Was the Constitutional Right to Bear Arms Designed to Protect Slavery?

Resistance to arming Blacks for military purposes continued. Only under the stress of combat did Gen. Andrew Jackson accept Black soldiers in the War of 1812 and President Abraham Lincoln permit Union forces to enlist Blacks in the Civil War. Gaining acceptance for armed Blacks in the military proved even more daunting. Anderson recounts how Black soldiers were persistently reviled, harassed and terrorized by fearful and resentful whites. Justifying racially motivated violence during Reconstruction, a white Southerner remarked that “the sight of Negro troops stirred the bosoms of our [ex-Confederate] soldiers with courageous madness.” In 1906, the mayor of Brownsville, Texas, accused Black soldiers of firing on townspeople, killing one and badly injuring another. Even though strong evidence undercut the allegation, President Theodore Roosevelt ordered his secretary of war, William Howard Taft (a future president and chief justice of the United States), to impose without due process dishonorable discharges on all 167 of the Black soldiers who made up the First Battalion, Twenty-Fifth Infantry (Colored). Eleven years later, in the aftermath of an altercation in Houston that claimed the lives of 16 whites, including five police officers, and four Black servicemen, “justice” was similarly blinded by racism as the authorities executed 19 African-American soldiers and imprisoned 54 others.

Anderson narrates numerous episodes in which Blacks were terrorized by gun-toting mobs, often with the support of local law enforcement officers, state National Guards or federal troops. She also recounts how Blacks have been disabled repeatedly from defending themselves by authorities who evince enthusiasm for the rights of gun owners when they are white, indifference when they are Black and outright hostility when they are dissident African-Americans committed to challenging the racial status quo. “The Second” is written with verve, painted with broad strokes and dotted with memorable anecdotes and vivid quotations.

Anderson’s account, however, is wanting in important respects. She argues unconvincingly, in the face of formidable scholarship to the contrary, that the aim to protect slavery was the predominant motive behind the Second Amendment. She writes that the Second Amendment was “the result of [James] Madison’s determination to salve Patrick Henry’s obsession about Virginia’s vulnerability to slave revolts, seduce enough anti-Federalists to get the Constitution ratified and stifle the demonstrated willingness of the South to scuttle the United States if slavery were not protected.” The Second Amendment, she claims, “came into being … steeped in anti-Blackness, swaddled in the desire to keep African-descended people rightless and powerless, and as yet another bone tossed to keep the South mollified and willing to stay aligned with the grand experiment of the United States of America.”

Because the centrality of racism to American history has often been obscured, revisions adding racial realism are urgently needed. Racism, however, for all its importance, is not the only major influence in the country’s affairs. Akhil Reed Amar’s careful explanation of the debate over the Second Amendment in “The Bill of Rights: Creation and Reconstruction” (1998) points to considerations that Anderson notably slights, particularly “deep anxiety about a potentially abusive federal military.” Anderson does not ignore altogether such concerns. She alludes to “the anti-Federalists’ heightened fear of a strong central government” as a factor in their calculations. But in her telling, dread of Blacks was the essential, overriding cause of the Second Amendment, an entitlement “rooted in fear of Black people, to deny them their rights, to keep them from tasting liberty.” Such claims significantly overstate the role of race in the amendment’s development.

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