Since I first read “The ‘Nice Girl’ Who Saved the Second Amendment” on the National Review site:
I have been looking and reading and seeking to understand how a “Right To bear Arms” that was a universal right held by both the Colonists in the USA and by the British People in the home country became such a cherished right in the new country and an abolished right in the old.
Some background on me. I was born in England had a pretty good schooling in the classic mode (even had Latin class)and discovered a love of English History which has never left me. Went on to be a bit of a rolling stone (alas the kind that gathers absolutely no moss) working and living in Denmark the US and in various places in Europe.
My wife and I and kids emigrated to the USA, well I should say my wife returned to the USA accompanied by the rag-tag crowd of the rest of us clutching our green cards. I finally became a citizen in 2011 after living here for 21 years (legally I hasten to add).
My love of English history has been joined to a love of American history and particularly those magnificent documents The Declaration of Independence, The Constitution and the Bill of Rights.
Now time for a confession. In my studies of English History my initial period of interest was Roman and Anglo-Saxon and on to the Middle Ages. Like most British people – I think – I absorbed my ideas of modern “rights” through conversations with parents, friends family and so on. Also from reading newspapers, magazines, novels. In short I really did not have much of a clue about things like “free speech” or “right to bear arms” it turns out, of course, that this ignorance is a) common and b) disastrous.
About the only “right” that got any traction in history studies in school was the “right to vote”.
So when I came to the USA and started in on trying to understand the “Colonial mindset”. I went by the assumption that the USA and the UK are two separate countries and cultures and that the founding documents of the USA bore no real relation to the UK. So, when it came to gun rights for example, to my mind there was the American view and the British view and they were just different.
I assumed (there’s that word again) that we Brits had never owned guns in meaningful amounts, that “ordinary working folks” had no need for them and that it had always been that way, always. We will be re-visiting that little gem further on.
And here in the USA? Well I just assumed that there were some radicals in that radical bunch in Philadelphia who had the hots for guns. Not quite but it it was basically the mental shortcut I used to separate the concepts.
Gradually I came to the understanding (and it took a while to sink in) that the Bill of Rights and the Constitution are not instructions to individuals. They are the rules which government is permitted to live by. This was a watershed moment in my education. Government “rights” and permissions were allowed by the governed. They were not given by the government to itself. They were not powers delegated from some ruler, the Constitution was a document laying out what the governed were giving permission to the government to do. And the things they specifically told the Government it could not do.
I had, during this time, observed and taken part in on-line arguments and discussions about guns, Yanks, Brits etc. I took the stance, for the longest time, that the right to bear arms was a cherished right for Americans and that it was just different here in the USA than it was in England.
During that time I also studied the endless argument about whether or not the second amendment and the right to bear arms depends upon having an organized militia or whether it means that the statement “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” directly implies that the condition of having a well regulated militia for the security of a free state is dependent upon the citizens having the right to bear arms.
Oh the arguments about the placement of the comma. The parsing, the back and forth.
And then came the Supreme Court decision on DC v Heller.
To my lackadaisical view I was not surprised. I had not realized that there was any real debate about our right to keep and bear arms for our own use. But I felt “validated” in my view by the decision. And moved along.
Until the publication of that article I mentioned right at the top of this little piece.
I read the article and became intrigued. Who the hell was “Joyce Lee Malcolm” and why on earth would some history book be a lynchpin for a Supreme Court Decision? And , what on earth was the English Bill of Rights?
So, off to Amazon I trotted to purchase the book. Of course, no Kindle edition. I ordered the paperback ($27 ! Priced like a text book thats for sure) and then received notice from Amazon that they were all out of it and I would have to wait. Three months later it finally arrived. (If a passing thought about big corporations working to stop Constitutional rights passed through my mind during that time – could anyone blame me?).
The book is called To Keep and Bear Arms by Joyce Lee Malcolm. It is an incredible work. Seriously. The historical scholarship seems precise exacting and thorough. It is a book that requires study rather than just a quick read.
It shook my self satisfied view of this whole debate and made me realize – THERE IS NO DEBATE. A Militia is not possible unless there is a population that has the right to keep and to bear arms. The Militia comes from the people. Not from anyone else.
And why is this important? Well the English thought it was incredibly important because the existence of the Militia kept a check on the potential tyranny of the Crown. The English landed gentry and political and commercial classes were rightly terrified of standing armies – supported by enforced taxation and loyal to the central authority. While the Crown was restricted by the cost of trying to maintain a standing army – the parliament through the local militias had no such problem.
A King lost his head in this debate. And after the interregnum of Cromwellian rule. Charles the 2nd was restored to the throne.
He was restored to the throne with a wave of enthusiasm and embarked on living the Good Life and in trying to break the power of the Militia. As part of his restoration he was given the right to raise a standing professional army. His allowance from parliament was agreed upon. Throughout his reign he sought various ways to separate the peasants from their weapons and to bypass the force of the Militia. He was fairly successful at it.
He converted to Catholicism just before his death keeping his promise to the King of France who had supplied him directly with the money to raise a larger standing army than Parliament wanted or would pay for.
Charles’ death and the succession to throne of his brother, James II (Of england James VII of Scotland) proved to be the end of the Stuart rule in Britain. James was a Catholic and determined to rule as an absolute Monarch.
After just under 4 years of his reign he fled England after the protestant landed class (and vast majority in the country) sent for James’ eldest daughter Mary, who was married to William of Orange and offered them the Crown. It was called The Glorious Revolution.
As a part of ascending the throne King William signed The English Bill of Rights in 1689 which included thirteen articles but these three may sound a little familiar:
That it is the right of the subjects to petition the king, and all commitments and prosecutions for such petitioning are illegal;
That the raising or keeping a standing army within the kingdom in time of peace, unless it be with consent of Parliament, is against law;
That the subjects which are Protestants may have arms for their defence suitable to their conditions and as allowed by law;
As Professor Malcolm put it – what had been a duty before (each man was responsible for the defense of his family, property and community and had the obligation to arm himself in order to do so) had now become a right.
So by the time Independence for the Colonies was being talked about, discussed and agreed upon – the right to keep and bear arms was a right of all Englishmen (which the Colonists were of course – until that memorable declaration of Independence).
And using that right – the Colonists raised militias from their armed population to defend themselves and their new independence from the standing armies of the Crown.
I hope I have done justice to the sterling work of Professor Malcolm and that the brief background here shows the logic and necessary background for the correct reading of the Second Amendment.
Whatever happened to the Brits? How did we end up with none of this?
Well back in 1900…
Read this webpage and see how you can lose rights you never knew you had.