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The devil’s in the details

Second Amendment, militias and slavery

Here’s what the Second Amendment says:

“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.”

This is the concise statement that has made it possible for the insane to orchestrate mass murders in the United States.

But how?

As usual, we set out to deal with fundamental inflexibility by resorting to attempts at conversation with the hope of understanding. We often do this in the face of futility. Though it’s unlikely that any argument will lead the most ardent gun enthusiasts to betray their triggers, for the sake of less blood and fewer fatalities, the rest of us might start a conversation with “Just what is a militia?”

Variously defined, a militia is a body of citizens enrolled for military service called out periodically but serving full time only in emergencies; a body of citizen soldiers; all able-bodied males eligible for military service; citizens organized in a paramilitary group regarding themselves as defenders of individual rights against the presumed interference of the federal government.

Regardless of these definitions, however, a simple reading of the Second Amendment does not appear to authorize unregulated individuals to bear arms as its opening clause sets a condition and establishes the premise for what follows. That this premise and condition has been glossed over by gun-lovers, the arms industry and the NRA is not surprising. It’s also not surprising that the history of the Second Amendment is not well known. Much of politics is based upon ignorance — it counts on it. It’s how media conglomerates run by men like Rupert Murdoch make profits. It’s is how amoral incendiaries like Rush Limbaugh make fortunes. It’s how corrupt politicians get re-elected.

But there’s something interesting about the Second Amendment that goes deeper than our typical observations about it. It has to do with the amendment’s reference to well-regulated militias — something that goes beyond interpretations by the gun lobby or people like James Yeager, CEO of a company he calls Tactical Response (Yeager famously responded to recent talk of gun control by saying in a video that,” If it goes one inch further, I’m gonna start killing people.” ).

“The Hidden History of the Second Amendment,” written in 1998 by law professor Karl Bogus of Roger Williams University, sheds some interesting light on the origin of the Second Amendment.

Professor Bogus argues that “The Second Amendment was not enacted to provide a check on government tyranny; rather, it was written to assure the Southern states that Congress would not undermine the slave system by using its newly acquired constitutional authority over the militia to disarm the state militia and thereby destroy the South’s principal instrument of slave control.” He explains, “The Second Amendment’s history has been hidden because neither James Madison, who was the principal author of the Second Amendment, nor those he was attempting to outmaneuver politically, laid their motives on the table.”

The professor is telling us that the militias referred to in the Second Amendment were militias created and regulated to protect white slave owners from slaves who might rise up and rebel against their oppression. He suggests that the Second Amendment was written to assure the southern states that the new federal government would not upset the south’s economic applecart by doing away with the armed men they relied upon to protect them from uprisings of slaves. It was an amendment designed to convince slave-owning states that they could continue to suppress the hopes of their chattel and, therefore, get their assent to ratification of the Constitution.

Bogus’ well-documented paper notes that Virginia, in 1799, was on the cusp of its decision to ratify or not, and the main question in the minds of Virginians was whether the new union would end slavery.

“Slavery was not only an economic and industrial system,” one scholar noted, “but more than that, it was a … police system.”

The South developed an elaborate means of slave control — a slave patrol of armed white groups, then called “militias,” who made regular rounds to assure that blacks were not where they did not belong or coming together in unauthorized gatherings. These militias also gave slaves a sense of the constant vigilance of their owners. The state, in fact, required plantation owners to participate in patrols and to provide their own arms and equipment.

Professor Bogus argues that it was clear that the Second Amendment was drafted to protect southern militias, not to authorize the general arming of individuals.

The irony that flows from this is that the defenses for, definitions of, and rationale explaining the Second Amendment, couched in arguments for “liberty” in the rantings of the NRA’s Wayne LaPierre and embodied in men like Yeager are counter-factual. The irony, according to Karl Bogus’ paper, is that the Second Amendment was a political expedient designed to maintain the enslavement of others.

Talk about a bargain with the devil. Should it come as a surprise then that devilish bargains have brought devilish results?

To make matters worse, even in the shadow of evil militias, tragedies like Sandy Hook, men like James Yeager and organizations like the NRA, we may not yet be learning our lesson — we’re still dealing with the devil. We’re still arming demagogues and the deranged in the name of “liberty.”

Culleny lives in Shelburne Falls, works in construction, is a singer/songwriter, and has done commentary for National Public Radio. His email address is

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