dictate terms to defeated monarchs--even going so far as to behead the King of England in 1649.
Can you imagine that? They cut off his head.
Of course, some lessons take a little time to sink in. Marching south from Lake Champlain to the Hudson in the early autumn of 1777, Gentleman Johnny Burgoyne sent out mercenary Hessian scouting parties to demand fodder for his horses from the local peasantry.
The New York farmers watched the brilliantly-uniformed Hessians walk into their farmyards demanding free food for the general's army ... and shot them dead, sometimes wiping out entire detachments to a man.
This was unheard of in continental Europe, where most peasants were still expected to know their place.
But things only got worse for Burgoyne's army, its morale sapped by the heat, the humidity, the sudden storms, the bugs and the venomous snakes of what Americans now consider the "resort district" of Glens Falls and Lake George. (Thank goodness these wimps didn't find themselves in North Florida--the Yankees would probably have ended up owning Devon, Somerset, and half of Wales.)
As the exhausted army and its overladen baggage wagons emerged from the woods and climbed toward the open lands around Saratoga, a few isolated bands of Yankee farmers in homespun took up position behind the trees, and began "firing on the officers' persons."
I have always loved that quotation from Johnny Burgoyne's journal. The words so succinctly capture the outrage and incredulity of a dying class. British officers knew they ran the risk of being struck, along with their men, by unaimed volley fire. But to have enemy peasants--commoners--purposely take aim at an officer's person, using a Pennsylvania or Kentucky rifle which by an outlandish historical accident proved to be more accurate than the standard-issue British Brown Bess musket ... well, it was unthinkable.
Students of American history know it was the leadership of Gen. Benedict Arnold of Connecticut--rising again and again despite his wounds to lead from the front as his horse was shot from under him--that turned the tide of battle at Saratoga, the turning point of the Revolutionary War, the battle that brought in France as America's ally and thus sealed Cornwallis' eventual fate.
But few recall the first question that occurred to both King Louis and King George when news of Burgoyne's surrender in October of '77 reached the European courts:
Who in hell had Burgoyne surrendered to? Washington and the entire Continental Army--excepting the aforementioned Gen. Arnold and a handful of other officers in fancy coats--were in Philadelphia, withdrawing before the successful (but finally meaningless) siege of Gen. Howe.
The answer--inconceivable to the kind of European mind that ordered the band to play "The World Turned Upside Down" at Yorktown in 1781--was that Gentleman Johnny Burgoyne had surrendered an entire British army to the American militia, to nothing but a gang of New York and New England farmers.
Is there a "control sample" that tends to confirm my thesis for why commoners in America (and, to a lesser extent and until recently, places like Australia and Western Europe) managed to throw off the chains of feudal tyranny and become far more "free" in the centuries after 1500--with all the advantages of economic, scientific, and technological progress with which we're so familiar ... even if we've forgotten how they were won?
Yes, I think so. After toying with imported European firearms in the late 1500s, the shoguns of Japan banned the instruments entirely. In fact, under the decree of the shogun Toyotomi Hideyoshi (1536-1598), issued on the 8th day of the seventh month, Tensho 16, "The people of the various provinces are strictly forbidden to have in their possession any swords, short swords, bows, spears, firearms, or other types of arms. The possession of unnecessary implements makes difficult the collection of taxes and dues, and tends to foment uprisings."
So, artificially and in an almost ideally isolated experiment, while commoners gained increasing rights in direct proportion to their importance and strength on the battlefields of the rest of the world in the next 250 years, Japan remained (until Commodore Perry brought this experiment to a crashing close in 1853) one of the few places in the world where the peasant remained in absolute feudal subservience to the hereditary aristocracy, with their warhorses and their deadly steel and lacquered leather armor.
Because the people had no guns.
"Both oligarch and tyrant mistrust the people, and therefore deprive them of their arms."
-- Aristotle, "Politics"
"When a strong man armed keepeth his palace, his goods are in peace."
--Luke ch.11 v.21-22 (King James translation, 1611 AD)
"He that hath no sword, let him sell his garment and buy one."
--Luke ch.22 v.36 (King James translation, 1611 AD)
"Those who would give up essential Liberty, to purchase a little temporary Safety, deserve neither Liberty nor Safety."
--Benjamin Franklin (1706-1790), reply of the Pennsylvania Assembly to the governor, November 11, 1755 <>
"No kingdom can be secured otherwise than by arming the people. The possession of arms is the distinction between a freeman and a slave. He, who has nothing, and who himself belongs to another, must be defended by him, whose property he is, and needs no arms. But he, who thinks he is his own master, and has what he can call his own, ought to have arms to defend himself and what he possesses; else he lives precariously, and at discretion."
--Andrew Fletcher (1655-1716), quoted by James Burgh (1714-1775), in "Political Disquisitions: Or, an Enquiry into Public Errors, Defects, and Abuses," (London, 1774-1775)
It is in vain, sir, to extenuate the matter. Gentlemen may cry peace, peace, but there is no peace. The war is actually begun. The next gale that sweeps from the north will bring to our ears the clash of resounding arms. Our brethren are already in the field. Why stand we here idle? What is it that gentlemen wish? what would they have? Is life so dear, or peace so sweet, as to be purchased at the price of chains and slavery? Forbid it, Almighty God! I know not what course others may take, but as for me, give me liberty, or give me death!"
--Patrick Henry (1736-1799),"The War Inevitable" speech to the Virginia Convention, March 23, 1775
"It is always dangerous to the liberties of the people to have an army stationed among them, over which they have no control."
--Samuel Adams (1722-1803), letter to Elbridge Gerry, October 29, 1775
"Rebellion to tyrants is obedience to God."
--Thomas Jefferson (1743-1826), motto found among his papers and on his seal, c.1776 <>
"How strangely will the Tools of a Tyrant pervert the plain Meaning of Words!"
--Samuel Adams (1722-1803), letter to John Pitts, January 21, 1776
"Shame on the men who can court exemption from present trouble and expense at the price of their own posterity's liberty!"
--Samuel Adams (1722-1803), writing as "Candidus," February 3, 1776
"No freeman shall [ever] be debarred the use of arms [within his own lands or tenements]"
--Thomas Jefferson (1743-1826), proposed Virginia Constitution, June 1776, in Thomas Jefferson's_Papers,_J. Boyd, ed., vol.1 p.344 (Putnam, 1896)
"If ye love wealth better than liberty, the tranquillity of servitude better than the animating contest of freedom, go home from us in peace. We ask not your counsels or arms. Crouch down and lick the hands which feed you. May your chains set lightly upon you, and may posterity forget that ye were our countrymen."
--attributed to Samuel Adams (1722-1803), August 1, 1776
"Guard with jealous attention the public liberty. Suspect every one who approaches that jewel. Unfortunately, nothing will preserve it but downright force. Whenever you give up that force, you are inevitably ruined."
--Patrick Henry (1736-1799), in the Virginia Convention on the ratification of the Constitution, June 5, 1788, in_Debates in the Several State Conventions on the Adoption of the Federal Constitution,_ Jonathan Elliot, ed., v.3 p.45 (Philadelphia, 1836)
"I believe there are more instances of the abridgment of the freedom of the people by the gradual and silent encroachments of those in power, than by violent and sudden usurpations."
-- James Madison (1751-1836), June 6, 1788, in the Virginia Convention on the ratification of the Constitution, in_Debates in the Several State Conventions on the Adoption of the Federal Constitution,_ Jonathan Elliot, ed., v.3 p.87 (Philadelphia, 1836) <>
"Are we at last brought to such a humiliating and debasing degradation, that we cannot be trusted with arms for our own defence? Where is the difference between having our arms in our own possession and under our own direction, and having them under the management of Congress? If our defence 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?"
--Patrick Henry (1736-1799), June 9, 1788, in the Virginia Convention on the ratification of the Constitution, in_Debates in the Several State Conventions on the Adoption of the Federal Constitution,_ Jonathan Elliot, ed., v.3 p.168 (Philadelphia, 1836)
"To disarm the people... was the best and most effectual way to enslave them."
--George Mason (1725-1792), June 14, 1788, in the Virginia Convention on the ratification of the Constitution, in_Debates in the Several State Conventions on the Adoption of the Federal Constitution,_ Jonathan Elliot, ed., v.3 p.380 (Philadelphia, 1836) <>
"The great object is, that every man be armed. [...] Every one who is able may have a gun."
--Patrick Henry (1736-1799), in the Virginia Convention on the ratification of the Constitution, June 14, 1788, in_Debates in the Several State Conventions on the Adoption of the Federal Constitution,_ Jonathan Elliot, ed., v.3 p.386 (Philadelphia, 1836)
"I ask, Who are the militia? They consist now of the whole people, except for a few public officers."
--George Mason (1725-1792), in the Virginia Convention on the ratification of the Constitution, June 16, 1788, in_Debates in the Several State Conventions on the Adoption of the Federal Constitution,_ Jonathan Elliot, ed., v.3 p.425 (Philadelphia, 1836) <>
"The people are not to be disarmed of their weapons. They are left in full possession of them."
--Zachariah Johnson (????-????), in the Virginia Convention on the ratification of the Constitution, June 25, 1788, in_Debates in the Several State Conventions on the Adoption of the Federal Constitution,_ Jonathan Elliot, ed., v.3 p.646 (Philadelphia, 1836)
"That the said Constitution shall never be construed to authorize Congress to infringe the just liberty of the press or the rights of conscience; or to prevent the people of the United states who are peaceable citizens from keeping their own arms..."
--Samuel Adams (1722-1803), in_Debates and Proceedings in the Convention of the Commonwealth of Massachusetts,_ pp.86-87, (Pierce & Hale, Boston, 1850), also in Philadelphia_Independent Gazetteer,_ August 20, 1789
"The right of the people to keep and bear arms has been recognized by the General Government; but the best security of that right after all is, the military spirit, that taste for martial exercises, which has always distinguished the free citizens of these States... Such men form the best barrier to the liberties of America."
--Gazette of the United States, October 14, 1789, p.211, col.2
"God grants liberty only to those who love it, and are always ready to guard and defend it."
--Daniel Webster (1782-1852), speech, June 3, 1834
"The people of these United States are the rightful masters of both Congresses and courts --not to overthrow the constitution, but to overthrow the men who pervert that constitution."
--Abraham Lincoln (1809-assassinated 1865), speech in Cincinatti, OH, September 17, 1859
"War is an ugly thing, but not the ugliest of things: the decayed and degraded sense of moral and patriotic feeling which thinks nothing _worth_ a war, is worse. When a people are used as mere human instruments for firing cannon or thrusting bayonets, in the service and for the selfish purposes of a master, such war degrades a people. A war to protect other human beings against tyrannical injustice; a war to give victory to their own ideas of right and good, and which is their own war, carried on for an honest purpose by their free choice, --is often the means of their regeneration. A man who has nothing which he is willing to fight for, nothing which he cares about more than he does about his personal safety, is a miserable creature who has no chance of being free, unless made and kept so by the exertions of better men than himself. As long as justice and injustice have not terminated _their_ ever-renewing fight for ascendancy in the affairs of mankind, human beings must be willing, when need is, to do battle for the one against the other."
--John Stuart Mill (1806-1873), "The Contest In America," Fraser's Magazine, February 1862 [reprinted in Mill's_Dissertations and Discussions, vol.1 p.26 (1868)] <>
"I declare to you that woman must not depend upon the protection of man, but must be taught to protect herself, and there I take my stand."
--Susan B. Anthony (1820-1906), speech in San Franscisco, July 1871
"You need only reflect that one of the best ways to get yourself a reputation as a dangerous citizen these days is to go about repeating the very phrases which our founding fathers used in the great struggle for independence."
--Charles Austin Beard (1874-1948)
"Every Communist must grasp the truth, 'Political power grows out of the barrel of a gun.' Our principle is that the [Communist] Party commands the gun and the gun will never be allowed to command the Party."
--Mao Tse-tung (1893-1976), "Problems of War and Strategy," November 6, 1938, in_Selected Works of Mao Zedong_(1965)
"This year will go down in history! For the first time, a civilized nation has full gun registration! Our streets will be safer, our police more efficient, and the world will follow our lead into the future!"
--This quote is unverified -- Adolf Hitler (1889-1945)
"The most foolish mistake we could possibly make would be to allow the subject races to possess arms," says this well-known 20th century statesman and head of state. "History shows that all conquerors who have allowed the subject races to carry arms have prepared their own downfall by so doing. Indeed, I would go so far as to say that the supply of arms to the underdogs is a sine qua non for the overthrow of any sovereignty."
--Adolf Hitler, in his edict of March 18, 1938, as quoted by Briton H.R. Trevor-Roper in his book "Hitler's Table Talks 1941-1944" (London: Widenfeld and Nicolson, 1953, pp. 425-426).
"Still, if you will not fight for the right when you can easily win without bloodshed; if you will not fight when your victory will be sure and not too costly; you may come to the moment when you have to fight with all the odds against you and only a precarious chance of survival. There may even be a worse case. You may have to fight when there is no hope of victory, because it is better to perish than live as slaves."
--Sir Winston Leonard Spencer Churchill (1874-1965),_The Gathering Storm,_bk.I ch.19 p.348 (Houghton Mifflin, 1948)
"... a government and its agents are under no general duty to provide public services, such as police protection, to any particular individual citizen..."
-- Warren v. District of Columbia, 444 A.2d 1 (D.C. App.181)
"Above all, we must realize that no arsenal or no weapon in the arsenals of the world is so formidable as the will and moral courage of free men and women. It is a weapon our adversaries in today's world do not have."
--Ronald Reagan (1911-2004), First Inaugural Address, January 20, 1981
"In recent years it has been suggested that the Second Amendment protects the "collective" right of states to maintain militias, while it does not protect the right of "the people" to keep and bear arms. If anyone entertained this notion in the period during which the Constitution and the Bill of Rights were debated and ratified, it remains one of the most closely guarded secrets of the eighteenth century, for no known writing surviving from the period between 1787 and 1791 states such a thesis."
--Stephen P. Halbrook, _That Every Man Be Armed: The Evolution of a Constitutional Right,_University of New Mexico Press [reprinted by the Independent Institute] (1984), p.83
"When we got organized as a country and we wrote a fairly radical Constitution with a radical Bill of Rights, giving a radical amount of individual freedom to Americans... And so a lot of people say there's too much personal freedom. When personal freedom's being abused, you have to move to limit it. That's what we did in the announcement I made last weekend on the public housing projects, about how we're going to have weapon sweeps and more things like that to try to make people safer in their communities."
--President Bill Clinton, MTV's "Enough is Enough", April 19, 1994 (Clinton's MTV appearance occurred on the first anniversary of the conflagration at Waco)
"If I could have gotten 51 votes in the Senate of the United States for an_out_right_ban, picking up every one of them... 'Mr. and Mrs. America, turn 'em all in,' I would have done it. I_could_not do that. The votes weren't here."
--U.S. Senator Dianne Feinstein, CBS-TV's "60 Minutes," February 5, 1995 (Feinstein is speaking about her authorship of the 1994 "assault weapons" ban which restricted certain types of military-looking semiautomatic rifles and shotguns, but did not confiscate them (apparently contrary to her intentions))
"Good intentions will always be pleaded for every assumption of authority. It is hardly too strong to say that the Constitution was made to guard the people against the dangers of good intentions. There are men in all ages who mean to govern well, but they mean to govern. They promise to be good masters, but they mean to be masters."
--Daniel Webster (1782-1852)
"Necessity is the plea for every infringement of human freedom. It is the argument of tyrants; it is the creed of slaves."
--William Pitt (Earl of Chatham), speech in the House of Lords, November 18, 1783
"The strongest reason for people to retain the right to keep and bear arms is, as a last resort, to protect themselves against tyranny in government."
--Thomas Jefferson (1743-1826)
"Government is not reason, it is not eloquence --it is force! Like fire it is a dangerous servant and a fearful master; never for a moment should it be left to irresponsible action."
--George Washington (1732-1799)
"Certainly I shall use the police --and most ruthlessly-- whenever the German people are hurt; but I refuse the notion that the police are protective troops for Jewish stores. The police protect whoever comes into Germany legitimately, but not Jewish usurers."
--Hermann Goering, c. Kristallnacht, 1935
"No civilian is to have a firearm without a permit and permits shall not be issued to persons suspected of acting against the state. For Jews, this permission will not be granted. Those people who do not require permission to carry weapons include the whole of the SS, and the SA - including the Deaths Head group, and the officers of the Hitler youth."
- The German Firearms Act of 1937
"Germans who wish to use firearms should join the SS or the SA-- ordinary citizens don't need guns, as their having guns doesn't serve the State."
--Heinrich Himmler (1900-1945)
"All military type firearms are to be handed in immediately... The SS, SA and Stahlhelm give every respectable German man the opportunity of campaigning with them. Therefore anyone who does not belong to one of the above named organizations and who unjustifiably nevertheless keeps his weapon ...must be regarded as an enemy of the national government."
--SA Oberfuhrer of Bad Tolz, March, 1933
"...the rifle? Wouldn't go out naked without a rifle. When shoes and clothes and food, when even hope is gone, we'll have the rifle."
--John Steinbeck (1902-1968),_The Grapes of Wrath_
War is an ugly thing but not the ugliest of things; the decayed and degraded state of moral and patriotic feelings which thinks that nothing is worth fighting for is much worse. A man who has nothing for which he is willing to fight, nothing he cares about more than his personal safety, is a miserable creature who has no chance of being free unless made and kept so by the exertions of better men than himself." Anonymous. Seen on a poster at a gun show.
--John Stuart Mill
"Guard with jealous attention the public liberty. Suspect everyone who approaches that jewel."
--Patrick Henry, of Virginia, Virginia's U.S. Constitution ratification convention
"Foolish liberals who are trying to read the Second Amendment out of the Constitution by claiming it's not an individual right or that it's too much of a public safety hazard don't see the danger in the big picture. They're courting disaster by encouraging others to use the same means to eliminate portions of the Constitution they don't like."
"If the government becomes a lawbreaker, it breeds contempt for law; it invites every man to become a law unto himself; it invites anarchy. To declare that in the administration of criminal law, the end justifies the means...would bring terrible retribution."
(Justice Brandeis, J., dissenting) Olmstead v. United States, 277 U.S. 438, 485 (1928)
These are the times that try men's souls. The summer soldier and the sunshine patriot will, in this crisis, shrink from the service of their country; but he that stands it now, deserves the love and thanks of man and woman, Tyranny, like hell, is not easily conquered; yet we have this consolation with us, that the harder the conflict, the more glorious the triumph. What we obtain too cheap, we esteem too lightly; 'tis dearness only that gives everything its value. Heaven knows how to put a proper price upon its goods; and it would be strange indeed, if so celestial an article as Freedom should not be highly rated.
-- THOMAS PAINE The American Crisis, no. I December 23, 1776
Having conquered the Japanese, Hidéyoshi meant to keep them under control. On 29 August 1588, Hidéyoshi announced 'the Sword Hunt' (taiko no katanagari) and banned possession of swords and firearms by the non-noble classes. He decreed:
"The people in the various provinces are strictly forbidden to have in their possession any swords, short swords, bows, spears, firearms or other arms. The possession of unnecessary implements makes difficult the collection of taxes and tends to foment uprisings... Therefore the heads of provinces, official agents and deputies are ordered to collect all the weapons mentioned above and turn them over to the Government"
"Democracy and socialism have nothing in common but one word: equality. But notice the difference: while democracy seeks equality in liberty, socialism seeks equality in restraint and servitude."
--Alexis de Tocqueville
"Of all tyrannies, a tyranny exercised for the good of its victims may be the most oppressive. It may be better to live under robber barons than under omnipotent moral busybodies. The robber baron's cruelty may sometimes sleep, his cupidity may at some point be satiated; but those who torment us for our own good will torment us without end, for they do so with the approval of their consciences."
-- C.S Lewis
"I prefer dangerous freedom over peaceful slavery."
-- Thomas Jefferson
"An oppressed class which does not aspire to learn to use arms and to bear arms merits only to be treated as slaves."
MORE TO COME