I’m sure it was with much shock and horror and a little bit of “I knew it”, that many liberals greeted Thom Hartmann’s article in Truth Out claiming that “the 2nd Amendment was Ratified to Preserve Slavery”. Surely by “proving” that the reason Americans were granted the right to bear arms was to ensure the continuation of our nation’s original sin through the ability to put down slave insurrections, we can, and perhaps must, ignore or repeal that right, lest we continue in the tradition of bondage. It is a tactic all too familiar in the reframing of the American story, from Howard Zinn, to Oliver Stone. In legal terms its called “fruit of the poison tree”. By showing that the source of an action or policy was malicious, we must condemn the action and policy in whole. In this case however, Mr. Hartmann goes a step further, by inventing an absurd causal connection between the right to bear arms and slavery. It is absolutely false that “the 2nd Amendment was Ratified to Preserve Slavery”. In fact, its not even the argument that Mr. Hartmann goes on to make beneath his shocking headline.
The concept of a constitutional right to bear arms was not new in 1789. An early antecedent was the English Bill of Rights of 1689 which granted “That the subjects which are protestants may have arms for their defence suitable to their conditions and as allowed by law”. Later the State of Pennsylvania, in 1776, would grant in their Constitution “That the people have a right to bear arms for the defence of themselves and the state; and as standing armies in the time of peace are dangerous to liberty, they ought not to be kept up; And that the military should be kept under strict subordination, to, and governed by, the civil power” Following this, in 1780, the Massachusetts Constitution would say “The people have a right to keep and to bear arms for the common defence”. Given the existence of these forerunners to the 2nd Amendment, in areas with little or no fear of slave insurrection it is untenable for Mr. Hartmann to argue that the raison d’être of the right to bear arms in the US Constitution had anything to do with slavery. In fact the same 1780 Massachusetts constitution that enshrined a right to bear arms, also freed every slave in the state.
But as I said, notwithstanding his headline, Mr. Hartman is not actually arguing that the right to bear arms had a causal relationship with slavery, presumably because he knows it is ridiculous. His claim is that in 1788 while ratifying the Constitution, several prominent politicians from Virginia, the largest slave holding state, feared that if only the Federal government could raise an army, that power might eventually threaten slavery. While it is true that Virginia, in ratifying the constitution sent demands for a Bill of Rights which included a protection for the right to bear arms, they were not the only state to do so. North Carolina, another slave state also sent similar demands, but so did New York, New Hampshire and Rhode Island. Do we really believe Rhode Island demanded a right to bear arms to protect against slave insurrection?
Ultimately, the author focuses on one word, “State” as opposed to “Country” to attempt to prove that we would have no 2nd Amendment, or that it would be a vastly different right, had that word not been changed for the nefarious purpose of preserving slavery. In his version of history those prominent Southern politicians forced James Madison to change his first draft of the amendment from: "The right of the people to keep and bear arms shall not be infringed; a well armed, and well regulated militia being the best security of a free country: but no person religiously scrupulous of bearing arms, shall be compelled to render military service in person." to the current "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." Again though, Hartmann fails to mention that both New York and Rhode Island also used the word “state”, not “country” in their demands. He also offers no evidence or source material for the assertion that the change in language from the original draft, intended to be included in the body of the constitution and the second draft, intended to be in a separate “Bill of Rights” was the result of pro slavery coercion. That change was not made by Madison alone, but by the entire Select Committee on the Bill of Rights in 1789. If any evidence exists that that committee had slavery in mind when passing the change, Hartmann does not share it.
There is great danger attendant to this kind of lazy history. It doesn’t stand up to even the least rigorous challenge, and frankly, was never intended to elucidate any truth about history. Rather, Mr. Hartmann’s polemic is another attempt to stain the American experiment and promote a progressive, illiberal agenda of limited individual rights.