As the debate around guns becomes increasingly divisive, it is important to know the original purpose of the Second Amendment.

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Paul Meany
Intellectual History Editor

Paul Meany is the Assistant Editor of Intellectual History at Lib​er​tar​i​an​ism​.org. He is interested in libertarian themes in political thought throughout ancient, medieval and early modern history.

The Second Amendment is one of the most hotly debated subjects in American politics. The text is succinct: “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 amendment allows citizens to own firearms, not only for individual protection but also for the defense of their rights against government tyranny. For some, this anti‐​government sentiment seems outdated at best, dangerously paranoid at worst. It is an especially alien concept in Europe, where gun ownership is not a culturally ingrained tradition. As the debate around guns becomes increasingly divisive, it is important to know the original purpose of the Second Amendment. Its ideological roots are deeply indebted to an Enlightenment vision of history and English Republicanism.

Not the Republican Party

When I say Republicanism, I am not referring to members of the modern day political party. Republicanism is a long and broad intellectual tradition that spans ancient Roman writers such as Cicero and Polybius, medieval Italians such as Nicolo Machiavelli, and early modern English writers such as Algernon Sidney and James Harrington. In ancient Greek and Roman political thought, there were only three possible forms of government: monarchy, aristocracy, and democracy. The choice was between the rule of the one, the few, or the many. Republicans believed that the best government would be one which utilizes all three forms of government, thus balancing out the excesses of each kind while keeping their virtues. This was known as a mixed constitutional form of government. In addition to a mixed constitution, Republicans advocated for a separation of powers to stop any one individual or group from dominating the political process. But a well designed government was not enough. Republicans thought civic virtue was needed in tandem with a sound governmental architecture. What they meant by “civic virtue” was a commitment to the common good and a sense of patriotism. If all of these elements–the mixed constitution, the separation of powers, and civic virtue–were present, republicans believed liberty could prevail and tyranny would be held at bay.

18th‐​century Views on the Nature of History

Heavily influenced by the scientific thought of Isaac Newton, the Founders like John Adams believed that the same cause would produce the same effect. This idea of cause and effect was applied to history as a rudimentary science of how best to promote liberty and curb power. The Founders believed that power and liberty were in constant conflict, with power consistently overcoming liberty due to humanity’s weak will in the face of the temptation of power.

They found the solution to the corrupting nature of political power in the works of English Republican writers. Republicans argued emphatically against standing armies as they believed that they promoted tyranny. Standing armies promoted tyranny because they paid their members to fight, making them similar to mercenaries. A true patriot fought on behalf of a cause, not a pay cheque. Professional armies were viewed as rapacious mercenaries who would perform anything their masters bidded as long as the price was right. Rather than professional armies providing national defence, they proposed instead the maintenance of citizen militias as a check on despotic power and as a method of promoting and renewing personal virtues.

Long before the Age of Enlightenment, the ancient Greeks believed that the power of tyche (chance or luck) played a key role in human affairs; the Romans characterised fortune as a fickle woman due to her unpredictable nature. Later, medieval Europeans believed that fortune was an officer of God’s will and a “terrifying instrument of divine providence.” In contrast, at the dawn of the Enlightenment Newton’s advances in science portrayed an ordered world with rules governing its every action. Enlightenment thinkers believed that ascribing events to chance simply reflected ignorance of the cause of an event. Humanity was now to be governed by the ordered rules of the universe, rather than the whims of chance.

The language of cause and effect began to dominate philosophical discussion. For example, the analogy of God as a watchmaker was evoked by thinkers such as William Paley: God created the universe, but the universe ran itself based on a set of rules operating without His direct interference. Importantly, it was believed that humans could discover these rules and thus learn how the world functioned. These ideas–cause and effect and the proposition that universal rules govern the universe–were transplanted into the study of history. History was effectively secularized, there was no divine intervention, only human action. Enlightenment thinkers believed that by examining history, they could perfect human affairs. Edward Gibbons, summarising the Enlightenment view of history, exclaimed that “history is the science of cause and effects.”

Liberty and Power: Hunter and Hunted

Along with this view of history a conception of human nature became common amongst the Founding generation’s view of the duality of power and liberty. The Founding generation viewed power as a kind of natural predator that preys on a delicate liberty. To the Founders power was, simply put, the active domination of some over others. The nature of power was constantly contrasted with the nature of liberty, which, delicate and passive, was to be defended while power, robust and brutally active, was to be resisted.

The Founders did not view power as inherently evil. It was considered a necessary aspect of organizing a community in a peaceful manner; therefore, a degree of power was necessary to defend liberty. The problem was that mankind is prone to a fatal tendency towards corruption due to the temptations of power. Power contorted people into immoral and greedy despots. Samuel Adams aptly states that “the depravity of mankind that ambition and lust of power above the law are…predominant passions in the breasts of most men.” The temptations of power were considered so strong and pernicious that even “the united considerations of reason and religion’ are not ‘sufficiently powerful to restrain the lusts of men.” Human will is weak. Power, like a strong drink, intoxicates people, turning formerly good people into the most rapacious tyrants.

When combined with the idea of universal history, the impotence of the human will in the face of power’s temptation meant that humanity’s existence was a grim affair. Power was always expanding and growing, while liberty was perpetually on the brink of extinction. John Adams described liberty as “hunted and persecuted in all countries by cruel power.” Writers who greatly influenced the American Revolutionaries, such as David Hume, John Trenchard, and Machiavelli, all agreed that what happened before will come to fruition yet again if similar circumstances persist. Put simply, the same causes will produce the same effects. This meant history was a grim tapestry of human folly.

Yet however miserable the historical record seemed, there remained brief periods of freedom in certain societies such as the Roman and Italian republics. The Founders believed they could learn from history by discerning under what conditions liberty had flourished and power was tamed. What, they asked, was the cause of despotic power’s constant victories over liberty?

This is where it is vital to understand the English Republican tradition. Republican writers believed the key to disarming tyranny was to oppose the maintenance of standing armies during times of peace. Their position stemmed from three main beliefs: a general skepticism of and opposition to standing armies, a commitment to citizen militias as a check on despotic power, and, finally, the belief that a virtuous population owned property and bore arms.

Why Oppose Standing Armies?

This tradition of opposition to standing armies, later adopted by the English Republicans and American Founders, can be traced back to Machiavelli in Renaissance Italy in 1520 A.D. Machiavelli, in his treatise The Art of War , believed that in a republic every citizen should bear the burden of military service. While every citizen was to take part in the military, it was to be the profession of none. Gesturing towards Republican Rome, Machiavelli states that Rome thrived when “there was never any soldier who made war his only occupation.” Citizen militias defend the liberty of all, but also renew civic virtue. Machiavelli also blamed the decline of Rome to the professionalization of soldiering under Marius and later emperors. Machiavelli’s ideas were popular among the English Republicans ____ centuries later who shared his belief that the key to maintaining a stable and free republic was a citizen militia ready to take up arms against any possible oppression, foreign or domestic.

English Republicans who followed Machiavelli as a guide believed that the main tool of a despot or tyrant was the pernicious influence of a standing professional army during times of peace. The professional army earned their wages by following their master’s orders. This meant their allegiance was to those who paid them, not to the citizenry at large. Because of this, some feared that having a professional standing army would allow potential despots to easily subdue and oppress the populace. Typical of the Republican ethos, John Trenchard wrote, “Unhappy nations have lost that precious jewel liberty…[because] their necessities or indiscretion have permitted a standing army to be kept amongst them.”

On the other hand, citizen militias existed only to defend their own property and liberty. They did not fight for wages; instead they would be called to arms out of their own self‐​interest and sense of duty to the nation. Because of their attachment to their property, they would also not take part in unnecessary foreign wars of expansion.

The Citizen’s Resistance to Despotism

On the topic of standing armies, Andrew Fletcher warned emphatically that “he that is armed, is always a master of the purse of him that is unarmed.” Racked with a constant fear of corrupt authority, republicans stressed the importance of a citizens militia. The maintenance of militias and the support of citizen’s rights to arm themselves are both key features of Republican thought. John Trenchard and Walter Moyle summarised these views in An Argument showing that a Standing Army is inconsistent with a Free Government, and absolutely destructive to the Constitution of the English Monarchy. Similar views were also espoused in Trenchard and Thomas Gordon’s collection of essays known as Cato’s Letters. These authors agreed on the premise that “a Man that hath a Sword by his side, shall have least occasion to make use of it.”

The primary function of a citizen militia was to be a check upon centralized power. Gordon and Trenchard affirmed that “a general exercise of the best of their people in the use of arms was the only bulwark of their liberties; this was reckon’d the surest way to preserve them both at home and abroad.” Discussing the benefits of militias, the Republican James Burgh believed “there is no end to observations on the difference between the measures likely to be pursued by a minister backed by a standing army and those of a court awed by the fear of an armed people.” Militias were a fundamental aspect of the republican order. They represented the true will of the people and acted as a protector of their cherished liberties. The militia was considered a check upon the encroaching hand of power, even if they never actually fired a single shot. Just the idea of armed cohorts of citizens throughout the country would make central authorities think twice before acting.

Akin to the classical societies they praised, Republicans aimed to make soldiering the practice of all but the profession of none. William Blackstone most eloquently summarised this idea stating, “In a land of liberty it is extremely dangerous to make a distinct order of the profession of arms.” Francis Hutcheson developed a theory of rotational service in which people would be part of a militia for a few years at a time and then return to their own private lives. Hutcheson believed this idea would be both prudent in the defence of the nation and promotion of virtue. It would allow for a large stock of trained troops in case of a national emergency and would foster “reputable virtuous citizens, many of them having valuable stakes in their country.” In short, there ought to be no distinction between soldier and citizen in the Republican society.

Virtue, Property and Arms

James Harrington was the first English Republican to adapt and expand upon Machiavelli’s views in his book The Commonwealth of Oceania . Where Machiavelli linked the bearing of arms with citizenship, Harrington linked the bearing of arms with owning property. Harrington believed that a citizen militia, ideally composed of economically independent freeholders of property, was the key to a free republic. He based his idea of property as a qualifier for citizenship on the model of the Roman Republic—property ownership was essential for a militia member because if people were invested in the land they lived on, they would defend it more adamantly since “where the owner of the plough comes to have the sword, too, he will use it in defence of his own.” The ownership of property meant that a citizen was qualified to bear arms in defence of his country. This duality of property and arms is vital to the Republican notion of citizenship. James Burgh argued that “a militia consisting of any others than men of property in a country, is no militia but a mungral army.” Similarly, Blackstone argued that the Roman empire collapsed when defence was in the interest of the “rabble of Italy.” Militiamen ought to be personally invested in the society that they are charged with protecting.

English Republicans had a fierce distrust of centralized power as corrupting to a person’s character. One important tool of a corrupt central authority was the standing army because its soldiers had allegiance to no one except those who paid their wages. To combat the possibility of a standing army, Republicans believed a citizen militia ought to be maintained to protect the liberty of the people. However, a citizen militia alone would not suffice. A robust character also had to be cultivated by property ownership, which promoted the agrarian virtues of frugality, industry, independence, and courage. Economic independence and the bearing of arms were considered prerequisites of Republican citizenship.

Republicanism across the Atlantic

The views of English Republicans were extremely popular in the colonies during the American Revolution. In public and private libraries, Harrington’s Commonwealth of Oceana was owned by 7% of libraries, Algernon Sidney’s works were held by 25%, and Cato’s Letters were held by a staggering 40% of libraries. The works of Harrington, Sidney, Hutcheson, Blackstone, Gordon, and Trenchard were owned by a wide array of the Founding Fathers, including Josiah Quincy, John Adams, Thomas Jefferson, George Mason, and Samuel Adams. In Josiah Quincy’s last will and testament, he wished to give his son the works of influential authors including Thomas Gordon, John Trenchard, and Algernon Sidney. He believed these authors were essential for his son to learn about a free society. After saying he would bestow these authors’ works to his son, he wrote: “May the spirit of liberty rest upon him!” Throughout the country, English Republicans were constantly quoted in major newspapers, pamphlets and speeches.

American Opposition to Standing Armies

Many of the newly formed states’ bills of rights contained articles dealing with the problems of standing armies, militias, and the right to possess arms. Virginia’s Bill of Rights contained all of these issues in one article reading “that a well‐​regulated militia, composed of the body of the people, trained to arms, is the proper, natural and safe defence of a free state; that standing armies, in times of peace, should be avoided, as dangerous to liberty; and that in all cases military power should be under strict subordination to, and governed by the civil power.” Both the Federalists and Anti‐​Federalists agreed that citizen militias were the guarantors of liberty. The concept of militias as an essential institution to the flourishing of liberty was a widely held belief during the revolutionary period.

American colonists viewed themselves as a free nation surrounded by a world filled with despotic kings. According to George Mason, “North America is the only great nursery of freemen now left upon the face of the earth.” According to the Founders, Europe was dominated by kings and nobles who had disarmed their people. By depriving them of self‐​defence, despots could easily oppress them and strip them of their liberties through the domination of standing armies. Josiah Quincy believed professional standing armies made “wicked ministers more audacious.” For Quincy, a paid soldier was but a “slave among freemen” who had no reason to protect the rights of any but their master.

In contrast to this vision of Europe, America had supposedly retained its liberties through, according to James Madison, “the advantage of being armed, which the Americans possess over the people of almost every other nation.” While this sentiment may seem a bit self‐​congratulatory, it was not a view held solely by Americans. The former British army member Charles Lee wrote in a widely circulated pamphlet that “the Yeomanry of America…are accustomed from their infancy to firearms; they are expert in the use of them.” He lamented that in England, “by tyranny of certain laws,” Englishmen were widely ignorant of the use of arms. English Republicans saw America as a proof of concept; it was a nation free of tyranny due to its opposition to standing armies and its tradition of bearing arms. They used this depiction of America as a nation of virtuous farmers bearing arms as a way to chastise the luxurious hedonism of England, a departure from their own honourable history of yeoman farmers.

Virtuous Republic

The idealized vision of Roman farmers . The Roman poets Virgil and Horace praised the agrarian lifestyle resulting in their poems being devoured by American landowners. The American diplomat and poet Joel Barlow, in his poem The Hasty Pudding, praised the simple virtues of rural life. Thomas Jefferson believed that “our government will remain virtuous for many centuries; as long as they are chiefly agricultural.” Orators augmented their speeches by referencing the virtues of the Roman Republics soldiers and encouraging civic duty with the language of the English Republicans. The Republican vision of independent farmers with a robust sense of independence was naturally appealing to those American colonists who were agrarian landholders. The Founders believed that no republic could survive for any length of time without a virtuous population dedicated to the collective protection of liberty. The virtue of Americans was promoted by their attachment to their property in a similar manner which the preceding English Republicans had described.

It is worth noting that while republicans talked a great deal about the importance of property ownership to promoting virtue and liberty, all too often they were hypocrites in regards to the role of women and slaves in their idealized vision of society. Slaves were denied their freedom, but even once freed they were commonly denied the right to bear arms. Similarly, women were overlooked. Female property ownership was typically subordinated to male heads of household, which also meant that women could not take part in the militia system. This is not to say women played no part in republican thought, but the role they played was restrained by their gender. Thus the republican vision of a militia was one which only included free, white, property‐​owning men.

This view of American agrarian virtue was not solely espoused by Americans. The English preacher Richard Price used the idea of American agrarian virtue to criticize the current state of English society. In Price’s Observations on the Importance of the American Revolution: And the Means of Making it a Benefit to the World, he argued that the Yeomanry of America were the best protectors of liberty due their virtuous rustic lifestyle. Similarly, the English politician Matthew Robinson‐​Morris Rokeby described the state of liberty in England as “the last snuff of an expiring lamp.” On the other hand, Rokeby believed America was inhabited by “a new and uncorrupted people.”

Anachronistic Elements of Republican Thought

The idea of a citizen militia quickly receded into the background following the Whiskey Rebellion during the 1790s. While the rebellion had been successfully quelled with little bloodshed, it exposed the disorganized nature of militias and their lack of experience. The Whiskey Rebellion played a key role in the early expansion of the American military as a standing army.

Without examining the origins of the Second Amendment, it is impossible to understand why the Founders feared centralized authority. They believed that the historical track record of nations with professional armies justified their fear of unchecked federal power. The standing army was condemned as an enemy of liberty and a tool of tyrants. Instead, a militia made up of propertied citizens would defend the newly founded country not only from foreign invaders but also from rapacious statesmen.

Contemporary supporters of the second amendment often stress the importance of the individual right to bear arms, but they commonly ignore the original intent of the second amendment, namely to curb the growth of an expansive professional military. Citizen militias were, at least in theory, meant to curb the growth of a professional military because a standing army is capable of subduing the very citizens they are meant to serve. In 2008, following the Supreme Court case District of Columbia v. Heller, the courts ruled that the right to bear arms existed outside of the context of a militia. Justice Antonin Scalia claimed that this was a return to the “original understanding” of the Second Amendment. Regardless of whether the Second Amendment protects the right of individuals to own weapons privately, it is undeniable that the Second Amendment was implemented to avoid the problems associated with a standing army.