The 2nd Amendment and a reconstruction of original context

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.

The 2nd Amendment to the US constitution is generally and widely understood to be safeguard of personal liberties in the face of a faceless, Hobbesian government or State. This is interpreted in a literal sense, as in, fighting the government physically; the idea that a government should ‘fear its people.’ 

Much ink has been spilled over the the idea and meaning of  ‘well-regulated Militia’; efforts are repeatedly made to interpret it either in personal/individual terms, or in terms of gun-ownership being linked to formal, active membership in an militia. What the sentence is interpreted in this manner, it misses part of the original point and context of the sentence. 

The key is the phrase “being necessary to the security of a free State“. This phrase, coupled with the idea of a Militia of citizens signals that we are not in the realm of contemporary gun-ownership debate, but a much older, ancient even, debate about the best form of government and ways to perpetuate this ‘best form’; or keep it from corruption. 

In ancient Greece there developed a vocabulary around the debate of governmental form. Basically, there was monarchy, oligarchy, and democracy, or their evil twins, tyranny, aristocracy, and mobocracy, respectively. There was a sense that there was a definite cycle; monarchy would slide over time into a tyranny, which would cause a disturbance, and the leading lights of the city-state would form an oligarchy, which would decline to an aristocracy, leading to a revolt of the people, but the established democracy would then slowly turn into mob rule, requiring the establishment of a monarch to restore order, thus completing the cycle. 

Obviously, the constitutional mix of the state can minimize this tendency, as can the virtue of the citizens and even Fortuna herself can help or hinder this process. In the ancient world, the classic matchup of Athens (as a democracy) and Sparta (as an oligarchy) was superseded by the run away success of the Roman Republic.

We must fast forward over a thousand years to the Renaissance, where, in the course of Empire, Papacy, and barbarian invasion, the classical city states of the Mediterranean world had been destroyed, but had partially returned in the northern Italian city-states, most famously, Florence and Venice. 

A series of Florentine writers and political thinkers (the best known being Machiavelli) wrote copiously about their city-states and the best form of government that each should have. These quasi-republican city states all faced a similar set of problems:  the ongoing conflict between the Pope and a series of German Holy Roman Emperors, which invited foreign invasion, and subterfuge from the Papacy, the constant rivalry between the city-states themselves, and the general wealth of the city-states which allowed them to hire mercenary forces known as ‘condottieri’. In a nutshell, the ancient debate over the best form of government was re-discovered, updated, and re-deyployed with urgency in the face of foreign invasion and internal strife engendered by a few leading families (Medici, Visconti) and the condottieri. 

Civic humanist writers, inspired and informed by the ancient writers like Cicero, Aristotle, Polybius, etc, had looked at the Athenian Empire and the Roman Empire and noted their great successful, but detected a ‘decline and fall’ in those empires, and sought a way to establish perfect republics in their own cities. 

They quickly hit upon the idea of citizen soldiers instead of mercenaries, (Roman Republic very much on the brain), which they referred to as a militia. So the citizens of the republic themselves would service as its soldiers, not hired thugs. 

The idea of the citizens bearing arms for the Renaissance thinkers went beyond weapon ownership on a personal level, or the citizen as backbone of the city-state’s army; it was crucial to the survival of the republic itself. 

The armed citizen becomes the ultimo ratio whereby the citizen exposes his life in the defense of the state and at the same time ensures that the decision to expose it cannot be taken without him. Arms makes a man a full citizen; exhorting the highest levels of virtue and aspiration and self-development. Thus, to abandon arms to mercenaries or professionals is to abandon the control of policy to those elite groups whom wealth confers political and social advantage. (Thanks to J.G.A. Pocock here) 

The American War of Independence, and the constitution where inspired by the experiance of the ancient and Renaissance republics and the rhetoric of these periods, and many historians see the American Revolution as the last expression of civic humanism in the old republican mode. Thus the 2nd Amendment reflects the Renaissance city-state political experience, not our contemporary experience with firearms. 

I think it is worth emphasizing the point arms were seen both as a guarantee against elite, un-civic-minded interest groups (who wanted to run the city-state to their own advantage), and as a guarantee of virtue in the citizen, the citizen as direct participant in the government. Arms inspires civic pride and achievement. 

If only today’s ‘arms bearers’ had a similar sense of civic duty.


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