In an interview with right-wing radio talk-show host Roger Fredinburg, Larry Pratt, the executive director of Gun Owners of America, told listeners that their Second Amendment rights were about removing government officials, such as President Obama, who violate their constitutionally guaranteed liberties. This suggests that the Second Amendment aimed to empower citizens who wished to threaten or kill government officials who they believed had overstepped constitutionally-mandated limits on their power. Anyone who has read the American Declaration of Independence will understand where Larry Pratt came up with this notion. Due to its conflicts with the French crown, the British monarch was burdened by ever increasing revenue shortfalls and believed its overseas colonies in the Americas could help it make up the difference. Successful American business interests, north and south, accused the British monarch of overstepping his authority. Yet the real victims were common laborers, farmers, and tradesmen upon whose shoulders the new taxes ultimately fell. Seeing an opportunity to gain full control over trade along the western Atlantic seaboard, southern and northern elites began to stir up discontent among those most burdened by British taxation policy. Since the British monarch was not keen on American insurgents using arms against Great Britain’s garrisoned troops, the right to bear arms became key to the struggle for American independence. Thus a virulent narrative arose surrounding the right to bear arms — a narrative promoted by the economic elites who wished to use an American revolution to gain control over Atlantic trade.
This is the narrative trotted out by Glenn Beck, Rush Limbaugh, Sean Hannity and others. They are not making it up. It is real. And in 1776 it served its purpose. In ale houses and church basements all across the the western Atlantic seaboard, church women spent their evenings building IEDs and packing charges so that their men folk could engage in low-level insurgent activity against British occupying forces. They had a right to independence, a right a bear arms, and a right to rise up against those in authority with whom they disagreed. Its all there in the Declaration of Independence.
But then something happened that southern and northern business leaders had not anticipated. Those farmers and labourers and tradesmen whom the Declaration’s signatories had authorized to take up arms won a war for independence. And when their congressional delegations failed to follow through on such simple matters as compensating them for their service, protecting their land rights against wealthy speculators, providing a stable currency, or even granting them the right to vote, these same labourers, farmers, and tradesmen took up arms — their right — against their newly elected government.
And this is about the moment that Glenn, Rush, and Sean stopped reading US history. Because they don’t tell you what happened next. All of their heroes — Patrick Henry, Thomas Paine, Sam Adams, James Monroe? Not one of them was invited to the Convention in 1787. Not one. Why? Because they were all anti-federalists. And from top to bottom, beginning to end, the US Constitution was written and signed by federalists. Moreover, the instigating cause for convening a new convention and writing a new constitution was illegal activity by the very folk Glenn, Rush, and Sean celebrate. Daniel Shays was only the most infamous case of grassroots opposition to the new regime. Taxpayer and title revolts were legion across the states. And, just as they had in 1776, so in 1786, American citizens, only five-in-one hundred of whom actually held the right to vote, took up arms to get their way. It was after finally suppressing Daniel Shays rebellion that Congress decided to convene another constitutional convention and write a new constitution to replace the Articles of Confederation.
What was wrong with the Articles of Confederation? Everything. Here is what Edmund Randolph said when he introduced the Virginia Plan, upon which our actual US Constitution is based:
In speaking of the defects of the Confederation, he professed a high respect for its authors, and considered them as having done all that patriots could do, in the then infancy of the science of constitutions and of confederacies; when the inefficiency of requisitions was unknown — no commercial discord had arisen among any states — no rebellion has appeared, as in Massachusetts — foreign debts had not become urgent — the havoc of paper money had not been foreseen— treaties had not been violated; and perhaps nothing better could be obtained, from the jealousy of the states with regard to their sovereignty.
He then proceeded to enumerate the defects: —
First, that the Confederation produced no security against foreign invasion; Congress not being permitted to prevent a war, nor to support it by their own authority. Of this he cited many examples; most of which tended to show theft they could not cause infractions of treaties, or of the law of nations, to be punished; that particular states might, by their conduct, provoke war without control; and that, neither militia nor drafts being fit for defence on such occasions, enlistments only could be successful, and these could not be executed without money.
Secondly, that the federal government could not check the quarrel between states, nor a rebellion in any, not having constitutional power, nor means, to interpose according to the exigency.
Thirdly, that there were many advantages which the United States might acquire, which were not attainable under the Confederation; such as a productive impost, counteraction of the commercial regulations of other nations, pushing of commerce ad libitum, &c., &c.
Fourthly, that the federal government could not defend itself against encroachments from the states.
Fifthly, that it was not even paramount to the state constitutions, ratified as it was in many of the states.
He next reviewed the danger of our situation; and appealed to the sense of the best friends of the United States to the prospect of anarchy from the laxity of government every where–and to other considerations.
He then proceeded to the remedy; the basis of which, he said, must be the republican principle. (Elliot’s Debates, Vol 5, Tuesday, May 29, 1787)
So, what was wrong? It was difficult to collect taxes; it was impossible to regulate commerce; it was difficult to suppress popular rebellion (see Massachusetts); without the authority to tax, it was difficult to pay foreign debts; without a single, centralized, currency authority, havoc of paper money reigned — all from jealousy of the states with regard to their sovereignty. But that is not all. Congress was not authorized to declare war. But even did it have this authority, it could not muster troops and, without the authority to tax, it could not pay them. The federal authorities had no authority to mediate among the states or put down rebellion in any of them. It could not tax corporations. The federal government could not defend itself against the states.
At each point, the Virginia Plan and subsequent US Constitution went counter not simply to Daniel Shays’ sentiments, but also to the convictions of Patrick Henry, Thomas Paine, Sam Adams, James Monroe and their band of anti-federalists. And, now, Glenn, Rush, and Sean want you to believe that the Second Amendment was written to protect and empower Daniel Shays by giving him the authority and right to oppose with arms the duly constituted authorities? On every other point the US Constitution was federalist and republican; but on this point it was anti-federalist and anti-republican?
The Second Amendment empowered citizens militias to put down revolts such as Shays’. It creates the basis for defense of federal authority against vigilante justice. It does not authorize citizens to rise up against the federal government.
At least the early anti-federalists played fair. They agreed that the US Constitution was a federalist document. And they made it crystal clear that they opposed the US Constitution. Today’s anti-federalists use deceit and bald-faced lies, suggesting that the US Constitution is itself an anti-federalist document. How do they get away with it? First, in the absence of any federal standards for education, anti-federalist teachers are free to lie and deceive gullible students and, in the southern United States, are even encouraged to do so. Remember white, poor southerners have never quite owned up to how, from the very beginning, they have been played by white, rich southerners. (Freed slaves will take your jobs, your land, and your wives.) That means historically they have always been inclined to take positions against their own self-interest. Second, even those southern representatives who signed the US Constitution, did so with grave reservations and only with the addition of the 3/5ths clause that gave them greater representation in the House without granting “their property” actual civil rights and liberties. Why did they support the Constitution? Mostly because they wanted a stable currency, regulated interstate commerce, and, most important off all, they wanted northern states to commit to helping them put down slave revolts when, not if, these should occur. The 3/5ths clause sugar-coated the US Constitution for southern representatives. With the threat of emancipation, however, in 1861, most southerners reverted to their anti-federalist selves.
And that’s where guns come into play. Since 1786, the anti-federalists have harbored a not so secret hostility to the federal government. Are they traitors? Absolutely. Outspoken. They hate the United States. And they have always held in reserve the right to overthrow the government. Remember, they actually tried that in 1861 and failed. Of course, this didn’t prevent them from reintroducing nearly all of the institutions of slavery in the 1870s, or opposing federal law in the 1960s. So Platt’s threat against the President’s life is not so unusual as it might at first appear. Roughly half the nation is, on principle, opposed to the US Constitution, opposed to its federalism, and opposed to its republican ideals. Nothing would please this fifty percent more than an armed insurrection, just like 1776. And, so they can even fashion themselves as true “patriots.”
Yet, as Randolph pointed out in May 1787, these patriots, just like the original ones, were mistaken. The United States needed a strong, centralized, legal and political authority, which is what the US Constitution provided. In any other nation, folks like Pratt would be tried and locked up for open threats to the republic. In the United States, however, public opinion is divided. Roughly half the nation would scrap the Constitution. And apparently many would even take up arms to make it so.