The Hidden History of Guns and the 2nd Amendment
How Europe’s History of Mercenaries and Military Coups Shaped the Second Amendment
That a well-regulated militia, composed of the body of the people, trained to arms, is the proper, natural and safe defense of a free state; that standing armies, in time of peace, should be avoided as dangerous to liberty; and that, in all cases, the military should be under strict subordination to, and governed by, the civil power.
—George Mason, Virginia Declaration of Rights, June 12, 1776
Thomas Jefferson was one of the many founders who were wary of standing armies during peacetime. The history of Europe, from the then-modern to the ancient, was littered with stories of nations seized or overthrown by their own standing armies in military coups (which continue to this day).
The topic was hotly debated, and Alexander Hamilton wrote an extensive article about it, first published in a newspaper titled the Daily Advertiser on January 10, 1788. This article is now known as Volume 29 of The Federalist Papers.
“If standing armies are dangerous to liberty,” Hamilton wrote, arguing that Article 1, Section 8, took care of the problem, “an efficacious power over the militia, in the body to whose care the protection of the State is committed, ought, as far as possible, to take away the inducement and the pretext to such unfriendly institutions.”
A citizens’ militia, Hamilton stated, “appears to me the only substitute that can be devised for a standing army, and the best possible security against it.” He added, “To render an army unnecessary [by instead having state-based citizens’ militias] will be a more certain method of preventing its existence than a thousand prohibitions upon paper.”
Jefferson was also morally offended by the idea of a standing army that people would join because they were so poor that there was no other way to get an education and a job (for such people, he wanted universal free public education, including free college tuition, which he brought into being when he founded the tuition-free University of Virginia).
He wrote his thoughts on the topic in a June 18, 1813, letter to his old friend, the future president James Monroe. “It is more a subject of joy that we have so few of the desperate characters which compose modern regular armies,” he wrote, pleased that he had radically cut the size of the US army during his tenure as president. “But it proves more forcibly the necessity of obliging every citizen to be a soldier; this was the case with the Greeks and Romans, and must be that of every free State. Where there is no oppression there will be no pauper hirelings.”
He noted that so-called voluntary armies depend upon a “pauper class” for their existence.
By the end of his presidency (1808), Jefferson had largely done away with America's standing army, and he was thus inspired to write to his friend Dr. Thomas Cooper, on September 10, 1814, that “our men are so happy at home that they will not hire themselves to be shot at for a shilling a day. Hence we can have no standing armies for defence, because we have no paupers to furnish the materials.”
In history, Jefferson found justification for his opinion. “The Greeks and Romans had no standing armies,” he wrote in that letter to Monroe, “yet they defended themselves. The Greeks by their laws, and the Romans by the spirit of their people, took care to put into the hands of their rulers no such engine of oppression as a standing army. Their system was to make every man a soldier, and oblige him to repair to the standard of his country whenever that was reared. This made them invincible; and the same remedy will make us so.”
He noted that such a system of universal service “was proposed to Congress in 1805, and subsequently; and, on the last trial was lost, I believe, by a single vote only. Had it prevailed, what has now happened [in the War of 1812] would not have happened. Instead of burning our Capitol, we should have possessed theirs in Montreal and Quebec. We must now adopt it, and all will be safe.”
He observed that three-quarters of a million men qualified for a draft in 1814 and added, “With this force properly classed, organized, trained, armed and subject to tours of a year of military duty, we have no more to fear for the defence of our country than those who have the resources of despotism and pauperism.”
Thus, Jefferson wrote to Madison in that letter from Paris as Christmas approached, “I will now add what I do not like [about this first draft of the Constitution you just shared with me]. First the omission of a bill of rights providing clearly and without the aid of sophisms for freedom of religion, freedom of the press, protection against standing armies, restriction against monopolies, the eternal & unremitting force of the habeas corpus laws, and trials by jury in all matters of fact triable by the laws of the land & not by the law of Nations.”
While most of those things made their way into the Constitution, Jefferson’s objection to corporate monopolies was left out, as was his “protection against standing armies,” with the exception of Article I, Section 8, requiring reauthorization of the army every two years. He was quite emphatic about this: two years later, in July 1788, he implicitly threatened to blow up the Constitution via his influence with the Virginia delegation if his concerns weren’t met with a Bill of Rights to protect America from a standing army.
“I sincerely rejoice at the acceptance of our new constitution by nine States,” he wrote to Madison from Paris on July 31, 1788. “It is a good canvass, on which some strokes only want retouching. What these are, I think are sufficiently manifested by the general voice from north to south, which calls for a bill of rights. It seems pretty generally understood, that this should go to juries, habeas corpus, standing armies, printing, religion and monopolies.”
His threat came in the next paragraph: “But if such cannot be found, then it is better to establish trials by jury, the right of habeas corpus, freedom of the press and freedom of religion, in all cases, and to abolish standing armies in time of peace, and monopolies in all cases, than not to do it in any.”
He then made a detailed argument for each of his concerns. With regard to standing armies, he wrote to Madison in that same letter, “If no check can be found to keep the number of standing troops within safe bounds, while they are tolerated as far as necessary, [then] abandon them altogether, discipline well the militia, and guard the magazines with them. More than magazine guards will be useless, if few, and dangerous, if many. ... I hope, therefore, a bill of rights will be formed, to guard the people against the federal government, as they are already guarded against their State governments, in most instances.”
While that last quote from Jefferson is used extensively to argue that he was saying that people should have guns to shoot at the government if it became oppressive, Jefferson, in fact, was arguing something quite different. He (and President Eisenhower echoed his thought, warning us explicitly about the “military-industrial complex”) believed that standing armies in time of peace represented a threat to democracy itself that could be remedied only with a Switzerland-style citizen militia governed and “well regulated” by the states.
Jefferson’s opinion was nothing radical; bans on standing armies were already law in many states at the time Jefferson was writing to Madison from Paris in 1787. It was an opinion widely shared by the founding generation.
The North Carolina Constitution written in 1776 said, “[A]s standing armies, in time of peace are dangerous to liberty, they ought not to be kept up.” Similar language was in the Virginia Bill of Rights of 1776 and the Vermont Constitution of 1777 (“as standing armies, in time of peace, are dangerous to liberty, they ought not to be kept up” in both).
As of 1780, Massachusetts’s constitution said, “[A]s standing armies, in time of peace are dangerous to liberty, they ought not to be kept up,” and New Hampshire wrote similar language into its constitution in 1784: “Standing armies are dangerous to liberty, and ought not to be raised or kept up without the consent of the legislature.”
Similarly, the first draft of the Second Amendment said, “That the people have a right to keep and bear arms; that a well regulated Militia composed of the body of the people trained to arms is the proper, natural and safe defense of a free State. That standing armies in time of peace are dangerous to liberty, and therefore ought to be avoided as far as the circumstances and protection of the community will admit [emphasis mine]; and that in all cases the military should be under strict subordination to and governed by the civil power.”
Ultimately, to decrease the possibility of a standing army growing large enough to harm government or seize power over a free people, the framers put into Article 1, Section 8, of the Constitution a two-year maximum funding provision. It gave Congress the power “[t]o raise and support Armies, but no Appropriation of Money to that Use shall be for a longer Term than two Years.”
Nowhere else in the Constitution is the power of Congress to order up and pay for anything restricted in time. But the army—literally, the very existence of the standing army—had to be carefully constrained, the framers believed, and thus reevaluated by Congress at least every two years.