originally published at The Beacon
An article at Truth Out by Thom Hartmann argues that the Second Amendment was ratified to preserve slavery, particularly to empower the state militia that used arms to enforce the institution through slave patrols. I wrote to Jeffrey Rogers Hummel, a historian who has written at some length about the history of American militia and whose working paper Deadweight Loss and the American Civil War: The Political Economy of Slavery, Secession, and Emancipation extensively discusses slave patrols as a key method by which slaveowners socialized the costs of slavery’s enforcement.
Hummel’s response to the Second Amendment slavery theory? Don’t buy it. Hartmann’s argument is overstated “to put it mildly.” In particular, the argument suffers from “presentism, back-dated from the Civil War, where everything that happened prior in U.S. history was driven by slavery.”
Hummel takes issue with some of the basic historical background in the Hartman piece, particularly “with the claim about ‘hundreds of substantial slave uprisings’ prior to the Constitution’s adoption. This would astonish most serious colonial historians.” Hummel explains the confusion:
Hartmann lifts this claim from the Carl T. Bogus article he cites, which in turn relies on Herbert Aptheker’s 1949 book, generally considered exaggerated even at the time it was published, before much additional research on slave revolts had made historians curious about their relative infrequency when compared with other slave societies in the New World. Nor were the few serious slave revolts during the colonial period confined to the South, with two in New York City (1712 and 1741).
Indeed, contrary to the reductionists, maintaining slavery was not the primary motivation lurking behind everyone’s actions at the Constitutional Convention.
The fact of the matter is that the Slave Power had not fully coalesced into a cohesive, dominant special interest by the time of the Constitution’s adoption. Opponents of the Constitution did of course sometimes use proslavery arguments, but this was hardly their primary concern, whether with respect to the Constitution generally or its militia clause specifically. And the change of the proposed Second Amendment’s wording from “free country” to “free State” is making a mountain of molehill. Hartmann doesn’t even get the story right, because as Bogus correctly reports, the change was made by the House committee, not by Madison.
(The House committee reviewing Madison’s proposed Bill of Rights had 11 members, one from each state. Madison was the representative from Virginia. There is no record of the committee’s deliberations. But since Madison had opposed creating the committee in the first place, preferring that the House consider the amendments directly, and since many of the members of the committee were initially opposed to a Bill of Rights, it is highly doubtful that Madison was responsible for the changed wording in ANY of the amendments as they were reported by the committee.)
The “more fundamental issue” here is the debate over the right to bear arms as an individual right, or a collective right. Hummel continues: Continue Reading →