As “guns in trunks” becomes the ridiculous law of the land, joining “guns in bars” and “guns in parks,” it’s time to reveal one of the South’s most sordid secrets: the state militias sanctioned by the Second Amendment were almost certainly slave control militias.
The Second Amendment states: “A well regulated Militia, being necessary to the security of a free State, the right of the people to keep and bear Arms, shall not be infringed.”
What this really meant was: “A brutal police state being necessary for white people to live in the lap of luxury at the expense of black slaves, the right of white men to keep and bear Arms, shall not be infringed.”
The term “free Country” appeared in James Madison’s original version of the Second Amendment. But it was changed to appease slave owners because they wanted to protect slavery, and that required armed state militias capable of “putting the fear of God” in slaves. Southerners knew that the slavery-hating free states would not help them put down slave insurrections; thus they needed state militias, not to defend freedom, but tyranny.
Slavery required police states. Unfortunately for the more enlightened founding fathers, if they wanted to have a Union, they would have to make a “deal with the Devil” by endorsing a white Gestapo.
At the time Madison changed the wording of the Second Amendment to appease slaveholders, eight states had ratified the proposed Constitution, but a ninth was needed to make it official. The fate of the United States hung in the balance, because four states were opposed to ratification. The last best hope for a “more perfect Union” was Virginia.
Jefferson and Madison were Virginians, and slaveholders. Thus, the primary authors of the foundational documents of then-fledgling Union knew full well what it would take to seal the deal. Virginians would have to be assured that they could keep their slaves, which meant assuring them that they could keep their militias, because the former could not continue without the latter.
The southern militias were not small affairs. Far from it. They were huge, compulsory networks. George Mason, who has been called the “Father of the Bill of Rights,” confirmed that the southern militias were comprised of all white male citizens with only a few exceptions, saying: “Who are the militia? They consist now of the whole people, except a few public officers.” (Mason didn’t consider women, children or people with darker skin to be “people.”)
These extensive militias had become part and parcel of southern society. Two decades before the Revolutionary War, the state of Georgia passed laws that required all plantation owners or their white male employees to enlist. In her book Slave Patrols: Law and Violence in Virginia and the Carolinas, Sally E. Haden explains that, with only a few exceptions such as judges, legislators and students, nearly every white man in Virginia and the Carolinas became a slave patroller between the ages 18 and 45, even physicians and ministers!
By the time the founding fathers got together to hammer out a Constitution and Bill of Rights, there had been hundreds of slave uprisings across the South. So it should come as no surprise that Jefferson wrote: “... our combustion must be near at hand; and only a single spark is wanting to make that day to-morrow ... if something is not done and done soon, we shall be the murderers of our own children.”
Some slaveholders were concerned that the proposed Constitution, which gave the federal government the power to raise and supervise a militia, could result in a federal militia that absorbed the state militias and ended up freeing the slaves they had been keeping in chains. And there had been just such a precedent. Twelve years earlier, Lord Dunsmore had offered freedom to slaves who escaped and joined his forces. So it was no idle fear that slaves might be emancipated through military service.
Thus, the deal with the Devil was made. White southern men would have the right to bear arms, to form state militias, to whip slaves who showed any sign of wanting freedom, and to track them down like wild animals if they escaped. Now the NRA insists that the Second Amendment is entirely about “freedom,” but the graves of dead slaves and schoolchildren say otherwise.
Michael R. Burch is a Nashville-based editor and publisher of Holocaust poetry and other “things literary” at www.thehypertexts.com.