More Error and Omission in the Professional Historians' McDonald Amicus Brief
[Updated February 3, 2010]
The first clause of the Second Amendment states:
“A well regulated militia being necessary to the security of a free State” [The Origin of the Second Amendment, p.744]
Here are the historians' related assertions and quote from a British source:
"The Founders did not limit themselves to borrowing the premise of the Second Amendment from English law. They also borrowed the Second Amendment’s preamble from England’s militia laws, for the Second Amendment’s “well regulated militia” language was inspired by the preamble of the 1757 Militia Act, which stated,
“Whereas a well-ordered and well-disciplined Militia is essentially necessary to the Safety, Peace and Prosperity of this Kingdom[.]"" [pp.35-36]
The only evidence in support of the historians' first assertion above was the claim that the arms provision of the English Bill of Rights and the Second Amendment had only one difference, the latter not being dependent on privileges of wealth or birth. A number of other major differences indicating the historians' assertion was erroneous were demonstrated in Part 1 of this series. In this post, the historians' claim regarding the extent that the Second Amendment is based on the Founders' borrowing from and being inspired by the British militia law is examined. Rather than simply accepting the historians' assertion based on superficial similarities between the two, an examination of their substantial differences is undertaken.
Compare the Second Amendment's first clause to the historians' quote of Britain's 1757 militia act above. The 1757 act has a dependent structure similar to the first clause of the Second Amendment, but shares only one noun with the Second Amendment, militia. Structure is inherently meaningless without words and is far from evidence of borrowing or inspiration. Besides, the Second Amendment's actual American predecessor, a Virginia proposal quoted below, is not a dependent clause but a simple declaration. The dependent nature of the Second Amendment's well regulated militia clause originated when James Madison wrote his version of the Virginia proposal, which was introduced into Congress in 1789, with that body further enhancing the language's dependent nature. [OSA, pp.654-655, 707, 712] Other than the historians' assertion, no period evidence from America is presented linking the Second Amendment to Britain's 1757 militia act. Thus, the dependent nature of Britain's 1757 militia act has nothing whatever to do with later development of the leading dependent clause of the Second Amendment. Considering the misquotes and errors of fact in their brief, as documented in previous posts of this London Bridge series, there are compelling reasons not to accept any undocumented assertions from these professional historians regarding Second Amendment history or intent. Every such claim requires careful examination, and any without supporting period documentation cannot be relied upon.
The historians' claim is that the British act and Second Amendment have similarities of meaning, not just of structure and terminology. But a militia act of Britain could not have the same intent as an American Bill of Rights provision, thus similarity of intent is out of the question, especially since no period evidence is provided to support this view. That leaves similarity of terminology to examine as the only apparent source of any borrowing and inspiration for the Second Amendment's first clause.
Examine the list of terms appearing in both provisions: a, well, militia, necessary, to, the
The only noun in the list of overlapping terms is militia. The important question that immediately arises is whether the British understanding of militia was the same as the American understanding of the term. This is where the historians' claim of borrowing and inspiration utterly fails, for the fact is there was a major difference between the understanding and use of the term militia in Britain and that in America during the founding period.
Britain's militia act established a system relying on a small fraction of the men as the internal source of defense for the kingdom. One reason for the small relative size of the militia was Parliament's imposition of high property qualifications for British militia members, qualifications that were even higher than for members of Parliament, as indicated in the following statement made in the House of Commons an a militia bill, November 15, 1775:
"Lord North, after paying great encomiums on this constitutional mode of defence [militia], replied to the last objection [concerning the smallness of qualifications] by observing, that qualifications were higher in the militia than for the members to sit in that House to make laws." [American Archives, 4th Series, VI, p.86]
Thus, Parliament established a small militia confined to the wealthy and upper classes as defensive support for the Kingdom, which was controlled by Parliament, and Parliament was controlled by the nobility and upper classes, the very upper levels of British society that membership in the militia was confined to. Restating, Britain was a class society controlled by a minority of the upper classes and was protected by a select militia whose members were part of the upper class minority that controlled the country. As for who provided the arms of Britain's select militia members, the militia themselves or the government, Sir George Savile had this to say shortly before the comments of Lord North quoted above:
"hitherto, he said, no man in this country could be armed without the consent of Parliament; the army were armed by Parliament; so were the Militia; but if this bill should pass, the military would be, or at least might be, armed by the King, without the consent of Parliament." [American Archives, 4th Series, VI, p.85]
In Britain, the only apparent way anyone could be armed was either by Parliament, or by the king if Parliament agreed to that. The existing select militia of Britain was obviously armed by Parliament.
Did Americans understand the militia as Britons did - a small fraction of the men, among the most influential and wealthy, who were provided with arms by the government and were the only internal support for government, which was controlled by a small minority of the influential and wealthy? Most certainly not. American militia laws, directly contrary to the British act, were intended to assure that all of the able-bodied free men generally obtained and possessed their own arms and could be relied upon for defense. These American militia laws were passed by largely representative assemblies in the various colonies and early states. Americans understood the militia of Britain to be a select militia that was unlike the general militia relied on in America. This understanding of militia was generally consistent throughout the colonial period and the founding of the United States. [See The Founders' View of the Right to Bear Arms]
Contrary to the historians' claim, the Second Amendment's well regulated militia language was actually borrowed from and inspired by a predecessor provision from the 1788 Virginia Ratifying Convention [OSA, p.459] and included this quote from Virginia's 1776 Declaration of Rights verbatim:
"SEC. 13. That a well-regulated militia, composed of the body of the people, trained to arms, is the proper, natural, and safe defence of a free state". [OSA, p.748]
George Mason, who wrote this original, also wrote the model for the U.S. Bill of Rights as a leader of Antifederalists in 1788 Virginia. His Second Amendment related proposal included this well regulated militia language preceded by a direct quote of the Massachusetts Declaration of Rights language that "the people have a right to keep and to bear arms". [OSA, pp.390, 773] This much more relevant information on the Second Amendment's origin in state bill of rights restrictions on state governments is continually ignored in the historians' McDonald amicus while relatively unrelated material and erroneous information is funneled to the Supreme Court in order to becloud the subject, making it extremely and unnecessarily complex. The fact that six of these twenty-one historians also filed a brief in the previous Heller case, where they correctly noted that the Second Amendment originated in the Virginia Ratifying Convention, proves that the intention of this brief is to mislead the U.S. Supreme Court by diverting it from relevant American constitutional sources to largely irrelevant British sources.
During the political dispute over ratification of the Constitution, Americans understood the militia to be a reference to the "whole people, except a few public officers", as stated by Antifederalist George Mason in the 1788 Virginia Ratifying Convention. [OSA, p.430] Federalists also understood the militia to be not only conceptually, but literally based on the people. This is evident from Alexander Hamilton's description of the militia as "the people at large" in The Federalist #29. [OSA, p.198] Antifederalists, those who politically fought to obtain a bill of rights, often described a select militia as no different than a standing army, which was dangerous to liberty. In order to preserve liberty, what they wanted as part of the U.S. Constitution was a bill of rights that would protect the concept already found in every state bill of rights guaranteeing a defensively effective armed population. It is those state bill of rights Second Amendment progenitors that are the origin of the Second Amendment's two clauses, and it is those that the historians are purposefully diverting the Supreme Court well away from in their brief.
There certainly was nothing borrowed from or inspirational about the only other noun in the British 1757 militia act, Kingdom, as compared to the free "state" terminology found in the Second Amendment's first clause. A kingdom under Parliamentary control by the upper classes and claiming unlimited authority was exactly what Americans had just waged a successful war for independence against in order to establish the new free state constitutions and government limiting declarations of rights in America. Thus, contrary to the historians' claim, the British 1757 militia act quoted in the brief provides nothing other than slight superficial similarities to the Second Amendment's first clause. The nouns included in the two provisions, militia in each and Kingdom versus free state, have fundamentally different meanings. These two sources have different purposes, with terms having different meanings, and their structures, while similar, provide no information about inherent meaning. And as noted above, the similarity of dependent structure in the two is an artifact stamped on the Second Amendment by James Madison and Congress. The actual American predecessor of the Second Amendment's first clause Madison relied on was not a dependent clause, but rather a declaration quoted verbatim from America's first state declaration of rights.
Regarding the brief's extensive pre-1689 English history, which constitutes the largest part of the historians' argument, it is essentially irrelevant for understanding anything about much later American constitutional development, such as state bills of rights and the later U.S. Constitution and its Second Amendment containing Bill of Rights. For this reason, no attempt has been made to examine quotes or conclusions for accuracy in that early English material.
[NOTE: The brief under discussion in this London Bridge series of posts is more specifically described as that from English/Early American historians. The series is not complete, as there are other errors to be examined. However, there is a different McDonald historical brief that begs for attention here. It is distinguished from the above brief in that it relates to Pennsylvania and Early American history. The next post to appear will begin a new series dealing with errors in this different McDonald Pennsylvania related historical amicus.]