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The Origins of the Second Amendment

The Origins of the Second Amendment

I have long argued that constitutionality speaking, a ban on “personal defense” weapons (like Joe Biden’s shotgun) is actually more permissible than a ban on “military-style weapons.” Not that such a ban should be permissible — Eugene Volokh has made a fairly compelling case that there actually isn’t a legal distinction between defense of personal life and property and defense against a tyrannical state. But the point remains: military use — and not hunting, or even home defense — is the stated purpose and intention of the Second Amendment.

But Isaac Botkin of T-Rex Arms gives an additional bit of cultural background that shines an even brighter light on the history of this legal principle:

The way that England expanded its military power prior to gunpowder was through archery. They were expecting their people, their citizenry, to be skilled at arms, and to be particularly focused on skill at longbows, because this is something that they valued and understood had great military power. And they were able to use it because they had an armed citizenry that they could trust to be armed and they could trust to practice. They had legislation that actually required not only that people be in possession of these arms, but also practice with them, so that if the need would ever arise — to go to war or to defend against invaders — the people of England would actually be the ones who are equipped to defend the nation, not a standing army.

This is something that is throughout British culture, and there are other nations that do things a little bit differently. They have standing armies or they have professional armies or they hire professional mercenaries to do their fighting for them and they do not trust their citizenry to be armed. They did not expect the peasants to have any weapons, and they actually wanted to stop the peasants from having any weapons.

The Second Amendment protects military arms specifically, because sometimes, the citizenry IS the military, not just against a tyrannical state, but perhaps just as often in defense of a legitimate state. This may be thought of as a third reason for the Second Amendment (in addition to self defense and defense against tyranny) which — upon closer examination — is just another manifestation of the same principle: free men are armed. Unfree men are defenseless.

It would be interesting if there was more scholarship on the relation between the English tradition of the Yeoman and the American Second Amendment.

But one final observation of interest in this exploration of the English origins of the second amendment: the actual meaning of “Yeoman” (the class of Englishmen associated with the long-bow exploits of the English army) actually has nothing to do with the bow, but with land-holding. Yeomen were farmers who owned their own land. Rarely did this fact result in serious wealth, but it nevertheless gave them some investment in the land itself, and perhaps there might be some relation between this ownership of property and the willingness of the state to trust its citizenry to own arms.

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