The argument over the Second Amendment routinely centers on guns. But our Second Amendment right to “keep and bear arms” has just as much to do with casting off the stratification of the social class system and buttressing religious freedom.
The Bill of Rights solidifies a number of beliefs and rights discussed in the body of the United States Constitution and the Declaration of Independence.
The Declaration of Independence cites “the Laws of Nature and of Nature’s God” plus the famous words “they are endowed by their Creator,” and Article VI of the Constitution states “no religious test shall ever be required as a qualification to any office or public trust under the United States.” These religious beliefs and freedoms are solidified in the Bill of Rights First Amendment, “Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof.”
Two grievances listed in the Declaration of Independence are “For depriving us in many cases, of the benefits of Trial by Jury” and “For transporting us beyond Seas to be tried for pretended offences.” While the Constitution under Article 1 sec 9.2 states “The Privilege of the Writ of Habeas Corpus shall not be suspended.” These rights are solidified in the Bill of Rights Fifth Amendment — “No person shall be held to answer for a capital, or otherwise infamous crime, unless on presentation or indictment of a Grand Jury” — and Sixth Amendment: “the accused shall enjoy the right to a speedy and public trial, by an impartial jury of the State and district wherein the crime shall have been committed.”
One cannot discuss the Bill of Rights independently but must consider it within a broader discussion encompassing two other pillars of our system of government: the Declaration of Independence and the Constitution.
Today people immediately consider “arms” to be guns. But in the long run-up to American independence — in medieval, pre-colonial and colonial times — arms for “bearing” were usually edged weapons, especially swords.
The Metropolitan Museum of Art tells us that in medieval times “generally speaking only noblemen were allowed to carry a sword in public.”
Plinio Correa de Oliveira writes in “What is the Symbol of Nobility and Power? And Why?” that “The people of the Middle Ages regarded the sword with a certain profundity, esteeming it as a symbol of man’s God-given nobility.”
In “Warrior Pursuits: Noble Culture and Civil Conflict in Early Modern France” Brian Sandberg writes “The early seventeenth century jurist Charles Loyseau points out that ‘all nobles except those of the long robe have the right to bear the sword as the insignia and mark of nobility.”
As guns became more prevalent, swords took on even greater symbolism of higher class.
Ben Miller in “Fencing in Colonial America and the Early Republic: 1620 – 1800” makes repeated reference to fencing as “the noble art’ or “the noble science.” He also tells us that the Virginia fencing master, Edward Blackwell stated: “In fine, Air in Wearing, and Skill in Using a SWORD, are such additional Accomplishments to a Gentleman, that he is never esteem’d polite and well bred without them.”
Webster’s 1828 Dictionary defining arms notes that “for common soldiers a sword is not necessary.”
There was often religious — as well as class — restrictions on such “arms.” As far back as 1181, the English Assize of Arms required freemen to maintain a lance for defense of the King, but specifically restricted Jews from maintaining arms. In District of Columbia et al. v. Heller Justice Antonin Scallia, delivering the majority opinion, discussed other historical instances of access to arms denied based on religious affiliation.
The prerogative to “bear arms” of the day, specifically the sword, was a right, privilege and symbol of nobility denied to the commoner and often subject to a “religious test.”
There is no reference to citizen’s arms in the Declaration of Independence or the body of the Constitution — but there is ample evidence regarding equality and prohibitions against nobility. Our Declaration of Independence reflects all men have an “equal station” and “all men are created equal…” while the United States Constitution declares under Article 1 Sec 9.8 “No Title of Nobility shall be granted by the United States” and in Sec 10.1 forbids the states from granting “any Title of Nobility.”
Under the Second Amendment, while “keep… arms” bolsters the First Amendment’s guaranteed religious freedom, the right to “bear arms” solidified the Constitutional rejection of “Titles of Nobility” and reaffirmed that “all men are created equal” with an “equal station” as stated in the Declaration of Independence.
I wonder if opposition to the Second Amendment’s right of people to “bear arms” might also be — at some level — a rejection of the “equal station” of all people, a reaffirmation of a sort of “Nobility,” a sense of privilege by an established “professional political class?”