J. L. BELL is a Massachusetts writer who specializes in (among other things) the start of the American Revolution in and around Boston. He is particularly interested in the experiences of children in 1765-75. He has published scholarly papers and popular articles for both children and adults. He was consultant for an episode of History Detectives, and contributed to a display at Minute Man National Historic Park.

Follow by Email


Thursday, June 07, 2018

What the Founding Era Meant by “Bear Arms”

Last month Dennis Baron, a professor of English and linguistics at University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign, published an op-ed essay in the Washington Post on the language of the Second Amendment to the U.S. Constitution:
Two new databases of English writing from the founding era confirm that “bear arms” is a military term. Non-military uses of “bear arms” are not just rare—they’re almost nonexistent.

A search of Brigham Young University’s new online Corpus of Founding Era American English, with more than 95,000 texts and 138 million words, yields 281 instances of the phrase “bear arms.” BYU’s Corpus of Early Modern English, with 40,000 texts and close to 1.3 billion words, shows 1,572 instances of the phrase. Subtracting about 350 duplicate matches, that leaves about 1,500 separate occurrences of “bear arms” in the 17th and 18th centuries, and only a handful don’t refer to war, soldiering or organized, armed action. These databases confirm that the natural meaning of “bear arms” in the framers’ day was military.
Lawyer Neal Goldfarb checked more variations of the phrase in the same databases and came to the same basic conclusion.

In the 2008 Heller case, as everyone involved in this discussion knows, the U.S. Supreme Court decided otherwise. Writing for the court, Justice Antonin Scalia treated “bear ams” not as an idiom with a military meaning but as a general phrase about carrying weapons.

The data shows otherwise—hardly anyone in the eighteenth century used it as Scalia did. As with the Reynolds case I wrote about here, the court’s finding is simply at odds with historical facts. The Heller ruling overturned legal understandings that prevailed for most of the twentieth century and changed the law going forward, but such rulings can’t change the actual past.

The Second Amendment reflects the Founding generation’s faith in the militia system of community self-defense that they had all grown up with. It said nothing about private ownership of firearms to hunt, to protect one’s home or person, or to make loud noises. Perhaps they viewed those activities as falling under the Tenth Amendment. We can’t know because the Tenth is so vague.

That said, the idea of a militia in the Founders’ time depended on widespread ownership of firearms by the (mostly white) men who made up the militia. Even if we go back to reading “bear arms” to refer only to military activity, as the Founders no doubt understood it, they still envisioned a public self-defense system in which most white men owned muskets, trained regularly with those muskets, and knew which officers to turn out for while carrying those muskets.

I think the big question of the Second Amendment lies in its opening premise: “A well regulated Militia, being necessary to the security of a free State.” We no longer have a militia system that the Framers would recognize. Instead, we have a large standing army with advanced weaponry, many of those troops deployed overseas—a situation that would startle the Founders, if not alarm them. If the premise of the Second Amendment no longer applies, what does that mean for the conclusion?


John said...

Couple of things: I appreciate your research into the historical usage and context of the term "bear arms" and I would not argue with that. I also believe you make a sound argument behind the Heller case in light of the fact of what the term most likely meant in the context of the times it was written. One point of disagreement I have is that the reason the founders may have not mentioned anything about private gun ownership (for whatever purpose) is because it was inherently understood that every adult white male presumably had a gun in his household the way modern day citizens have a screwdriver, or lawnmower, or toothbrush in our modern day homes. We wouldn't argue for legislation in our time regulating the usage of some of these modern day household items, it would seem silly and even obviating. Therefore, I don't necessarily agree with your implication that the premise of the Second Amendment no longer applies. It is precisely because of our practice of maintaining a large standing army with advanced wesponry that is engaged in countless wars for profit that would abhor the tastes of the Founding Fathers and many classical liberal theorists who rightly promulgated that the State is Force - an antithesis to freedom and the principles that are at the core of the founding of our nation. These great minds now more than ever would advocate for the premise of the second amendment. And without that threat, albeit a potentially small threat that the State may deem it, of an armed citizenry, then as a citizenry we would have nothing from keeping us from turning into a totalitarian state overnight. History has shown countless examples of entire populations being relegated to mere slaves of the State after the State had successfully taken the peoples' god-given right to self-defense. It was never a right to be taken or given by any government. And the Founders inherently understood that. It was so obvious in their day that it didn't even bear repeating in an important document as the Constitution. It was and still is a Natural right, the right to protect oneself, the same way freedom to think, speak, and pursue one's own direction in life, the hallmark of the individual, the credo of western civilization, remains in the minds of all freedom-loving peoples. The day we cease believing or fully understanding the second amendment is the day we cease being a free people and the day the door to tyranny is swung open and the winds of oppression come blowing in.

Richard Subber said...

Too bad this finding won't get the attention it deserves. Thanks for making it accessible. I've seen this interpretation elsewhere expressed (I'm paraphrasing, my words) as "the Second Amendment was intended to authorize colonial men to keep their guns so they could turn out for militia service when called."
I wonder how many current gun owners would keep their weaons if they were put under a similar obligation?

rvaccare said...

Please stick to the American Revolution, not modern day politics. I signed up for this blog to learn tidbits and details about the American Revolution, not to have political opinions shoved in my face. There are plenty of outlets for that these days. This blog should not be one of them. I seriously considering unsubscribing. Thank you.

Unknown said...

SCOTUS messed up Citizens United too. See the book just out co-edited by Naomi Lamoreaux about that. There is a natural right to own firearms too so I am sympathetic to the view that the 2A is about militia service. But neither side in the Great Gun Debates wants to discuss the full implications of this, which is that the disestablishment of the people's militias was unconstitutional. Or, if you don't want to go that far, that the people have the right to establish their own militias, just as they had the right to establish their own for- and non-profit associations, whether they had state sanction (a charter) or not. The implication of the first phrase, and the protection of the right to bear MILITARY ARMS, instead of the protection of militias per se, seems to be that even if the people are not actively organized in militias they need to have the raw materials at hand to be able to do so, should the need arise due to invasion from without or tyranny from within. You would think after 15 years of facing pretty darn effective impromptu militias abroad, and the rise of tyranny at home, that people would be more sensitive to the need to have a latent pool of human and physical capital (guns and people who know how to use them) constantly at the ready ... just in case. You know, for the security of a free state.

Larisa C. said...

First, I want to say that I enjoyed this blog post and found it very interesting on how the use of "bear arms" was prevalent in the military lexicon as opposed to non-military. So, thank you for writing this.

What raised my eyebrow just a bit was your last paragraph, more specifically " We no longer have a militia system that the Framers would recognize. Instead, we have a large standing army with advanced weaponry, many of those troops deployed overseas—a situation that would startle the Founders, if not alarm them." I most certainly understand the thought behind this, but I can't help but wonder if the Founders would not see the National Guard as are our modern day Militia. After all, State National Guard are owned by the individual states, not the Federal Government, and almost entirely made up of volunteers. These volunteers give one weekend a month, and two weeks out of the year for training and of course, are deployed at the discretion of the State of Gov. Granted, some NG units have been deployed overseas but by and large, are deployed for needs within the US. Sure, there are some major differences between the NG and the militias of "yesterday", but I'm curious if you do not see the NG as a natural descendant from the Founders militia, or if you see it as something different entirely and believe the Founds would have as well.

J. L. Bell said...

I just realized these comments had accumulated, so I'm posting and responding to them all at once.

I don't dispute that the Framers viewed the ownership of firearms as a common practice in their society, for reasons of hunting, individual defense, and recreation as well as militia service. The Second Amendment only addresses the militia, however. Those other uses would fall under the Tenth Amendment—and they may still. Because the Tenth Amendment is vague about just what rights it guarantees or leaves to the states, but it doesn't premise those rights on a particular situation as the Second does.

I suspect that some present-day gun owners would object to government-mandated military training four days a year. Then again, I suspect some present-day non-owners would as well.

The militia as the Framers understood it was a government institution. It wasn't just a bunch of self-selected men gathering with their guns. There were some "independent" militia companies, as in Virginia in 1774 and 1775 (most of them asking George Washington to be their commander), but those sought government charters as soon as they could. Likewise, the Massachusetts militia largely began to function outside royal government control in late 1774, but they recognized the authority of the quasi-governmental Provincial Congress.

The National Guard is indeed an institutional descendant from the eighteenth-century American militia, which is why National Guard units answer to the governors of different states. The big difference is that the National Guard doesn't involve nearly the whole adult male population as the militia did. There are other significant differences with the New England militia: organization by towns, election of officers, depth of training. The Framers would have quickly seen those differences. They might well have disagreed about whether the changes are desirable.

Finally, this posting is about eighteenth-century America as well as modern politics. Some postings will continue to be about both topics. No one is required to read any of them.