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Sunday, December 27, 2020

Why Frederick Douglass, JFK, and Sam Adams Saw the Second Amendment as a Right That Preserves All Others

A single look at Biden’s ”Plan to End Gun Violence” demonstrates the Second Amendment is on life support.

Image credit: FEE Composite

At a campaign event in New Hampshire earlier this year, Joe Biden addressed the topic of individual gun ownership and offered a glimpse into how progressive politicians view those who believe the Second Amendment to be sacrosanct.

“Those who say ‘The tree of liberty is watered with the blood of patriots,’ a great line, well, guess what? The fact is, if you’re going to take on the government, you need an F-15 with Hellfire missiles,” said Biden. “There is no way an AK-47 is going to take care of you.”

Of course Biden butchered the paraphrased quote. The “tree of liberty” line stems from a letter written by Thomas Jefferson to William Stephens Smith, the son-in-law of John Adams.

“What country can preserve its liberties if their rulers are not warned from time to time that their people preserve the spirit of resistance? Let them take arms,” Jefferson wrote. “The remedy is to set them right as to facts, pardon and pacify them. What signify a few lives lost in a century or two? The tree of liberty must be refreshed from time to time with the blood of patriots and tyrants.”

Unsurprisingly, Biden left out the “tyrants” part in his original talking point.

Given the fact that President Donald Trump has been frequently compared to some of the worst dictators in history, one would think Jefferson’s quote would be held in high esteem rather than mocked. After all, the threat of an authoritarian winning control of the United States government was a primary reason the founders included the Second Amendment in the Bill of Rights.

Unfortunately a single look at Biden’s ”Plan to End Gun Violence” demonstrates the Second Amendment, as originally conceived, is on life support. Biden’s plan would end online gun sales, expand the federal background check system, and hold firearm manufacturers accountable for gun crimes committed by others.

“It’s within our grasp to end our gun violence epidemic and respect the Second Amendment, which is limited,” Biden says.

The Second Amendment was not limited in scope at the time of inception, in part because it was put in place as a bulwark against the despotism and tyranny that could arise out of an all-powerful government and standing army. Any cursory review of the writings of many of the founding fathers would support that.

However, we don’t need to hearken back to the colonial era to understand the importance of the Second Amendment. One of America’s most revered Democratic Presidents, John F Kennedy, stressed the importance of an armed citizenry during a commemorative message on Roosevelt Day in 1961:

“In my own native state of Massachusetts, the battle for American freedom was begun by the thousands of farmers and tradesmen who made up the Minute Men―citizens who were ready to defend their liberty at a moment’s notice. Today we need a nation of minute men; citizens who are not only prepared to take up arms, but citizens who regard the preservation of freedom as a basic purpose of their daily life and who are willing to consciously work and sacrifice for that freedom. The cause of liberty, the cause of America, cannot succeed with any lesser effort.”

It’s important to note that JFK preserved the link between the “Minute Men” of America’s Revolutionary period and ordinary modern-day American citizens. Unfortunately, that linkage tends to be broken whenever there is a debate over the “true meaning” of the Second Amendment.

“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 text reads.

Proponents of gun control tend to focus on the first half of the Second Amendment, citing the phrase “a well regulated Militia,” and believe the right to keep and bear arms should only be exercised through “official” state-run (and regulated) military organizations such as today’s National Guard.

Second Amendment supporters, on the other hand, tend to quote the latter half of the amendment a bit more, stressing “the right of the people” to keep and bear arms.

Like Kennedy, I don’t believe there is a need to parse the Second Amendment. Understanding the entire text, and its roots in American History, is essential to making the argument for individual as well as collective gun ownership.

Without going into a full blown history lesson, “well regulated” in the 18th century had a slightly different meaning than the word “regulated” does today. Around the time of the writing of the Constitution, “well regulated” referred to something being in proper working order, calibrated correctly and functioning as expected. And who were the militia?

Each colony had its own militia laws, but at the time, the militia was mostly made up of all able-bodied males between the ages of 18-45. Most importantly, individual militiamen were responsible for equipping themselves. Simply put, individuals equipped with their own firearms, came together to form a militia.

With that in mind, securing our individual rights has always been inextricably linked to our ability to collectively defend them. We need look no further than Samuel Adams.

“Among the natural rights of the colonists are these: First a right to life, secondly to liberty, and thirdly to property; together with the right to defend them in the best manner they can,” said Adams.

This sentiment has become even more relevant today as we struggle through draconian lockdowns and restrictions due to the COVID-19 pandemic. State governments around the country have taken extreme actions that include closing businesses, infringing upon the right to worship, and even restricting the amount of people allowed inside one’s own home.

Against this backdrop, to suggest the Second Amendment should be further restricted would surely concern many historical champions of liberty.

In response to these authoritarian acts, armed citizens in Michigan took it upon themselves to protest against the coronavirus restrictions put in place by their state government. During a time when rights are continuously under assault, bearing arms can serve as a buttress for constitutionally protected speech that might otherwise be suppressed.

Against this backdrop, to suggest the Second Amendment should be further restricted would surely concern many historical champions of liberty.

The great American social reformer and abolitionist Frederick Douglass, who having escaped the horrors of (government-sanctioned) slavery, understood the vital role firearms played in preserving individual freedom.

“…the liberties of the American people were dependent upon the ballot-box, the jury-box, and the cartridge-box; that without these no class of people could live and flourish in this country, Douglass wrote in his autobiography, Life and Times of Frederick Douglass.

It has been said that these three boxes, combined with the “soap box“ of free speech, make up the foundational rights of a free people.

The best work we can do as a free people is secure the one right capable of securing all others.

  • Adam Johnston is a libertarian-conservative writer and contributor to (@FreeThePeople)