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What the Second Amendment means

G J Boris Allan

After gaining independence, the white inhabitants (citizens) of the United States worried about King George III and his armies, but – closer to home – they feared the consequences of having so many oppressed chattels (slaves) in their midst. These fears did not go away, and in 1821 Thomas Jefferson wrote “Nothing is more certainly written in the book of fate than that these people [slaves] are to be free. Nor is it less certain that the two races, equally free, cannot live in the same government.” He also recommended the “emancipation and deportation peaceably” of slaves, and that “their place be pari passu filled up by free white laborers.” (Autobiography Draft Fragment, January 6 through July 27, 1821)

The dominant problem for those creating a constitution for the new United States of America was what was to be done about slavery, as is clear from reading the Federalist Papers and other accounts at time. Some people at the constitutional conventional convention were ashamed of slavery and others thought they had a God-given right to dominate. These two views could not be reconciled, and so it was not mentioned by name in the final constitution they were designing.

If you read the US Constitution, and look for a mention of slavery, there is no such word, though weasel words abound – the notorious “three-fifths” paragraph, and a reference to the importation of slaves (not slaves, however, but “other persons” or “such Persons”):

[Article I Section 2] Representatives and direct taxes shall be apportioned among the several States which may be included within this Union, according to their respective numbers, which shall be determined by adding to the whole number of free persons, including those bound to service for a term of years, and excluding Indians not taxed, three-fifths of all other persons. [My emphasis]


[Article I Section 9] The Migration or Importation of such Persons as any of the States now existing shall think proper to admit, shall not be prohibited by the Congress prior to the Year one thousand eight hundred and eight, but a tax or duty may be imposed on such Importation, not exceeding ten dollars for each Person. [My emphasis]

Constitution of the United States (1787), and reprinted in The Annals of Congress (Volume 1, 1834), “as originally adopted”.

A benign (and official) view of the process from the US National Archives is “The work of many minds, the Constitution stands as a model of cooperative statesmanship and the art of compromise.”

When the Bill of Rights was introduced, similar language games were in play, so here is the text of one amendment – as I think it was intended, though not as it was written:

[*Amendment II*] A well regulated Militia being necessary to defend the free population of a State from insurrections by slaves, indentured servants, or Indians, the right of adult freemen to keep and bear arms shall not be infringed.

My version.

My version would never have made the cut, because it is too explicit in areas where the meaning is usually left implicit – constitutionally, remember, there were no slaves, there were only circumlocutions: “such persons” or “other persons”.

There were many fearful people at this time, with distrust of one's fellow citizens common, and – apart from protection from non-whites – the militia was seen as protection against threats from the centralized federal government. States with substantial numbers of slaves worried about attempts by slave-free states to ban slavery in all of the states. Then – after four score years and seven – came civil war, because the country was not dedicated to the proposition that all men are created equal (as promised in the Declaration of Independence) but dedicated to preserving the rights of freemen with slaves.

Here are two weasel-style versions of the second amendment, as proposed at early meetings of the US Congress (many other versions had been proposed):

A well regulated militia, composed of the body of the people, being the best security of a free state, the right of the people to keep and bear arms shall not be infringed; but no one religiously scrupulous of bearing arms shall be compelled to render military service in person. [8 June 1789]


Article the fourth.— 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. [29 September 1789]

Congress of the United States reprinted in The Annals of Congress (Volume 1, 1834).

The militia amendment was the fourth article in a list of twelve put forward at the September meeting (the first two articles were not ratified by a sufficient number of state governments).

In essence I have replaced certain words of the 1789 proposal to reveal what I consider was the original intent, to be obscured by verbal camouflage in official versions:

Sometimes the most unlikely sources can be the most illuminating, and perhaps an accurate view of the times of the revolutionary war is, unfortunately, given in:

But it is too clear for dispute, that the enslaved African race were not intended to be included, and formed no part of the people who framed and adopted this declaration; for if the language, as understood in that day, would embrace them, the conduct of the distinguished men who framed the Declaration of Independence would have been utterly and flagrantly inconsistent with the principles they asserted; and instead of the sympathy of mankind, to which they so confidently appealed, they would have deserved and received universal rebuke and reprobation.

— Majority opinion in Scott v Sandford, US Supreme Court (1856)

Not all the “distinguished men” were perhaps as cruel as implied by this opinion, but one of the worries in the same opinion was that granting citizenship to those of African descent:

... would give to persons of the negro race ... [a list of rights and freedoms including the right] to keep and carry arms wherever they went. And all of this would be done in the face of the subject race of the same color, both free and slaves, and inevitably producing discontent and insubordination among them, and endangering the peace and safety of the State. [My emphasis]

— Majority opinion in Scott v Sandford, US Supreme Court (1856)

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