Freedom’s Last Failsafe: The Why of the Second Amendment


Our founding fathers feared the concentration of governmental power and its creep into authoritarianism. One of the vehicles for this throughout history has been a standing army. Ever since Caesar crossed the Rubicon with his 13th Legion, citizens, soldiers, and governments alike have used standing armies to usurp freedom and law. The founding fathers knew this and viewed the populace – armed and ready of their own accord – a failsafe against this.

The original governing document of this nation, The Articles of Confederation, did not provide for a standing army but left it to the states to maintain a ready militia. Under the Common Law definition, the militia was any male between 16 to 60 or so who could bear arms. This group was the bulk of the men in a community, and they were expected to be ready to turn out at a summons to handle a threat. These men provided their own arms and ammunition, voluntarily trained together, and were under no legal contract to serve, but rather a social and moral obligation. This system was not perfect either, as militias were commanded locally and had little loyalty outside of their community. While local control of the militia was generally a good thing as members were vested in the defense of their community, it also provided the foundation for a force that could subvert state and national interests. This was evidenced in Shay’s Rebellion and the Whisky Rebellion (though one could argue the former was a response to business interests using out of state militias to enforce unpayable tax levies). After Shay’s Rebellion, calls were made for a stronger national government, resulting in the Constitutional Conventions and eventually the Constitution. This document gave congress the power to raise a standing army, which caused much concern. To this end, James Madison crafted the Bill of Rights to enshrine – not grant – rights that were believed by all involved to be inalienable and natural (God-given) as a reminder to the government of areas where it is not to tread.

This Bill of Rights holds within it the 2nd Amendment: “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”. The people = individual people. The meaning of the word people does not change from its focus on the individual understood in the 1st and 4th Amendments. The militia = the armed populace, ready and disciplined (trained) of their own volition. This is not the National Guard, which was raised under Title 10 USC as a standing force, equipped and trained by the state, that the national government can assume control of with the governor’s consent. The militia is all of us. A trained and ready citizenry was seen as an effective deterrent to the abuse of power by authorities. Noah Webster declared: “Before a standing army can rule, the people must be disarmed; as they are in almost every kingdom in Europe. The supreme power in America cannot enforce unjust laws by the sword; because the whole body of the people are armed, and constitute a force superior to any bands of regular troops that can be, on any pretense, raised in the United States.”

The founding fathers of our nation knew the danger of a standing force in the hands of the government, and viewed the populace, armed and trained, as the substitute and a deterrent to the abuse of power. To this end, they placed the Right to Keep and Bear Arms second only to free speech, enshrined forever in the Bill of Rights as a reminder to the government of a right that pre-existed the document it is written on and stands as a warning against the abuse of power – especially via military force, and as an encouragement to the citizen to be active and vigilant in their preparation and maintenance of skill.

Richard Douglas is a long-time shooter, outdoor enthusiast and technologist. He is the founder and editor of Scopes Field, and a columnist at The National Interest, Cheaper Than Dirt, Daily Caller and other publications.