How Did the Founders Understand
the Right to Keep and Bear Arms?

Compiled by Daniel C. Palm


It is frequently remarked that while our nation’s 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."

--Thomas Jefferson, quoting Cesare Beccaria in On Crimes and Punishment (1764).


"No free man shall ever be debarred the use of arms."

--Thomas Jefferson, Proposed Virginia Constitution (1776).


"That the people have a right to bear arms for the defence of themselves and the state . . ."

--Pennsylvania State Constitution, 1776;
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."

--Thomas Paine, "Thoughts on Defensive War," Pennsylvania Magazine, July 1775, in The Writings of Thomas Paine, Moncure Daniel Conway, ed.,
(G.P. Putnam’s 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 United States."

--Noah Webster, An Examination into the Leading Principles of the Federal Constitution Proposed by the Late Convention (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."

--Thomas Jefferson, 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 #29 (1788).


"[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 #46 (1788).


"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 arms."

--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 Virginia’s 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 Virginia’s 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, III:386


"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. . ."

--Philadelphia Independent Gazetteer, August 20, 1789.


"A free people ought . . . to be armed . . ."

--George Washington, 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 the Constitution
(Ratified 1791).


"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 destruction."

--Henry St. George Tucker, in his edition of Blackstone’s 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 View

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 impossible."

--Lenin’s Collected 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 bourgeoisie."

--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.


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