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Slavery and the right to bear arms

Fred McKinney
Slavery and the right to bear arms

The Second Amendment is the hottest public policy issue today. It reads: “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.”

After the massacre at Sandy Hook Elementary School, which is less than 10 miles from my home, there has been a divisive and highly charged debate on gun violence and the interpretation of the right to bear arms as stated in the Second Amendment. However, there has not been much of a public discussion on why there is a Second Amendment in the first place.

Americans today have a romanticized view of the Founding Fathers and their work to create the U.S. Constitution. While it is unquestionably one of the most important political documents ever crafted, the Constitution was still not divine. It was the result of political compromise by leaders from different parts of the fledgling union of independent states with widely varying economic and political interests.

Some “founders” wanted to see a return to the British way of government, with a strong king-like executive installed for life, a House of Lords, similarly installed for life, and an elected group of representatives with limited power. Alexander Hamilton was in that group whose extreme views failed to carry the day. There were others who wanted to see direct democracy, with a much weaker federal government than was finally decided. The “founders” were ultimately forced to compromise.

At that time, slavery existed in all but a few of the 13 states and was the foundation of the Southern economy. Efforts to maintain slavery were often controlling issues in political compromise. For example, such a compromise was involved in Section 2 of Article 1 that called for counting Africans as three-fifths of a person in determining the number of a state’s representatives in the House of Representatives.

This was done in exchange for the adoption of the Northern interest in allowing the Federal government to regulate interstate trade. These were men who were far from divine as they hammered out political deals in pursuit of personal interests with little concern for humanitarian issues.

Despite all of their differences and the haggling, they were able by 1787 to decide upon the language of the Constitution: “We the People.” The founding document addresses the issue of guns. Section 8 of Article 1 states:

“To provide for calling forth the Militia to execute the Laws of the Union, suppress Insurrections and repel Invasions;

“To provide for organizing, arming and disciplining the Militia and for governing such Part of them as may be employed in the Service of the United States, reserving to the States respectively, the Appointment of the Officers, and the Authority of training the Militia according to the discipline prescribed by Congress.”

The above words were ratified four years before the Bill of Rights, which included the Second Amendment. So why was the Second Amendment necessary? The problem was that the Anti-Federalists, who wanted a weaker Federal government, viewed the concentration of power at the Federal level as a threat to individual rights; but more importantly, the Anti-Federalists also feared that the Federal government, as empowered by the Constitution, could use the militia to end slavery.

There was a strong and consistent conflict between the Anti-Federalists, who were largely slaveholders who wanted the “peculiar institution” to continue unabated, and the Federalists, who were primarily from the Northern states who wanted slavery to end.

The Second Amendment was part of a compromise — an unholy deal that allowed slaveholders to maintain their system of slave patrols and terror. In many sections of the South, Africans far outnumbered whites, and the only defense slaveholders had against slave insurrections was an armed militia that was under the State’s control, not the control of the Federal government.

Hence this right to bear arms was not an expression of liberty, but was an inherent expression of the worst kind of oppression — the enslavement and exploitation of millions of black men, women and children.

A careful analysis of the history of the establishment of the U.S. Constitution will lead to the same conclusion. There is clearly no need for the Second Amendment today. How many of the NRA gun extremists are part of a state militia anyway?

Fred McKinney, Ph.D., is president and CEO of the Greater New England Minority Supplier Development Council.

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