We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness. — That to secure these rights, Governments are instituted among Men, deriving their just powers from the consent of the governed, — That whenever any Form of Government becomes destructive of these ends, it is the Right of the People to alter or to abolish it, and to institute new Government, laying its foundation on such principles and organizing its powers in such form, as to them shall seem most likely to effect their Safety and Happiness.
So we said in our Declaration of Independence from Britain. Later, the U.S. Constitution and Bill of Rights wrote into law individual, state and federal government rights and responsibilities. The natural and legal rights abuses that the Constitution’s authors and delegates to the Constitutional Convention experienced under British rule shaped the documents.
So…we said everyone’s equal, then let slaveholders slide
That slavery was common practice at the time the U.S. Constitution was crafted didn’t change the fact that many at the Constitutional Convention recognized slavery for the abuse of natural rights it was. Undoubtedly, some who opposed it did so less because it was the right thing to do than because it threatened their livelihoods. Either way, it wasn’t comprehensively prohibited because the majority of delegates were either pro-slavery or willing to tolerate it, and the minority didn’t have sufficient voting power to force inclusion of language guaranteeing freedom from slavery.
Might makes right, eh?
The anti-slavery minority knew that the issue’s conflict with natural rights needed to be addressed and codified. But it wasn’t until 1865 that we said, basically, “You can’t hold a person against their will and make them work for you, without pay or with.” Even then the majority didn’t want this freedom universally recognized, and the amendment barely passed. Believe it or not, the last state didn’t ratify the amendment until 1995.
Though the framers recognized that everyone was created equal, at the time the Constitution was written, large groups of people were denied the ability to control the course of their own lives because they weren’t allowed by their states to vote, or they were seen as property, not persons…or both. As the Declaration of Independence flowed from Britain’s abuses of natural rights, and the Bill of Rights was written to specifically guarantee against such denial, the U.S. Constitution was in time further amended to correct the de facto denial of natural rights to women, people brought to the U.S. against their will to serve as slaves, and non-whites.
Force, firearms, and the lack thereof
Ownership or possession of any specific item isn’t a right. But humans do have a natural right to defend themselves or to resist oppression. Without weapons as powerful as one’s attacker or oppressor, no defense or resistance would be possible, and the right in and of itself would have no meaning.
Not coincidentally, slaves – and later free black men and women – were prohibited from possessing firearms. It’s just too difficult to oppress someone who can shoot your ass.
The framers included specific guarantees because they knew from experience what tends to happen when you cede any control to government. Government is comprised of humans, and it seems to attract those who very much enjoy power and control. The Second Amendment was based partially on similar rights in English law; the right to bear arms was described by 18th-century English Judge Sir William Blackstone as an auxiliary right supporting the aforementioned natural rights of self-defense and resistance to oppression.
The fifth and last auxiliary right of the subject, that I shall at present mention, is that of having arms for their defence, suitable to their condition and degree, and such as are allowed by law. Which is also declared by the same statute I W. & M. st. 2. c. 2. and is indeed a public allowance, under due restrictions, of the natural right of resistance and self-preservation, when the sanctions of society and laws are found insufficient to restrain the violence of oppression.
In an ideal world…
Do we really need the Second Amendment to tell us that we have the right to defend ourselves – meeting force with equal force – from direct harm or oppression? Common sense says no, but reality tells us otherwise. We included it in the Constitution because of our experience with oppression under British rule, and most of us know instinctively that we have an a priori right to self-defense. Even those opposed to firearms don’t usually question the right to self-defense, but then – usually with little to no knowledge of firearms – they try to restrict the ways in which one should be allowed to exercise that right.
Do we really need the Thirteenth and Fourteenth Amendments to tell us that holding someone against their will and forcing them to work for you is a violation of their natural rights that shouldn’t be allowed? As with the Second Amendment, the answer is yes and no. No, we don’t need these amendments to see freedom from oppression as an a priori natural right that shouldn’t have to be codified. But based on a posteriori experience – in the 1700’s and 1800’s people justified it by denying that blacks were persons – we had to specifically say “you can’t do that.”
While I’m glad that people don’t seem to be going back and questioning the Thirteenth and Fourteenth Amendments, I can’t help wondering if some of today’s loudest anti-firearms and anti-Second Amendment voices would feel the same if Nat Turner and his crew had stuck with their original equipment (muskets) instead of ditching them for knives and hatchets. Perhaps a more effective rebellion would have resulted in fewer men like Captain Anthony and Mr. Plummer.
Why didn’t more slaves rebel? Why’d Turner ditch the muskets he’d bought?
Racist arms laws predate the establishment of the United States. Starting in 1751, the French Black Code required Louisiana colonists to stop any blacks, and if necessary, beat “any black carrying any potential weapon, such as a cane.” If a black refused to stop on demand, and was on horseback, the colonist was authorized to “shoot to kill.” Slave possession of firearms was a necessity at times in a frontier society, yet laws continued to be passed in an attempt to prohibit slaves or free blacks from possessing firearms, except under very restrictively controlled conditions.
Slaves – especially in a group – couldn’t be armed and pass unnoticed. Cause and effect are all tangled up in the case of Turner’s rebellion as well as slavery’s 75-ish year persistence in the U.S. If slaves could freely possess arms, with what would their masters hold them? Pretty sure musket beats whip.
How were African people overpowered and enslaved in the first place? The answer shouldn’t surprise you.
Update: The article linked immediately above has been removed. The general ideas can be found in this article. A quote of particular relevance:
Several great ruffians came upon us suddenly, and said we had committed a great fault against their lord … some of us attempted in vain to run away, but pistols or cutlasses were introduced, threatening that, if we offered to stir, we should all lie dead on the spot.