Was the Second Amendment Ratified to Preserve Slavery?
Some claim the Second Amendment, like the Three-Fifths Compromise, was ratified to preserve slavery. This is only partially true. Both Amendments were “about slavery,” but neither was ONLY about slavery. We explain this stance below.
The Purpose of the Second and a Militia
One can argue that the primary purpose of the second is contained clearly in the wording of the second:
“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 Second Amendment from the Bill of Rights (1791) which Amends the Constitution (1787).
In other words, first and foremost, the Second Amendment is about the need of a well regulated militia in a nation without a standing army (and therefore the right to keep and bear).
If we accept that this is the primary purpose, then other arguments, be we talking about the right to self defense or some in slave states favoring the Amendment for reasons related to slavery, are secondary.
To the extent that they are secondary, is to the extent that would shouldn’t conflate the intentions of some in ratifying the Amendment with the general consensus and purpose behind the Second.
That doesn’t mean that those secondary reasons are any less important, or that they didn’t motivate specific people and factions to ratify and preserve, it just means we shouldn’t claim they are the sole reasons the Second Amendment was ratified and is preserved.
TIP: See our page on the true meaning of the Second for the long-form overview of everything you need to know based on historical documents and modern intellectual debate. Also see our page on the Civil war and its relation to slavery, again, we have an event that had to do with slavery, but wasn’t solely about slavery (a similar argument to the one being made here).
Slave Patrols and the 2nd Amendment p1. A view on slave patrols by Thom Hartmann (a progressive left-winger), he is joined by historians (which helps keep this video somewhat centered). See an opposing view here.
TIP: Slaves’ patrols (armed and sometimes trained militiamen who put down uprisings and captured runaway slaves) were the militias of the Second Amendment in the south. In the North they, militias were different. However, in all cases their purpose was to ensure the law and the security of a free state. Meanwhile, slavery was legal at the time, so part of the job was rounding up escaped slaves, stopping uprisings, and other such awkward implementations of the then law. If the claim is that one reason the slave states supported the Second was directly related to these points, then there is weight to that claim. If however that is different than the idea that the only purpose of the second was
TIP: Don’t go thinking all the founders you know supported slavery. Some tolerated it more than others (*cough* Deep South), but some like Hamilton and Morris fought against it tooth and nail (they were “abolitionists“), and none of the big names in American history really supported the nefarious intuition outright (including the leaders of the Anti-Federalist southern faction). Furthermore, slavery was a global phenomenon that was brought to the colonies by the British (Jefferson’s justification). One reason the U.S. has such a large black population descended from slaves is that the South had a tradition of keeping their slaves alive (unlike many other places around the globe). Comparing slave states is a bit like comparing WWI to WWII in the sense that you are comparing the “not good” with the “not good.” However, we can acknowledge that the global slave trade was complicated and is a blight on the history of many nations, not just the rural south.
Journey through Slavery ep 1 of 4 – Terrible Transformation. African slavery was not a southern phenomenon, and it was not a phenomena born in the United States. Slavery is an ongoing problem that still exists today, where “the weaker” is subjugated by “the stronger” and forced to perform free labor, stripped of rights, and treated like property. Learn about Contemporary slavery including sex slavery and the prison industrial complex. If you are upset about the 1700’s and 1800′, take a closer look at the 2000’s.
The Truth About Slave Patrols and the Second Amendment
The militia’s of the Second were called “slave patrols” in the South. This isn’t because they included slaves in their ranks, but because their main job (aside from being a sort of community police force) was to put down rebellions and uprisings and capture escaped slaves.
Many rebellions and uprisings were slave rebellions, and sometimes keeping law and order meant the patrols went after escaped slaves, but this only explains part of the militia’s purpose and part of the purpose of militias and firearm rights in the south.
A primary reason behind the militias of the Second Amendment is to put down uprisings like Shays’ Rebellion and the Whiskey Rebellion and acting as a local police force or military.
The “well-regulated militias” had to be ready to be called upon by the state or federal government to do a job similar to what the National Guard or military would do today because early America had no standing army in the “early National period.”
There are a few ways to show this side of things:
- We know this from historical documents, including those which show Patrick Henry (and other founders and politicians at the time) discussing how slaves patrols could be used against southern slave states by the federal government.
- We also know the purposes of militias and the intentions of the Second because we have The Federalist: No. 29 and No. 46 which discuss militias in general.
- We also know the primary intention from the history books which make U.S. history, especially U.S. military history, rather clear.
- And, we know this from documented letters of early Americans (including the founders).
With that covered, the basic bit of logic isn’t everything that needs to be covered. Ideally we would want to find proof of the connection between the Second Amendment and the enforcing of slavery.
This is harder to come by, because it isn’t the sort of intention that wasn’t widely telegraphed as the militia part, however there are places we can look for this information as well.
One article that covers this part of the theory rather well is “the Slave-State Origins of Modern Gun Rights” written for the Atlantic. This article not only touches upon how the Second and slavery are connected, but how other gun laws and customs like open carry have a relation to issues of race.
Thus, putting aside the lack of citations, but accepting the basic logic and evidence, we can say that slavery and race were a factor in the Second and other gun laws, but the issue probably shouldn’t be summed up simply as “the reason the Second Amend was ratified was to preserve slavery – period.”
TIP: Almost all modern nations have a rule about gun rights and many about militias. The English Bill of Rights of 1869 confirms gun rights as well. The English Bill of Rights allowed Protestant citizens of England to “have Arms for their Defence suitable to their Conditions and as allowed by Law” and restricted the ability of the English Crown to have a standing army or to interfere with Protestants’ right to bear arms “when Papists were both Armed and Imployed contrary to Law” and established that Parliament, not the Crown, could regulate the right to bear arms. Gun laws in liberal states are generally about the right of self-defense, defense of property, and defense of state. In America, they were also about militias and avoiding a standing army, and in the south, they were also about controlling the slaves who were legally considered to be “property.” Thus, the Second wasn’t ONLY about slavery from a historic viewpoint. Learn more about “the Right to Keep and Bear.”
TIP: Despite the above, the Second is today used to justify collective and individual rights and the military and police do the duties of the militias of the Second. Based on reading the Bill of Rights, the Federalist papers, and documented letters from America’s founders, there is little room to make the argument that The Second Amendment was ratified ONLY to preserve slavery. That is a myth.
A LOT OF THESE CONSTITUTIONAL AND CONGRESSIONAL ODDITIES ARE ALSO PARTLY ABOUT VOTES: The Three-Fifths Compromise was also, like the Second and other amendments, in part ratified due to reasons that were related to slavery… not the act of enslavement, but the voting rights of the slave. The argument was over whether, and how, slaves should be counted when determining a state’s total population for legislative representation and taxing purposes. The eventual three-fifths compromise declared that three-fifths of a person for could be counted for taxation AND voting purposes. This led to the dominance of the Democratic Southern bloc and thus the preservation of slavery until Lincoln. Slave states had more seats in Congress and one third more electoral votes than if the compromise was not reached. It was largely the progressive Federalist/Whig/soon-to-be-Republicans of the time who opposed the compromise for political reasons, despite the fact that they were in many ways the Civil Rights party of their day. (The parties switched platforms over time, i.e., why Lincoln was a pro-north moderate-progressive).
TIP: In the time of the Constitution, through the time of the Civil War, there were accusations that Civil Rights was about “slave [voting] power.” That is a separate subject, but the term is worth researching.
Robert Ingraham on Manhattan’s Struggle for Human Freedom Against the Slave Power of Virginia. There are two sides to every story, sometimes Thom Hartmann tells his view; sometimes the LaRouche institute tells theirs. In both cases, you’ll get a biased viewpoint. If you can read through that bias and keep to the center, then you are an outlier. Outliers like James Madison and Alexander Hamilton made this country great; by opposing slavery, Hamilton and Morris are certainly more impressive.
“Much has been said of the impropriety of representing men who have no will of their own…. They are men, though degraded to the condition of slavery. They are persons known to the municipal laws of the states which they inhabit, as well as to the laws of nature. But representation and taxation go together…. Would it be just to impose a singular burden, without conferring some adequate advantage?” — Alexander Hamilton (Hamilton is of the lineage of Lincoln in regards to party politics. They are both of the line that falls out of power due to the 3/5 compromise, which favors the southern-pro-slavery Democrats, who are today’s post-64′ Republicans in terms of at the very least geographic location).
The Three-Fifths Compromise Explained: US History Review.