Defending slavery with the Second Amendment

The pivotal question of why the Bill of Rights includes the Second Amendment is one of those fun, Constitutional arguments that anyone can interpret. We most often get treated to an armed population being the last defense against tyranny as the sound, and forward looking theory behind the amendment. This argument presupposes certain aspects of the Framers’ philosophy which we are generally quite certain was centered on freedom and democracy. Except that it probably wasn’t and there’s very little in the Constitution to suggest that it was. George Washington and Thomas Jefferson didn’t want you to be able to defend yourself against the US Government. After all, nobody raised much of a stink when Washington sent the army to suppress the Whiskey Rebellion, a popular rebellion trying to stop Big Government from taxing small businessmen into oblivion. So if the favored reasoning for the Second Amendment wasn’t even operative within the first eight years of the Constitution’s reign, what other reasons might have prompted its inclusion?

Thom Hartmann lays out an argument that Gaius Publius distills further. The argument, in its most simple form: the Second Amendment was included to protect slavery. Comforting, no?

“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.”

Central to the argument of Hartmann is a first draft that shows “country” rather than “state” and the reason why there was an edit. Publius focuses on the militias of the Southern states which functioned not as a defense against outsiders or oppressive government, but rather as the means to keep the slave population in check. Remember, blacks greatly outnumbered whites and slave rebellions were fairly common. The Haitian slave revolt was only a few years away when the Constitution was ratified and the Bill of Rights wasn’t ratified until months after the Haitian slave revolt began. Those slave patrols were the thin, armed line between the status quo and hundreds of thousands of angry slaves. They were also mandated by law in several, Southern states.

The need for militias to protect against foreign invasion was moot with the ratification of the Constitution, as now the US government had the power to raise an army in a far more orderly manner than was used during the Revolutionary War, more importantly, it had the means to fund that army through debt and taxes. The  Second Amendment using the word “country” would make no sense, but following Hartmann’s argument, the edit to “state” and the inclusion of the Second Amendment as a prerequisite for Southern support of the Constitution makes a great deal of sense. After all, Lincoln would end up doing exactly what the founding Southerner’s feared and find a Constitutional argument to abolish slavery. The Second Amendment was a check against what would eventually come to pass.

The right to bear arms in support of what is essentially a police state just doesn’t have the same ring of freedom to it. And while i cannot yet say that it changes my opinion on owning guns, it does – unfortunately – go towards confirming my growing suspicions of the men we deify as grand philosophers in the cause of freedom and democracy.

15 replies »

  1. Really? This is one of the dumbest arguments I’ve even seen.

    While the militias in the South may indeed have been used to enforce slavery, if that was the reasoning, why would the non-slave states vote for it?

    After all, the Bill of Rights was passed unanimously, so why would NY, MA and NH all vote for something that did them no good at all.

    This is a weak argument and a cheap shot at the founders and the Constitution itself.

    • The author states in his final paragraph that it was a prerequisite to the South agreeing to the Constitution itself: “…the edit to “state” and the inclusion of the Second Amendment as a prerequisite for Southern support of the Constitution makes a great deal of sense…” I don’t know if I agree with that, but that is what he wrote.

    • There was no need for national defense militias once the Constitution was ratified. The federal government had the means to raise an army under its purview. Again, read the history of the Whiskey Rebellion, those founders your revere used the Constitution they had written to bring the army out and crush a popular, political movement. The standard interpretation of the Second Amendment is pretty generally disproved by that alone.

      Why would non-slave states vote for it? Out of simple, political calculation and the fact that slave hunting was good business in the North too. Not to mention that the whole of the North was far from abolitionist. State militias might come in handy as tax collecting muscle for the new federal officers tasked with the job in the North.

  2. If the 2nd Amendment was intended to enforce slavery, then I change my mind about the 2nd Amendment. I currently believe in the right to keep and bear arms, and I believe in gun restrictions that will make us safer (such as those ordered and others proposed by the POTUS). But if the author is correct about the amendment’s true intent, then it is outdated, outrageous, and should be overturned.

  3. Lex, slaves outnumbered whites in some places at some times in the South, but overall, this wasn’t the case. In fact, I can’t find a single state in the 1790 census in which this was the case, though I’m certain there were counties in which it was the case. This doesn’t change your thesis, of course. I just wanted to point out that I believe that the idea that blacks greatly outnumbered whites is in error.

    • I’m not sure the census is the right place to look for slave population figures. Can you state your sources?

      • Hi Ann,

        Not sure why you would think that the census wouldn’t be a good place to look for a count of free and slave populations. As far as I know, it’s the only place. Slaves had to be counted if, for no other reason, to determine the number of representatives to the House from slave states (a slave counted as 3/5 of a person, as you’ll recall).

        Here’s a Wikipedia entry that’s a little easier than going to the original sources:

        By 1860, the year the first states seceded from the Union, South Carolina and Mississippi would have more slaves than free whites, but they were the only ones. The ratios in other cotton states — Louisiana, Alabama, Georgia, Florida — would be fairly close to a 50% split, but in the more populous, upper South, states like Virginia and North Carolina had around a 2-to-1 free-to-slave population. In fact, as one datum to refute the fact that “the Civil War wasn’t fought over slavery,” I once looked at the percentage of slave to free people in each state, and determined that the order of secession was directly related to the percentage of slaves in each state (in other words, the higher the percentage of slaves, the faster a state voted to secede).

        You can find 1860 census numbers, here:

        Hope that’s helpful.


    • I repeated Hartmann on that without fact checking. Perhaps it would have been better worded to say that slaves made up a significant portion of Southern populations.

      • You know, Lex, it might be that what he was saying is that certain parts of the South had outsized slave-to-white populations. For instance, I would bet that the rice and indigo-growing areas of South Carolina in 1790 had much higher black than white populations. I know that my county in Virginia, in the tobacco-growing belt, was 2-to-1 black to white (with just under 900 free African-Americans, included) in 1860, but I don’t know the numbers from 1790. On the other hand, non-whites were virtually unknown in the Virginia mountain counties.

        As an aside (and completely off topic), it’s kind of fun to look at a graduated (red/purple/blue) map of US counties to see how they vote, politically, these days in presidential elections. There’s a north/south belt of blue and purple running from southern Virginia into northern Florida or so that represents the counties with formerly heavy slave populations. Many former slaves emigrated, of course, so most of those counties are more white than black these days, but their are still higher percentages of African-Americans in those counties than in the US populations as a whole.

  4. spencer60. The North would have voted for it because they had something to gain: getting the south into a union, and nothing to lose: they didn’t particularly care about slaves one way or another. Why wouldn’t they have voted for it?

  5. Also, let’s not fall victim to the idea that everyone in the North was against slavery. While it was not as economically important to northern states, it was present early in American history and the Abolition movement was (as i understand it) not over-arching across the northern political spectrum. It was more akin to the populist economic and democratic movements that gained some traction in, for example, Pennsylvania. Some scholars would argue that the Constitution was specifically to stop those political movements.

    The political heavy hitters of the North were mostly “merchants” (i.e. traders, bankers, etc.) who were in fact heavily invested in the Southern economy. They didn’t have a whole lot to gain by freeing slaves in the 18th Century. Making Constitutional allowances for slavery was likely a bargain that they’d have to explain to some of their constitutes, but probably not such a difficult political calculation at a personal and socio-economic level.

  6. Very interesting, but moot. The problem is that the Second Amendment and the rabid rabble who have turned their homes into armories don’t really care. It’s a bit like that show on TV, Preppers, none of those nut jobs agree with what the approaching calamity is, but they all agree that fifty gallon drums of stewed tomatoes and a .50 cal machine gun will exempt them from it. As I have noted before, gun fetishism is an oddly universal urge among those of low intelligence. Logic is not going to win the day here.

  7. For me, the “true” motivation behind including the 2nd Amendment in the Bill of Rights is largely an academic question. My conclusion that the 2nd Amendment has become a dangerous anachronism is based solely on its current interpretation and application.