Morality and the Origins of the Second Amendment
Religion & Liberty Online

Morality and the Origins of the Second Amendment

Some politicians are calling for new regulation and restrictions on firearms, but why and how does the Second Amendment strengthen liberty? In a thoughtful post at the Carolina Journal today, Troy Kickler offers this historical assessment:

What did early jurists and constitutional commentators say regarding the Second Amendment? St. George Tucker in View of the Constitution of the United States (1803), the first systematic commentary on the Constitution after its ratification, describes the Second Amendment to be “the true palladium of liberty.”

As the preservation of the statue of Pallas in mythological Troy — the Palladium — needed to be protected for the ancient city’s preservation, so the Virginian believed that the amendment ensured liberty’s protection in the United States. If the nation had a “standing army” — Revolutionary era-Americans’ description for a full-time, professional army — while individual Americans were denied the “right to keep and bear arms,” then “liberty, if not already annihilated,” Tucker wrote, “is on the brink of destruction.”

To Tucker, the Second Amendment is the linchpin that ensures the existence of all the other liberties.

Tucker was not alone. Although U.S. Supreme Court Justice Joseph Story believed the national government should have more authority than did Tucker, both jurists interpreted the Second Amendment as liberty’s safeguard. In 1833, Story noted in his influential Commentaries of the Constitution: “The right of the citizens to keep and bear arms has justly been considered as the palladium of the liberties of the republic, since it offers a strong moral check against the usurpation and arbitrary power of rulers, and will generally, even if these are successful in the first instance, enable the people to resist and triumph over them.”

These jurists repeated a widespread interpretation that had been practiced by the states. The first state constitutions — which remained unaltered and in effect after the Constitution’s ratification — protected individual rights to possess and bear arms and allowed for a state militia.

I’ve argued before that attacks on the Second Amendment is an attack against the very notion of self-government. What good reason would Americans have to trust a government that doesn’t trust free citizens with arms? There is an essential moral point here, and that is the American Founders simply stated that power is inherent in the people. Or as Ronald Reagan put it, “We are a nation that has a government–not the other way around.”

In Federalist #46, James Madison points out that many of the European states do not trust their people with arms, and therefore liberty is not held among the people. Furthermore, Madison argues in America, it is the duty of the armed citizen to be liberty’s ultimate defender. That has to be true for a government where the power and rights are inherent in the people.

Unfortunately, we are losing the deeper ties to self-government almost daily, and the lack of morality and virtue in society is a cancer that threatens these truths for all of us. As we’ve seen through history, collectivism knows no limits when it comes to terror and subjugation. That’s why self-government and all of our inherent rights are essential, and a moral bedrock for a free society.

Ray Nothstine

Ray Nothstine is editor at the Civitas Institute in Raleigh, North Carolina. Previously, he was managing editor of Acton Institute's Religion & Liberty quarterly. In 2005 Ray graduated with a Master of Divinity (M.Div) degree from Asbury Theological Seminary in Wilmore, Ky. He also holds a B.A. in Political Science from The University of Mississippi in Oxford.