Our country’s Founders, though at odds with each other about many matters, were united in their belief that private citizens, armed with their own firearms, were vital to a free nation.
Anti-Federalist icon Patrick Henry, in his famous “give me liberty or give me death” address to Virginia’s Second Revolutionary Convention on March 23, 1775, underscored the importance of an armed citizenry when he declared:
“They tell us … we are weak-unable to cope with so formidable an adversary [as the British]. But when shall we be stronger? Will it be when we are totally disarmed, and when a British guard shall be stationed in every house? Three million people, armed in the holy cause of liberty … are invincible by any force which our enemy can send against us.”
The Census Bureau estimates that the population of the colonies in 1700 was 2.1 million, and that by 1780 it reached 2.9 million. Henry’s reference in 1775 to “three million people, armed in the holy cause of liberty” clearly encompassed all competent citizens, not merely those qualified by age and gender for militia service.
Years later, when the Constitution was considered, Henry further expressed his unequivocal support of the individual right to keep and bear arms. During Virginia’s ratification convention he objected to the omission of a clause in the proposed Constitution that would forbid the disarming of individual citizens (the Second Amendment was adopted to solve that problem). “The great object,” he declared, “is that every man be armed…. Everyone who is able may have a gun.”
Thomas Paine, who voiced the colonists’ demands for freedom in his famous pamphlet Common Sense (1776), wrote in an earlier essay entitled “Thoughts on Defensive War” (1775):
“The supposed quietude of a good man allures the ruffian; while on the other hand, arms like laws discourage and keep the invader and the plunderer in awe, and preserve order in the world as well as property.”
And in The Federalist, No. 28, Alexander Hamilton stated: “If the representatives of the people betray their constituents, there is no recourse left but in the exertion of that original right of self-defense which is paramount to all positive forms of government.”
In essay 29 of The Federalist, Hamilton further observed that “little more can reasonably be aimed at with respect to the people at large than to have them properly armed and equipped,” since “this will not only lessen the calls for military establishments, but if circumstances should at any time oblige the government to form an army of any magnitude that army an never be formidable to the liberties of the people while there is a large body of citizens, little if at all inferior to hem in discipline and the use of arms, who stand ready to defend their rights and those of their fellow citizens.”
In a similar spirit, James Madison pointed out in The Federalist, No. 46, that “notwithstanding the military establishments in the several kingdoms of Europe, which are carried as far as the public resources will bear, the governments are afraid to trust the people with arms,” since, were the people armed and organized into militia, “the throne of every tyranny in Europe would be speedily overturned in spite of the legions which surround it.”
On June 18, 1789, 10 days after James Madison proposed the Bill of Rights in the House of Representatives, Tench Coxe, a Federalist and friend of Madison, published in Philadelphia’s Federal Gazette (under the pen name “A Pennsylvanian”) what Steven Halbrook describes as “probably the most complete exposition of the Bill of Rights to be published during its ratification period.”
Coxe’s analysis included this comment: “As civil rulers, not having their duty to the people duly before them, may attempt to tyrannize, and as the military forces which must be occasionally raised to defend our country, might pervert their power to the injury of their fellow citizens, the people are confirmed by the next article in their right to keep and bear their private arms.” “In short,” Halbrook states, “what is now the Second Amendment was designed to guarantee the right of the people to have ‘their private arms’ to prevent tyranny and to overpower an abusive standing army or select militia [such as today’s National Guard].”
It is worth noting that Coxe sent a copy of his article, with a cover letter, to Madison, and that the father of the Constitution expressed no objection to his comments. Rather than disagreeing that the proposed amendment protected the possession and use of “private arms,”
Madison stated in his reply that ratification of the entire package of amendments “will however be greatly favored by explanatory strictures of a healing tendency, and is therefore already indebted to the co-operation of your pen.” Halbrook points out that a “search of the literature of the time reveals that no writer disputed or contradicted Coxe’s analysis that became what the Second Amendment protected.
Always Safe, Always Prepared