In another letter on Nov. 7, 1786, Washington questioned Gen. Lincoln about the unrest: "What is the cause of all these commotions? When and how will they end?" Washington was especially concerned about the possibility of a hidden British hand.
Lincoln responded: "Many of them [the rebels] appear to be absolutely so [mad] if an attempt to annihilate our present constitution and dissolve the present government can be considered as evidence of insanity."
However, the U.S. government -- under the Articles of Confederation -- lacked the means to restore order. So wealthy Bostonians financed their own force under Gen. Lincoln to crush the uprising in February 1787. Afterwards, Washington remained concerned the rebellion might be a sign that European predictions about American chaos were coming true.
"If three years ago [at the end of the American Revolution] any person had told me that at this day, I should see such a formidable rebellion against the laws & constitutions of our own making as now appears I should have thought him a bedlamite -- a fit subject for a mad house," Washington wrote to Knox on Feb. 3, 1787, adding that if the government "shrinks, or is unable to enforce its laws ... anarchy & confusion must prevail."
Just weeks later, Washington's alarm about Shays' Rebellion was a key factor in his decision to take part in -- and preside over -- the Constitutional Convention, which was supposed to offer revisions to the Articles of Confederation but instead threw out the old structure entirely and replaced it with the U.S. Constitution. The Constitution shifted national sovereignty from the 13 states to "We the People" and dramatically enhanced the power of the central government.
The key point of the Constitution was to create a peaceful means for the United States to implement policies favored by the people but within a structure of checks and balances to prevent radical changes deemed too disruptive to the established order. For instance, the two-year terms of the House of Representatives were meant to reflect the popular will but the six-year terms of the Senate were designed to temper the passions of the moment (and senators were initially chosen by state legislatures, not the people).
Within this framework of a democratic Republic -- where peaceful change was possible though intentionally gradual -- the Framers criminalized taking up arms against the government. But it was the Constitution's drastic expansion of federal power that prompted strong opposition from some Revolutionary War figures, such as Virginia's Patrick Henry who spearheaded the Anti-Federalist movement.
Prospects for the Constitution's ratification were in such doubt that its principal architect James Madison joined in a sales campaign known as the Federalist Papers in which he tried to play down how radical his changes actually were. To win over other skeptics, Madison agreed to support a Bill of Rights, which would be proposed as the first ten amendments to the Constitution. The Bill of Rights was a mix of concessions, some substantive and some rhetorical, to both individual citizens and the states.
The Second Amendment was primarily a right granted to the states. It read: "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."
Madison's political maneuvering narrowly secured approval of the Constitution in key states, such as Virginia, New York and Massachusetts. The First Congress then approved the Bill of Rights, which were ratified in 1791. [For more details on the Constitution, see Robert Parry's America's Stolen Narrative.]
Behind the Second Amendment
As the preface to the Second Amendment makes clear, the concern was about enabling states to organize militias that could maintain "security," which fit with the Constitution's goal of "domestic Tranquility" within the framework of a Republic.
This concept was amplified by the actions of the Second Congress amid another uprising which erupted in 1791 in western Pennsylvania. This anti-tax revolt, known as the Whiskey Rebellion, prompted Congress in 1792 to expand on the idea of "a well-regulated militia" by passing the Militia Acts which required all military-age white males to obtain their own muskets and equipment for service in militias.
At the time, Madison was in the U.S. Congress and Washington was in the presidency -- with both supporting the new laws -- so the "original intent" of the Framers could not be easily misunderstood.
The right "to keep and bear arms" was always within the context of participating in militias -- or today the National Guard -- not as the right of individuals to possess devastating weapons that could be used to violently overthrow the U.S. government or to kill its officials. (The recognition of a collective -- rather than individual right -- was only reversed in 2008 when right-wing ideologues had gained control of the U.S. Supreme Court and then overturned more than two centuries of legal precedents.)
But if there was any doubt about how the actual Framers saw the Second Amendment, it was answered in 1794 when President Washington led a combined force of state militias against the Whiskey rebels in Pennsylvania. The revolt soon collapsed; many leaders fled; and two participants were convicted of high treason and sentenced to hanging, though Washington later pardoned them.