Recent events have shown that America is on the precipice of radically redefining her ancestral right to bear arms. Every major Democratic Presidential candidate has expressed intent to push through sweeping gun control legislation, and the Virginia legislature recently voted to enact an unprecedented policy of rifle confiscations, to name a few.
It has become clear that a large segment of the population views the second amendment as an archaic tradition that has long outlived its use. A smaller minority sees it as the remnant of a racist history that should be abolished in the same vein as slavery or Jim Crowe. However, far too little has been said of the tradition that led to James Madison’s inclusion of the Second Amendment in his bill of rights.
Contemporary America often views the right to bear arms as something peculiar and unique to herself. This is a view that certainly has merit. A study by the New York Times found that only nine countries have ever included an explicit right to bear arms. Most of these were the nations liberated by Simon Bolivar in Latin America, and only the United States does not include a mitigating clause in her constitution. It is important to note that Bolivar was a man of the same temperament and character as Washington. He willingly abdicated power, promoted a virtuous citizenry, and advocated for limited government.
The shared right to bear arms is likely more than a coincidence. Still, as any decent historian will admit, the Enlightenment ideals of individual sovereignty and personal responsibility may have found their fullest expression in the nation of George Washington, but their origins are in medieval England. This includes the second amendment. Before any attempt is made to undermine a cornerstone of American liberty, one must examine the development of an armed citizenry, and determine if it is still relevant today.
The earliest record of a populace being responsible for their own military equipment is Archaic Greece in the seventh century B.C. Wealthier citizens were expected to purchase and maintain armor, weapons, and the ever-important hoplon shield to fight for his mother polis in times of war.
A similar but more formalized practice developed in Rome after the overthrow of Tarquinius and the establishment of the Republic in 509 B.C. Members of the “census class” and higher with property worth more than thirty-five hundred sesterces were expected to provide their own equipment for campaigning. Of course, the high cost of quality weapons acted as a de facto form of restriction, but every citizen who could afford to do so had a patriotic duty to bear his own arms.
The Greek system ended when Phillip II of Macedon defeated Thebes and Athens at the Battle of Chaeronea in 338 B.C. and assimilated a majority of the Greek city-states into the Corinthian League. Philip II employed a professional army, and after this point, there was a clear distinction between citizen and soldier, rather than soldiering being the responsibility of the citizen. The Macedonian military structure would endure throughout the Hellenistic Period.
The Roman practice ended with the Marian Reforms in 107 B.C. It is important to note that both cultures were the only real instances of large scale, majoritarian rule in the ancient world. While not entirely similar to the American concept of a right to bear arms, figures like Solon of Athens and Cincinnatus of Rome, both of whom were largely responsible for these examples of an armed citizenry, influenced much of the Founding Fathers’ political philosophies. Another important note is that the dissolution of the Roman system directly led to Caesar declaring himself “dictator for life” some sixty years later. And the Battle of Chaeronea marked the end of democratic sentiment in Greece until the dissolution of the Ottoman Empire after World War I.
While Rome and Greece certainly influenced the Constitutional Convention of 1787, American liberty cannot be separated from English tradition. The Revolution was not a rejection of their mother country. Instead, it was an affirmation by the colonists that they would become more English than the Englishman.
The American Revolution was not a fight between England and America. It was a war which resulted from an attempt of the arbitrary rulers of England, led by a king of German origin, to deny these rights and thus to destroy political liberty in America, as they had already destroyed it in England, and as other arbitrary rulers had already destroyed it on the continent of Europe. Source: McElroy, Robert. “The Culture of Democracy.” Source Records of the Great War Volume I. 55
William Pitt, one of the most notable English Prime Ministers, referred to the Continental Army as “our armies in America,” during a speech to Parliament. There is not a single American right or custom that cannot find Anglo-Saxon precedence, including the right to bear arms.
By the twelfth century, European militaries were built around the mounted knight. These heavy cavalrymen were recruited from the noble caste and were augmented with poorly trained, lightly equipped peasants meant to fill out the ranks as needed. However, England resisted this trend, relying instead on archers. This required a population trained to use the longbow, a notoriously difficult weapon to master. Proclamations, such as the Assize of 1252, ensured monarchs would have a large enough population of proficient archers to draw from. This paid dividends at the onset of the Hundred Years’ War. The outnumbered army of Edward III soundly defeated a French force at Crècy, largely because of the longbow. Later in his reign, he would expand on the Assize of 1252 with his own proclamation in 1363. It stated, “that every man in (England), if he is able-bodied, shall, upon holidays, make use, in his games, of bows and arrows… and so learn and practice of archery.” (Source: Readings in English Social History: From Pre-Roman Days to AD 1837)
As more citizens became skilled archers, success in France continued. This culminated at the Battle of Agincourt in 1415. Henry V led some seven thousand men, of whom six thousand were bowman, to humiliate an army of thirty thousand French soldiers, including ten thousand knights. Dan Simmons says it best in his novel Hyperion.
The day of the armored man-at-arms, knight, the embodiment of chivalry, was over- hammered into history’s coffin by a few thousand rag tag peasant archers carrying longbows. The ultimate insult to the noble-born French dead- if the dead could be further insulted- lay in the fact that the English archers were not only common men, common in the lowest, most flea-infested sense of the word, but that they were draftees. Doughboys. GIs. Grunts
The implication was clear. A trained, armed, and determined citizenry was not only an effective restriction against state power. It was absolutely necessary for the state to survive at all. One might suggest that the English would eventually be pushed back to their island, ultimately proving the armed citizenry ineffective. However, this was the result of Henry VI’s atrocious rule, civil war in England, and if the Catholics are to be believed, divine intervention. It is also worth noting that while a plucky group of armed commoners conquered France, it was another plucky, armed commoner, Joan of Arc, that saved it. This further illustrates the point rather than detracting from it.
While the intent of training and arming the entire English countryside was a wartime precaution, the effect was quite predictable. The peasantry had the ability to resist any edict levied from the crown. A king could make whatever proclamation he desired, but his agents could no longer enforce it. Tax collectors called on dangerous citizens, not hapless farmers. The only way to govern England was with the consent of the people. This was less an explicit political philosophy and more a cultural conviction, but from that base, the commoner had finally become a force in his own government. Trial by jury, parliamentary power of the purse, and freedom of speech were all logical conclusions of the consent doctrine.
While it would be wrong to state the fifteenth or sixteenth century Englishman enjoyed the same freedom as an eighteenth-century American, it would be correct to say he was freer than any peasant in history and certainly more free than his European contemporaries. One might say that the origin of English liberty is more complicated than the longbow, and one would be correct in saying so. However, it should be noted that the most iconic symbol of resistance against the tyrannical authority is the archer Robin Hood. Another famous rebel, William Wallace, used the arrow as his official seal, indicating he too was an archer. The people of England, armed with their longbows, demanded a degree of freedom unthinkable to their more docile cousins in France, Germany, or Austria.
One might point to the French Revolution in 1789, but the English had succeeded in executing their own king more than a century before. One should also remember that if the French peasant garnered any freedom with the storming of Bastille, it was short-lived. Despite their high minded rhetoric, the revolutionary governments of France were, to varying degrees, far more repressive than Louis XVI ever was.
The traditional practice of an armed citizenry was intended to craft a formidable army, but it resulted in the common man developing his own ideas of rights and sovereignty. Of course, the Founding Fathers inverted these intentions. The right to bear arms was primarily a hedge against tyrannical state power and secondly a mechanism by which her military might be ready for war. For a critic of the Second Amendment to claim it is outdated, he must prove that one or both of these intentions is not being properly served. This is an impossible point to make with regard to a strong military.
During the first and second world wars, the American soldier proved himself a better rifleman than his adversaries or allies. The Germans were famously shocked that the “green Yankees” would take so quickly and fiercely to combat. However, the G.I. was not “green” in the same way a European might be. He had prior experience with weaponry. If one reads the biography of any Medal of Honor winning American, the first chapter will almost always say some variation of, “he grew up hunting.” Heroes like Audie Murphy and Sergeant York are prime examples of this.
While the foreign policy in the second half of the twentieth century has been more complicated than the first, the American infantryman has never found himself outmatched. Units of the army or Marine Corps usually only suffer a tactical defeat when they are staggeringly outnumbered or because of a massive logistical collapse. That the AR-15 is the most popular rifle in America certainly contributes to the continued effectiveness of her fighting men in the same way the longbow once contributed to England’s.
A critic might then suggest that the primary intent of the Second Amendment, a hedge against tyranny, is no longer relevant. Eric Swalwell infamously joked that an armed uprising would be a “short war because the government has nukes.” That this is a dubious statement is beside the point. Individual acts of defiance, not organized revolt is the most imposing deterrent to tyranny. The politician must think carefully before he passes any legislation because that legislation must be enforced. There is the ever-present risk that a citizen might choose to ignore that law. While the weight of the government is often able to force compliance anyway, it is not always able to do it quietly. Events like Waco blacken the reputation of responsible policy-makers. The public is outraged over the governmental overreach, and ambitious bureaucrats are quickly cowed.
One could point to Venezuela or Hong Kong as obvious parables against disarmament, but it is not even necessary to go that far. England, whose people gave up their right to firearms in the twentieth century, has begun prosecuting citizens for “hate speech.” Europe, as a whole, has seen their social and economic liberties dwindle. This is because politicians know that dissension can be crushed without devolving into a public spectacle. This is not true of the United States. One could hardly imagine a Montana farmer allowing himself to be arrested for teaching a pug the Nazi Salute as happened in Scotland, and one could hardly imagine the official who ordered the arrest would retain his position. America remains the most heavily armed civilian population in the world, and for all her faults, she has remained the freest. These two facts are not unrelated.
It is clear that an armed citizenry in America has increased wartime effectiveness and maintained personal liberty. Far from being antiquated, the Second Amendment functions precisely as it was intended to. The AR-15 fills the same function as the longbow before it. Any argument for gun confiscation on the basis of changing times is not backed by history. Technology has evolved in the intervening centuries, but human nature has not. The tension between the governor and governed will remain until we reach Kant’s hypothetical Kingdom of Ends, and it is doubtful we ever will. Perhaps confiscating the broadly defined “assault weapon” will reduce the three percent of gun crimes committed with a rifle. However, the cost will be a drastic weakening of the military and a population reliant upon the honor of politicians to keep her ancestral rights.