Thursday, December 18, 2008

Philosophical Antecedents to the Second Amendment

I leave it to legal scholars to thrash out the wording of the US Constitution and the supposed (or actual) ambiguities concerning who has the right bear arms—be it officially convened militias or independent individuals—and instead direct my attention to ponder the deeper philosophical questions the document gives rise to. To us highbrows, the thought of an armed populace seems abhorrent, at best ridiculous; but, nonetheless, the philosophical antecedents stepping up to the Second Amendment represent a fascinating thread in intellectual history evoking the very fundamentals of our traditional Western understanding of the universe, humanity, and the latter’s relationship to (and place within) the former.

In their broadest considerations, the framers of the American Bill of Rights were operating under the Augustinian assumption that the world and the people in it were corrupt, and ergo the activity of people in that world was corrupt as a matter of this essential nature. This assumption was central to Luther (an Augustinian), Calvin, and Arminius, and looking into the way these people interpreted the “fall” is instructive, and in the liberal interpretation of the concept Gnostic and antinomian notions are very important as well, especially to the Protestant traditions that lead to our constitutional rights, including the bearing of arms. Augustine claimed that political entities had a right to protect themselves. Coercive rule itself was a necessary evil upon which the well-being and preservation of society depended. Nevertheless there was no actual virtue in the state’s authority, as Augustine neatly expresses in this anecdote from The City of God (VI:4):

When [Alexander the Great] asked [a captured pirate] what he meant by infesting the sea, he boldly replied: ‘What you mean by warring on the whole world. I do my fighting on a ship, and they call me a pirate; you do yours on a large ship, and they call you Commander.
The story is suggestive of the ironic scene Golding deploys at the conclusion of The Lord of the Flies, where the boys are rescued from their island of barbarity by men from the warship ominously hovering above them in the ocean, and that ocean leading out to a world at war. Early Protestants would share Augustine’s perspective in regards to the authority of the state, and thus the state, despite its corruptions was “tolerated” out of necessity. But the sense the state itself was a corruption remained a problem, and this unsettling "truth" became something else again as the Protestant movement followed a modern turn to liberalism during the seventeenth century in the Netherlands and England.

And it was after all this modern turn that was most directly the heritage of ideas that informed the framer’s thinking. Indeed, the framers of the US Constitution were heirs to the socio-religious-political tradition represented by Cromwell and the “Good Old Cause”—the movement we associate, first, with the Independents and the Army during the English Civil War of the 1640s; then the work of Shaftsbury and Locke which was realized in the ascension of William and Mary and the Glorious Revolution of 1688, which brought about an English Bill of Rights claiming the right of Protestants to bear arms in their lawful self-defense. In those days, Independent Protestants had a legitimate fear of the High-English and Roman churches, as well as the political forces these churches represented. Historically, this line of demarcation recapitulates itself in the 1640s, the late-1680s and--moving to America--the 1770s and 80s (Declaration, 1776; U.S. Constitution, 1787), placing on one side the middle classes, and on the other the bankers and land owners. Respectively, in the wake of the English Civil War, these divisions followed religious lines as well, placing Baptists, Presbyterians and Independents on one side, and High-Church Anglicans on the other. In Revolutionary America, the division fell out similarly, with the Baptists and Calvinists on one side, and the Episcopalians (Anglicans) on the other. In class terms once more, the former were middle class and the latter were upper-class bankers and land owners. Politically, the former were Democratic Republicans and the latter were Federalists. As originally offered, the U.S. Constitution had no provisions for guaranteeing the Rights of the middle classes. It was a document intended to guarantee the powers and status of the upper classes, and for this reason it was rejected. Thus it was necessary to add the Bill of Rights (containing the Second Amendment), which properly guaranteed human rights as understood by the middle classes.

There is in this Lockean nexus of political thought a fundamental belief that the people have a sacred duty to resist any government that does not protect the people’s natural rights. Government could take many forms (Locke of course had some wise suggestions involving balance of powers) but the benchmark for measuring the legitimacy of any government, system or ruler was whether or not that government, system or ruler protected the rights of the “community.” Locke doesn’t say much about who makes up his “community,” but suffice it to say Locke’s “community” consisted of people who thought like himself (Independent Christians, political liberals, and, perhaps most important of all, people who amassed property through their labor, by which Locke meant everybody who worked). More generally, Locke’s community is properly regarded as the human community in toto, where the people are united as beings equal under and subject to God’s especial love and care. Whatever form or persona the magisterial (state) power takes, it is answerable to God if it fails to protect the human community. The chief instrument of God’s judgment is the people. In 1651, a generation before the Glorious Revolution, in A Defense of the People of England Milton writes, “God changes circumstances, assigns kingdoms, and takes them away . . . through the agency of men.” This is directly in line with the theological rationale Locke calls upon when he claims that people have a sacred duty to overthrow any government that fails to uphold God’s trust. The notion is essentially Christian but uniquely formed by the ancient liberal traditions of the English people and their Common Law, which provides for individual’s to be secure in their persons and their property, and that allows them to have a say in the usages of their persons and their property. In the English tradition, the state derives its power from the people; the state itself has no rights. The folk on the continent have traditionally viewed this the other way round. Back to Locke: As for the right to bear arms: if overthrowing a bad government is a sacred duty, then the people need the tools to do it, thus the Right to keep and bear arms. Thus we might cautiously cross over into the specialized field of Constitutional interpretation and assign specific meanings to the amendment, which reads as follows:
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 phrase "well regulated" is used consistently in the contemporaneous writings of the framers to indicate a militia that is proficient or well-trained. Although the subtext of "supervision" can properly be read into the wording, the overt significance of the phrase underscores the effectiveness of the militia as an organization to support the defense of the community and the security of the democratic-republican political system as is is formulated in the Constitution. In order to insure the effectiveness of the organization in both its political and operational capacities, the militia is a thoroughly democratized body, not officially constituted pro forma but rather naturally constituted de facto. Everyone is a member.

This stuff makes fascinating intellectual history, but it is important to realize that these ideas are not mere philosophical amusements. They are embedded in the Constitution itself, and here's where things become a bit sticky. According to the Lockean formula, usurping persons or governments attempting to take away the people's arms are obstructing the duty of the people to safe-guard their Rights; thus the people have a duty to resist any power that tries to take their arms. Of course, Congress can legally pass laws to regulate or even confiscate arms; but the antinomian (against the law) understanding that is essential to English Protestant thought stipulates that Christians are absolved from obeying any worldly law. The belief that the Gospels abrogated Mosaic law (the first five books of the Old Testament) not only influenced orderly Germanic types like Luther and Calvin, but can be seen in Augustine as well. Even in the minds of our most theocratic and authoritarian teachers, there is a profound distrust of the state. To find common ground and reconcile our various western traditions regarding who shall possess the power of arms, a healthy distrust of the state must be foremost in the considerations of those who would regulate the possession of arms, as well as those who maintain that arms are to be dutifully borne by all people.

Perhaps the solution lies in that other Lockean assumption that says human beings can tolerate each others' differences as they seek liberal consensus in those areas where consensus can be sought, and proceed reasonably and without violence in the direction of common objectives that can best benefit the members of the human community. The instrumentality of the U.S. Constitution is directed toward this express purpose.

I am no expert in these matters, and rather stumbled upon them in a roundabout fashion as I was pursuing recreation in the works of Milton, Locke, Jefferson, and Hawthorne.

1 comment:

Ed Rasimus said...

You seek your "recreation" in strange places, and you express the truths you have discovered in the high-blown, circuitous and often convoluted language of the PhD, but you are essentially right.

The essence of the 2d Amendment is that the people must retain the capability to throw off an oppressive government. They had just done it, and they saw no reason to assume that they might not need to do it again.

Whenever someone tries to link the 2d to hunting, target shooting, collecting or self-defense, they are demonstrating their inability to grasp the most simple principle of the Amendment.