Reviewed by Merrill Ring, Claremont Forum Board Member
One of the stories about the existence and nature of the Second Amendment is that, since the Founders were opposed to a standing army and rejected Constitutional provisions for one, they fell back on the idea of having citizen militias perform any necessary military functions in the new country. To perform those functions, the Founders needed to make it clear that those militias needed weapons. Given the financial arrangements of the day, that meant that individuals who joined the militias must have their own weapons. Hence the 2ndAmendment.
Today we continue to think of the citizen farmers taking on the Redcoats at Lexington and Concord. However, what Carol Anderson does is to cause us to rethink those notions: was providing a surrogate army the only reason that the 2nd Amendment exists? Does the Lexington-Concord picture of what the militias were expected to do accurately represent what in fact they were? Her book provides a No answer to both questions.
If you look at the debates about the Constitution among the Founders, what is dominant is not the question of what to do in the absence of a standing army. Rather, what the debates were all about is the need to have armed militias to suppress slave revolts and to capture escaped slaves. Here our heroic picture of Patrick Henry (‘Give me liberty or give me death’) is altered: he was the main spokesman for making sure that the maintenance of slavery was protected by arming militias – the Constitution would not have been achieved if he, as the leader of the pro-slavery caucus, had not been satisfied by an amendment allowing armed militias.
If you look, as Anderson does, at what the militias of the day actually did rather than see them through the picture of the Lexington-Concord story, it is clear that they existed as protection against Haitian-type insurrections (a great fear of the slave owners) and that their use was to protect the institution of slave ownership by hunting down those who escaped from their condition.
The bulk of Anderson’s book is taken up with tracing how the 2nd Amendment was used again and again through American history to prohibit Blacks from owning guns. The amendment does not enshrine the right of all citizens to own a weapon (as the Supreme Court thinks) but to give a certain class of Americans the right to own weapons (whether they belong to a militia or not) by denying the right of self-defense to outsiders (“niggers, coolies and Indians” is the phrase used.)
Carol Anderson is the Charles Howard Candler professor of African American Studies at Emory University