In recent decades, the US government has been doing its best to find a way to limit the ability of its people to bear arms. And, in turn, the people respond vehemently that their Constitution guarantees them the right to bear arms.
Regardless of which side of the argument any particular American is on, I’ve almost never met one who knows what caused this right to be written in the Constitution.
Countless Americans believe that they have the right to bear arms, so that they can protect themselves and their homes from burglars or other miscreants. Others, particularly those who live in rural areas, believe in the right to go hunting if they wish.
Whilst both of these concerns are reasonable, they’re not by any means the reason why the founding fathers were so adamant that the right to bear arms is critical.
The Bill of Rights, including the Second Amendment, was passed by the US Congress in 1791, some eighteen months after the ratification of the Constitution in 1790. The reason why it was considered essential by the framers leads directly back to the Gunpowder Incident in 1776.
In 1774, in Boston, a meeting of the First Continental Congress took place to discuss the introduction of the Intolerable Acts by Britain, including the seizure by the British of gunpowder that was stored in Charlestown. In addition, Lord Dartmouth, Secretary of State for the Colonies, prohibited the importation of further supplies of gunpowder.
In Boston, this generated discussion, but no action. But in Williamsburg, then the capitol of Virginia, the reaction was quite different. There, the colonists, in early 1776, began to form armed militias. Governor Dunmore (the ruling British representative in the colony) decided to repeat the Boston seizure in Virginia. Just down the street from the Governor’s mansion, in the House of Burgesses, Patrick Henry had just delivered an impassioned speech in which he proclaimed, “Give me liberty or give me death.”
Around the corner from the Governor’s mansion was the Magazine (pictured above), where gunpowder and armaments were stored by the Crown for the protection of the colony from Indian attacks or other disturbances.
Governor Dunmore ordered that the gunpowder be removed from the Magazine to limit the colonists’ ability to resist official diktat. As it was being removed to a British ship anchored in the James River, a few colonists discovered the fact and alerted others.
The city council demanded its return, stating that it was the property of the colony and not the Crown. Patrick Henry led the Hanover County Militia – about 150 men - to Williamsburg to reclaim the gunpowder.
A wealthy (and loyalist) plantation owner paid £330 for the powder, to calm Henry, who was then charged with extortion by Lord Dunmore. Dunmore’s popularity quickly waned. He left Williamsburg and attempted to continue his rule from a British ship, offshore.
Virginia’s government was taken over by a Committee of Safety and Henry became the now-independent state’s first governor in July, three months after the seizure.
The Gunpowder incident not only led directly to the creation of the Second Amendment. It led directly to the independence and liberty of the American people.
Think that over for a moment, with regard to the present times.
Now, as I’m British, it would be fair (though possibly incorrect) to suggest that I cannot be trusted to comment on the independence of the American colonies from Britain.
So, let’s ask the American founding fathers for their views. Although very few Americans can actually name them, there were seven, and they all had something to say about what they learned from the Gunpowder Incident.
George Washington - "A free people ought not only to be armed, but disciplined..." -- First Annual Address, to Congress, 8th January, 1790
John Adams - “To suppose arms in the hands of citizens, to be used at individual discretion, except in private self-defense, or by partial orders of towns, counties or districts of a state, is to demolish every constitution, and lay the laws prostrate, so that liberty can be enjoyed by no man; it is a dissolution of the government.” - Stated during the drafting of the Second Amendment, 1780.
Thomas Jefferson - "No free man shall ever be debarred the use of arms." - Virginia Constitution, Draft 1, 1776
"The Constitution of most of our states (and of the United States) assert that all power is inherent in the people; that they may exercise it by themselves; that it is their right and duty to be at all times armed." - Letter from Jefferson to John Cartwright, 5th June, 1824.
James Madison - "The right of the people to keep and bear arms shall not be infringed. A well regulated militia, composed of the body of the people, trained to arms, is the best and most natural defense of a free country." - Annals of Congress 434, 8th June, 1789.
Benjamin Franklin - “They that can give up essential liberty to obtain a little temporary safety deserve neither liberty nor safety." - Historical Review of Pennsylvania, 1759
Alexander Hamilton – "[I]f circumstances should at any time oblige the government to form an army of any magnitude that army can never be formidable 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." - Federalist #28, 10th January, 1788.
John Jay – “Government that wants away citizens right to bear arms is unworthy of trust.” – Date unknown
And a final one from Thomas Jefferson, from a letter to James Madison in 1787:
"What country can preserve its liberties if their rulers are not warned from time to time that their people preserve the spirit of resistance. Let them take arms."
But perhaps the most succinct quote from that time is from George Mason, stating in the Debates on the Adoption of the Federal Constitution, 14th June, 1788,
"To disarm the people... [i]s the most effectual way to enslave them."
These are indeed words to be remembered. Just as all governments will do their utmost to prevent their citizens from being armed, so too should those citizens do their utmost to be armed.
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