From “Country” to “State”

The Second Amendment is all over the news, but Jana Riess asks why Christians aren’t more concerned with limitations of the Second Amendment. She contends what we have is not so much freedom as license.

Americans willingly accept limitations on our First Amendment rights — we believe in freedom of the press, for example, but we also have checks in place in cases of libel; we uphold the freedom of religion, but not where such freedoms impinge upon the rights and safety of other people. But Second Amendment rights are largely off the table. Politicians know that to discuss their limitation would be political suicide….

Second Amendment rights are not absolute. They arose in a particular historical context, when a new nation remembered how British soldiers had disarmed ordinary colonial families and quartered themselves in the colonists’ homes. Disarming the colonists robbed them of their right not only to defend themselves against attack, but to hunt for their food. Guns were often necessary tools of survival in the late eighteenth century….

Having just read Os Guinness’s new book on sustainable freedom (see Saturday’s post), I am aware that freedom and license are not the same. What Americans are guaranteed is freedom. What we are practicing, however, is license — an unchecked and potentially dangerous licentiousness that exacts a human cost.

Tyranny is the normal concern for those who believe in a loose interpretation of the Second Amendment. But this piece, by Thom Hartmann, contends that the Second Amendment’s history — where it was originally “country” and then shifted to “State” — involves permission of a State to use armed militias to protect slavery.

The real reason the Second Amendment was ratified, and why it says “State” instead of “Country” (the Framers knew the difference – see the 10th Amendment), was to preserve the slave patrol militias in the southern states, which was necessary to get Virginia’s vote. Founders Patrick Henry, George Mason, and James Madison were totally clear on that . . . and we all should be too.

The crucial lines are found in these two versions of the wording for the Second Amendment:

His first draft for what became the Second Amendment had said: “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 [emphasis mine]: but no person religiously scrupulous of bearing arms, shall be compelled to render military service in person.”

But Henry, Mason and others wanted southern states to preserve their slave-patrol militias independent of the federal government. So Madison changed the word “country” to the word “state,” and redrafted the Second Amendment into today’s form:

“A well regulated Militia, being necessary to the security of a free State [emphasis mine], the right of the people to keep and bear Arms, shall not be infringed.”

About Scot McKnight

Scot McKnight is a recognized authority on the New Testament, early Christianity, and the historical Jesus. McKnight, author of more than fifty books, is the Professor of New Testament at Northern Seminary in Lombard, IL.

  • http://www.sakeoftruth.com Josh Mann

    Scot, There is so much not discussed by Hartmann relevant to the historical context of the 2nd amendment that I’m disheartened you’ve made any reference to it at all. SCOTUS had a lot more to add about the historical context in ’08/’10 rulings, to point to one resource which discusses the history of interpreting the amendment.

  • Tom j

    Her argument is flawed from the beginning. Both the 1st and 2nd amendments are heavily limited.

  • Glenn

    Scot, In my experience I can tell you why the conservative Christians in my environment support the stance of the NRA. We have heard of the evils of Hitler, Stalin and Lenin, of the killing fields of Cambodia, etc. We know the doctrine of original sin and total depravity and believe that power corrupts. We know the stories of Christians across the globe who have no freedoms and are aware that more Christians have died in the last century at the hands of their government than perhaps at any other time in history. We know the voices of multiple Christian leaders like James Dobson who state that they can not understand how we have gone so wrong as a country and see Obama as the worst president in US history. So the question is how does the church make a case and story that would inspire conservatives to seek to have strict limits on guns through a government they now so oppose?

  • Frank Barnett

    Agree with Josh: neither writer quoted deserves the credibility given. Riess is flat wrong: 2nd Amendment rights have always been limited in the same way free speech has been. Just as the application of free speech is correctly limited, so is the application of gun ownership. Not even the NRA disputes that the use of a weapon should be limited, but it makes a handy straw man for Riess’ argument.

  • Bonnie

    The right to use firearms in a way that does not harm others in not license. The harmful, i.e., what has been illegal up to now, use of them is what represents license. People actually do have license, under the First Amendment, to say a lot of offensive and hurtful things.

  • TJJ

    There are many errors of law, history, and inrepretation in Hartmann’s piece. Not the least of which is the significance he draws reagrding the wording change of country, to state, which occurred during the fluid ratification prcoess.

    If someone wants to read an good summary of the histroy of the Second Amendment written by a former professor of mine from my alma mater, Valparaiso University School of Law, I refer you to this excellent law reveiw piece. http://www.guncite.com/journals/vandhist.html

  • Scot McKnight

    Thanks TJJ.

  • Scot McKnight

    TJJ one more as I de-plane in MSP. You think then there is no connection of “country” to slave States? I’m about to begin reading a book on the amendments.

  • TJJ

    No. No primary connection. Tangential connection perhaps. But the primary issue at hand was the tension between federal and state power. The fear was the federalization of state militias, thus leaving the States with no militia, and the concern of a standing federal army. The solution of compromise, was to make the right to bear arms an individual liberty right, that could not thereby be “federalized” or infringed.

  • Scot McKnight

    TJJ, are you saying Patrick Henry’s statements are either inaccurate or so idiosyncratic unworthy of our consideration?

  • RDH

    No dispute here that the Second Amendment needs to be limited further. The First Amendment could use some more limits, too. Pornography is too accessible on the Internet. Do evangelicals not care about that any more? There are too many crooked preachers on television, taking advantage of people, particularly the elderly. How can anyone oppose limiting their freedom of speech, religion, lying and theft? Also, the talk shows on radio and television that pass for journalism could stand some limitations. We have way too much freedom in this country. Pornography, thieving preachers and divisive talk shows don’t kill children; their effects are longer lasting and deeper in the fabric of society. Perhaps President Obama could issue some executive orders or encourage legislation to further limit First Amendment “rights” that are harming our nation.

  • metanoia

    The most fundamental error of the piece is the suggestion that the freedom is granted by the Constitution. the 2nd Amendment is part of the Bill of Rights which were recognized from the beginning as being inalienable and endowed by the Creator. The government doesn’t give us the right to bear arms, it recognizes that it is an inalienable right granted by the Creator. What the government doesn’t give it can’t take away.

  • EricW

    But the primary issue at hand was the tension between federal and state power. The fear was the federalization of state militias, thus leaving the States with no militia, and the concern of a standing federal army. The solution of compromise, was to make the right to bear arms an individual liberty right, that could not thereby be “federalized” or infringed.

    Sounds like Chapter 29 of The Federalist Papers re: Militias. Also see Federalist Papers 28 & 46.

  • Joe Canner

    metanoia #12: Where are you getting that the Bill of Rights represents rights that are “inalienable and endowed by the Creator”? I see that language in the Declaration of Independence but not in the Bill of Rights.

    Even if there is other evidence to suggest that this is true, just because someone said it doesn’t make it so. I could possibly see where a right to bear arms could be “endowed by the Creator” when it comes to hunting for food; target shooting, self-defense, war, etc…not so much.

  • Joe Canner

    While we’re on this topic, can someone explain why there is rarely any connection made between “a well regulated militia” and “the right to bear arms.” Aside from military, police, security guards, etc., I don’t think there are very many gun owners who are part of a well regulated militia.

  • Marshall

    The change from ‘country’ to ‘state’ is eye-catching, as in “the best security of a free [x] …” ‘Country’ seems to apply to the countryside, “the body of the people” (v. TJJ’s link), where as ‘state’ obviously refers to the embodied government. The shift seems to be towards organizational self-protection (at whatever level), vs. grass-roots democracy. The right of “the people” to self-organize and be effective locally.

    The authorities trim their trust of the people, nothing new there.

  • BradK

    Scot #10,

    Hartmann’s use of some of Henry’s statements are clearly out of context. As an example, he quotes Henry at the ratifying convention…

    “Let me here call your attention to that part which gives the Congress power “to provide for organizing, arming, and disciplining the militia, and for governing such part of them as may be employed in the service of the United States–reserving to the states, respectively, the appointment of the officers, and the authority of training the militia according to the discipline prescribed by Congress.” By this, sir, you see that their control over our last and best defence is unlimited. If they neglect or refuse to discipline or arm our militia, they will be useless: the states can do neither–this power being exclusively given to Congress. The power of appointing officers over men not disciplined or armed is ridiculous; so that this pretended little remains of power left to the states may, at the pleasure of Congress, be rendered nugatory.”

    The above is the part quoted by Hartmann. But look at the rest of Henry’s statement that immediately followed:

    “Our situation will be deplorable indeed: nor can we ever expect to get this government amended, since I have already shown that a very small minority may prevent it, and that small minority interested in the continuance of the oppression. Will the oppressor let go the oppressed? Was there ever an instance? Can the annals of mankind exhibit one single example where rulers overcharged with power willingly let go the oppressed, though solicited and requested most earnestly? The application for amendments will therefore be fruitless. Sometimes, the oppressed have got loose by one of those bloody struggles that desolate a country; but a willing relinquishment of power is one of those things which human nature never was, nor ever will be, capable of.”

    It seems fairly clear that Henry’s primary stated concern here is not about slavery, but about oppression by the centralized federal government, which is exactly the concern of people who oppose gun control here in this country today. Also, the distinction between “state” and “country” in the language of the time was not great, was it? Wouldn’t someone at that time be likely to commonly use phrases like “state of France” or “country of Massachusetts”?

    Regardless, Riess is wrong in her article to assume that Christians (or even non-Christians) who oppose federal gun control legislation do not believe in any limits on the second amendment. They do not believe in any limits by the federal government, because (despite Hartmann’s attempts at revisionism) the amendment was put in place specifically to prevent the federal government from limiting the right to keep and bear arms in order for the free states to protecting themselves from tyranny by the federal government. Despite her attempts to make it so, the second amendment was never about hunting. And what is currently being practiced is not license, but exactly the freedom which the founders intended. It could even be argued that, rather than license, the freedom to keep and bear arms has been unconstitutionally chipped away in that the federal government has passed laws that limit the rights of individuals to do so, like the banning of so-called “assault weapons.” It could easily be argued that such things should only be regulated by the states.


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