Happy Anniversary

April 9, 2010

Tomorrow marks the anniversary of General Robert E. Lee’s surrender to General Ulysses S. Grant at Appomattox, which ended the American Civil War. The day is set to be marked with controversial celebrations in the American South, notably Virginia. It has also been the punching bag du jour of misguided pundits who believe the Southern rebellion, and any remembrance of it (save for history book vilification), is unpatriotic.

Of course, any such pundit perusing any such history book would quickly learn the opposite. The Confederacy’s insurrection was a violent example of some of the most sacred American principles, the bedrock on which a good deal of our country is built.

To be clear, the Confederate States of America needs to be separated from slavery. The Southern states’ stated ideals are what we’re concerned with, and not the culture with which they coexisted. Slavery was a great evil and will forever be an indelible stain on our country. But it was the country’s evil, not just the South’s: the North was complicit in the crime by its inaction, and even those politicians who spoke against the “peculiar institution” weren’t innocent; most were motivated by the money that slave labor brought into Southern coffers and the political power it bought. They championed abolition on behalf of their careers, not their morals. Abraham Lincoln himself favored accommodating slavery, and only reluctantly freed American slaves when the country was deep in war and compromise was hopeless.

Though slavery was certainly part of the mix, widening economic and political disparities between Southern and Northern states contributed at least equally to the war, especially as industry became concentrated in the Northeast. As any high school student knows, the fighting was over states’ rights, not slavery. In that way, the Confederates weren’t much different from their ancestors. The American Revolution was fought against a paternalistic, overwhelming centralized government which the Founders felt had grown out of touch with their needs and wishes, taxing them without providing for them. In a fit of rebellious independence, the wealthy Southern planter class threw off strict rule in favor of being able to decide their own fate. George Washington, John Adams, and Thomas Jefferson were not much different in that violent desire for self-determination than Robert E. Lee. Southern farmers have never dealt well with authority.

Having secured their freedom, our Founders set about making sure that no central government would ever again threaten the freedom of the people to chart their own course. To this end, they established three branches of government, to prevent any one from becoming too powerful, and adopted the Bill of Rights to protect the freedoms of individuals from state action. Washington himself chose not to serve a third term as President, for fear of establishing a new monarchy. 

Confederate leaders hardly broke this mold; in fact, they fit very well inside of it. They were Southern farmers who chafed against a strong government which neither understood them nor cared to accommodate them, yet still taxed them and demanded obedience. They took up arms against what they believed to be an unjust establishment and tried to free themselves from it, for the sake of their individual autonomy.

Author Jeff Schweitzer writes, via The Huffington Post, that this whole business was un-American and that “the cause championed by the South should cover every American with shame.” But what cause was that, of which to be so ashamed? The freedom of American states to govern themselves? The freedom of citizens to protest a government which didn’t consider their welfare, but rather governed by edict? The ability of maligned Americans to protest a ruling class which had grown distant and disinterested? These causes are anything but shameful; they’re the ideals around which our country was constructed.

Of course, Mr. Schweitzer may not trust high school history books. It’s true, few of them have won Pulitzers and they’ve certainly been mistaken in the past. Maybe he’d be more interested in reading a recognized authority on the subject. Thomas Jefferson, for instance, in our Declaration of Independence:  

“When, in the course of human events, it becomes necessary for one people to dissolve the political bands which have connected them with another… Whenever any form of government becomes destructive to these ends, it is the right of the people to alter or to abolish it, and to institute new government.”

Mr. Schweitzer believes that “Southerners who claim a deep national pride celebrate their ancestors’ efforts to dissolve the very union of states whose flag they now so proudly fly,” but this is wide of the mark. The remembrance isn’t of an effort to dissolve our country; it’s of a historical realization in practice of those very ideals and abilities which make our country great.

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Keep & Bear

March 17, 2010

The Supreme Court of the United States spent the month buried deep in the wilderness of McDonald v. Chicago, a case challenging the legality of Chicago’s super-restrictive handgun ban.

Plaintiff there argues the ban violates the Second Amendment of the United States Constitution, our right to keep and bear arms. Defendant maintains the Constitution applies only to the Federal government and leaves state and city lawmakers free to restrict guns as they please. Most pundits give odds to the plaintiff, but we won’t get that far today.

Instead, let’s step back and look at the two competing paths of thought Second Amendment arguments usually travel. The first is Justice Antonin Scalia’s beloved formalism, in which we examine the plain meaning of a law: the right to keep and bear arms is spelled out plainly, so there’s no need of discussion. The Founders have spoken clearly and the people may own and carry guns. This path makes sense because, if for no other reason, the men who wrote the Constitution were very literate. Most were attorneys. If they’d meant for their document to be open to interpretation, they could’ve said so. They didn’t.

The second, opposite view is that the Constitution can’t be read formally, as Justice Scalia would; rather, it’s a “living document,” whimsical interpretations of which are allowed and encouraged, and its authority comes not from the Founders’ words but their intent. This side of the street argues that the arms our forefathers had in mind were a far cry from today’s high-powered handguns and sawed-off shotguns, and so laws written with muskets in mind shouldn’t be extended to Uzi’s.

(Of course, they aren’t. Uzi’s are automatic guns, which means they fire bullets as long as the trigger is held down and there are bullets to be fired. Automatic guns like Uzi’s have never been legal for public ownership in America. They’re strictly the province of criminals, and no amount of laws will ever dissuade those guys… if criminals cared about laws, they wouldn’t be criminals).    

If read formally, the Second Amendment obviously guarantees Americans the right to own and carry (“keep and bear”) weapons. There’s no real ground for any other opinion, which is why gun-control advocates prefer to call the Constitution a living document, subject to interpretation, and not read it formally. And their interpretation is, the Founders intended the Second Amendment for antique muskets, not today’s arms, so its protections shouldn’t extend to modern guns.

The problem is, the Founders were talking about today’s guns, in a way. Washington, Jefferson, Adams, Franklin and the rest of that Revolutionary generation fought a terrible war with the English on American soil, in American cities, and on American streets… and then did it all over again in 1812. Years earlier, they’d fought the French & Indian War, and Native American attacks were a frequent worry (justified or not). 

The generation which composed the Second Amendment spent a good deal of its adulthood at war, fighting and killing, and guns were second-nature. In addition to the constant threat of Indian or foreign violence, Americans believed firmly in their right to shoot each other; duels were commonplace and assumed legal, unless otherwise noted. President Andrew Jackson, who had fought in the Revolutionary War, once remarked that he had been shot so often in duels and had so many bullets rattling around inside of him that when he walked he sounded like a bag of marbles.  There was little organized police activity; certainly no squad cars or radio patrols.

Further, the framers didn’t buy groceries, except exotic items which couldn’t be produced on their own land; they farmed and hunted. Guns fed them. Lucky, then, that they had guns… most Native Americans made do with arrows still, and only got guns by trade with colonists. They made no guns of their own, though the technology was hardly new. (By 1776, firearms had existed for a long time and were being refined each year; a version of the automatic machine gun existed in England as early as 1718. The Founders, as veteran military campaigners, knew well how quickly and effectively guns were developing).

The point is, a formal constructionist reading of the Second Amendment means gun-control advocates lose; the language is just too clear to support anything but strong and full gun rights. So they argue instead for a lenient take on the Constitution and claim it’s open to interpretation and that people should look to the intent, not the words, of the framers. In their opinion, the framers didn’t foresee the availability or power of modern guns when they guaranteed the right to keep and bear them, or intend we should avail ourselves of them as we once did muskets… but the fact is, they did. They wrote the Second Amendment fully aware of the new, deadly weapons which were introduced every year. When they announced “the right of the people to keep and bear arms,” they intended to reference the biggest, baddest arms then available, and they knew those arms were getting bigger and badder by the day.

The Founding Fathers wrote our Constitution in a brutish, violent land. There was little, if any, law enforcement. Men fought duels regularly and shot their food. In short order they fought two major wars against English Redcoats, one against the French, and scores of smaller territory skirmishes. They were threatened constantly by Native American violence, by slave revolt, and by each other. Guns were a high technology, compared to traditional swords and arrows (which were still the norm among many), and they were the most dangerous invention of their time. Machine guns had existed for decades, alongside canon and mortars, and the Founders knew that guns were getting better by the day. Washington especially was a military man, and aware of the progress tinkerers were making with new guns. It was his job to know. 

The Founding Fathers knew exactly what guns were when they wrote the Second Amendment, and the knew how violent men could be and how lawless things could get. They didn’t write about the right to keep and bear some arms, and we can assume that, because of their legal training, they would have been clear if that’s what they had intended. They simply wrote “arms”: knives, daggers, swords, sabers, bayonets, spears, pistols, muskets, rifles, repeating rifles, early machine guns, canon, mortars, grape shot, shotguns filled with nails, bombs and more… the deadliest, most destructive arms then available. There was plenty the Founders could’ve restricted, if they’d so intended, but they didn’t. They intended for every American to be as well-armed as was necessary for his safety in a hazardous country. 

The framers’ world wasn’t that much different from ours, or any less violent. Guns weren’t any less deadly than they are today (and the really deadly new ones, the automatics, are already outlawed and have been for a long time). Their intent wasn’t just to guarantee the right to carry flintlock muskets, but the right to carry arms, in whatever form and with whatever technological innovations are available, in an uncertain time.