How Did the Founders Understand
the Right to Keep
and Bear Arms?
Compiled by Daniel C. Palm
It is frequently remarked that while
our nations founders said one thing about the right to keep and bear arms, they
actually meant something else altogether. In the interest of letting the founders speak
for themselves on their understanding of the Second Amendment, we present this
chronological list of their comments on that Amendment and the right to bear arms.
"Laws that forbid the carrying of
arms . . . disarm only those who are neither inclined nor determined to commit crimes . .
. Such laws make things worse for the assaulted and better for the assailants; they serve
rather to encourage than to prevent homicides, for an unarmed man may be attacked with
greater confidence than an armed man."
quoting Cesare Beccaria in On Crimes and Punishment (1764).
"No free man shall ever be
debarred the use of arms."
Proposed Virginia Constitution (1776).
"That the people have a right to
bear arms for the defence of themselves and the state . . ."
same wording used in Vermont State Constitutions,
1777 and 1786.
"The supposed quietude of a good
man allures the ruffian; while on the other hand, arms like laws discourage and keep the
invader and plunderer in awe, and preserve order in the world as well as property. The
balance of power is the scale of peace. The same balance would be preserved were all the
world destitute of arms, for all would be alike; but since some will not, others dare not
lay them aside. . . . Horrid mischief would ensue were one half the world deprived of the
use of them; for while avarice and ambition have a place in the heart of man, the weak
will become prey to the strong."
"Thoughts on Defensive War," Pennsylvania Magazine, July
1775, in The Writings of Thomas Paine, Moncure Daniel Conway, ed.,
(G.P. Putnams Sons, 1894), I:56.
"Before a standing army or a
tyrannical government can rule, the people must be disarmed; as they are in almost every
kingdom in Europe. The supreme power in America cannot enforce unjust laws by the sword;
because the whole body of the people are armed, and constitute a force superior to any
band of regular (or professional) troops that can be, on any pretense, raised in the
--Noah Webster, An
Examination into the Leading Principles of the Federal Constitution Proposed by the
(1787).in Ford, Pamphlets on the
Constitution of the United States, 1888.
"A strong body makes the mind
strong. As to the species of exercises, I advise the gun. While this gives a moderate
exercise to the Body, it gives boldness, enterprise, and independence to the mind . . .
Let your gun therefore be the constant companion of your walks."
Letter to his nephew Peter Carr, August 19, 1785.
"Arms in the hands of individual
citizens may be used at individual discretion. . . in private self-defense."
--John Adams, A
Defense of the Constitutions of Government of the United States of America (1787-88).
". . . if circumstances should at
any time oblige the government to form an army of any magnitude that army can never be
formidible to the liberties of the people while there is a large body of citizens, little
if at all inferior to them in discipline and the use of arms, who stand ready to defend
their own rights, and those of their fellow citizens."
--Alexander Hamilton, Federalist
"[Americans need not fear the
federal government, because they enjoy] the advantage of being armed, which you possess
over the people of almost every other nation."
--James Madison, Federalist
"A militia when properly formed
are in fact the people themselves . . . and include all men capable of bearing arms . . .
To preserve liberty it is essential that the whole body of people always possess
--Richard Henry Lee, Additional
Letters From the
Federal Farmer 53 (1788).
"I ask, sir, what is the militia?
It is the whole people . . . To disarm the people is the best and most effectual way to
enslave them. . . . The best and most effectual way to enslave [the people] . . . is not
[to] do it openly, but [to] weaken them, and let them sink gradually, by totally disusing
and neglecting the militia."
--George Mason, during
Virginias Convention to
Ratify the Constitution (1788).
"The Constitution shall never be
construed to prevent the people of the United States who are peaceable citizens from
keeping their own arms."
--Samuel Adams, during
Massachusetts Convention to Ratify the Constitution (1788).
"Guard with jealous attention the
public liberty. Suspect everyone who approaches that jewel. Unfortunately, nothing will
preserve it but downright force. Whenever you give up that force, you are ruined."
--Patrick Henry, during
Virginias Convention to
Ratify the Constitution (1788).
"The right of the people to keep
and bear arms has been recognized by the General Government; but the best security of that
right after all is, the military spirit, that taste for martial exercises, which has
always distinguished the free citizens of these States . . . Such men form the best
barrier to the liberties of America."
--Gazette of the
United States, Oct. 14, 1789
"The militia is our ultimate
safety. We can have no security without it. The great object is that every man be armed. .
. . Every one who is able may have a gun."
--Patrick Henry, Elliot, Debates,
"What, sir, is the use of a
militia? It is to prevent the establishment of a standing army, the bane of liberty."
--Rep. Elbridge Gerry of
Massachusetts, Aug. 17, 1789, Annals of Congress, I:750
"As civil rulers, not having their
duty to the people duly before them, may attempt to tyrannize, and as the military forces,
which must be occasionally raised to defend our country, might pervert their power to the
injury of their fellow citizens, the people are confirmed by the next article in their
right to keep and bear their private arms."
--Tench Coxe, Federal
Gazette and Philadelphia Evening Post, June 18, 1789.
"And that the said Constitution be
never construed to authorize Congress . . . to prevent the people of the United States,
who are peaceable citizens, from keeping their own arms. . ."
Independent Gazetteer, August 20, 1789.
"A free people ought . . . to be
armed . . ."
speech of January 7, 1790, printed in the Boston Independent Chronicle,
January 14, 1790.
"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 Second Amendment to
"This may be considered as the
true palladium of liberty . . . . The right of self defence is the first law of nature. .
. . Wherever . . . the right of the people to keep and bear arms is, under any colour or
pretext whatsoever, prohibited, liberty, if not already annihilated, is on the brink of
--Henry St. George
Tucker, in his edition of Blackstones Commentaries, 1:300 (1803).
"The prohibition is general. No
clause in the Constitution could by any rule of construction be conceived to give congress
a power to disarm the people."
--William Rawle, A
View of the Constitution of the
United States of America,
(Philadelphia, 2nd ed., 1829), p. 125.
"The right of the citizens to keep
and bear arms has justly been considered, as the palladium of the liberties of a 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."
--Joseph Story, Commentaries
on the Constitution, (Boston, 1833), p. 709.
Appendix: The Soviet
The following quotations
were collected by John M. Snyder
[To insure quick Communist victory in civil
warfare, there] "arises the necessity of disarming the bourgeoiseie and arming the
workers, of creating a Communist army. . :"
--Leon Trotsky, "Manifesto
of the Communist International to the Proletariat of the entire World" in A
Documentary History of Communism, ed. Robert V. Daniels (New York: Random House,
1960), Vol. 2, p. 90.
"Only the Soviets can effectively arm the
proletariat and disarm the bourgeosie. Unless this is done, the victory of socialism is
Works, Theses and Report on Bourgeoisie Democracy and the Dictatorship of the Proletariat,
March 4, 1919, Vol. 28, p. 466.
". . . one of the basic conditions for the
victory of socialism--the arming of the workers and the disarming of the
--Lenin, Collected Works, The
Basic Tasks of the Dictatorship of the Proletariat in Russia (Moscow: Progress
Publishers, 1965), Vol. 29, p. 108.
"Make mass searches and hold executions
for found arms."
--Lenin, Collected Works,
Vol. 35, 4th ed., p. 286. Congressional Record, April 28, 1970, p. H3601.
"If the opposition disarms, well and good.
If it refuses to disarm, we shall disarm it ourselves."
--Joseph Stalin, Reply to the
discussion on the Political Reports of the Central Committee, Dec. 7, 1927. Stalin, Works,
Vol. 10, p. 378.