President George Washington pictured leading state and federal troops against the Whiskey Rebellion in western Pennsylvania in 1794.
Over the past several decades, the American Right has invested heavily in media outlets and think tanks with the goal of imposing right-wing historical narratives on the nation. That investment has now paved the way for defeat of modest gun-control legislation in the U.S. Senate.
Because of this well-financed right-wing propaganda, millions of Americans have been convinced that the Framers of the U.S. Constitution wanted individual Americans armed to the teeth so they could kill policemen, soldiers and other government representatives. Thus any restriction on gun ownership, no matter how sensible, is deemed as going against the nation's Founding Fathers.
Madison only grudgingly agreed to incorporate a Bill of Rights at all as a deal to secure the necessary votes for the Constitution's ratification, with the Second Amendment essentially a concession to the states which wanted to protect their right to maintain citizen militias.
At the time, the right to bear arms within the context of "a well-regulated Militia" was not understood as a "libertarian" right to have an unregulated arsenal in your basement or the right to stride into public gatherings with a semi-automatic assault rifle with a 100-bullet magazine over your shoulder. In 1789, when Congress approved the Second Amendment, muskets were single-shot devices requiring time-consuming reloading.
And, as the Second Amendment explains, its purpose was to maintain "the security of a free State," not to undermine that security with mass killings of civilians or insurrections against the elected government representing "We the People of the United States." Under the Constitution, such insurrections were defined as "treason."
But the Right has successfully abridged the Second Amendment as it is now understood by many ill-informed Americans. The 12-word preamble -- explaining the point of the amendment -- gets lopped off and only the last 14 words are left as the unofficially revised amendment.
So, when the likes of Tea Party favorite Sen. Ted Cruz lectures fellow senators on the Second Amendment, he doesn't include the preamble, "A well-regulated Militia being necessary to the security of a free State." He only reads the rest: "the right of the people to keep and bear Arms shall not be infringed." Nor do the Tea Partiers note that to Madison and the Framers the term "bear Arms" meant to participate in a militia, not to have as many guns as you want.
The real history has gotten lost in a swamp of false narrative, the sort of ideological deceptions that have come to dominate the current American political scene and have given us an Orwellian present in which he "who controls the past" really does "control the future."
Now, even intelligent politicians like President Barack Obama genuflect before the mythology of the Second Amendment as he did on Wednesday when he stood with parents of children massacred in Newtown, Connecticut, and repeatedly argued that a defeated compromise on background checks for gun buyers in no way impinged on anyone's Second Amendment rights.
No one, it seems, wants to get into the reeds on this issue and take on the Right's false narrative, apparently hoping that those distortions can be simply overridden by public outrage against the thousands upon thousands of Americans who are killed by gun violence every year. But the failure to contest false narratives, especially ones as powerful as the nation's founding myth, effectively dooms rational policy discussions.
If the Right can rile up a lot of people with neo-Confederate appeals against the "tyranny" of the federal government, the United States cannot face its future challenges, whether stopping school massacres or effectively regulating Wall Street or reducing income inequality or addressing the existential threat of global warming. All such efforts will simply be dismissed as federal assaults on "liberty."
Most perniciously, the Right -- through its propaganda -- has equated the federal government with the British Crown, treating any national effort to deal with domestic problems as the same as British troops marching on Lexington and Concord. That's the message in the Tea Party's hijacking of Revolutionary War imagery.
Yet, that would mean that Revolutionary War heroes like George Washington and Alexander Hamilton -- as well as the Constitution's chief architect James Madison -- are stand-ins for King George III, since they were the ones who organized the Constitutional Convention in 1787.
The Constitution dramatically strengthened the central government from its status as a "league of friendship" dominated by "independent" and "sovereign" states under the Articles of Confederation. The power grab in Philadelphia was what gave rise to the first claims about a powerful central government imposing federal "tyranny."
Anti-Federalists rose to oppose the Constitution, in part, by claiming that federal authorities might destroy the system of state militias and then crush the individual states. Madison ridiculed that argument in Federalist Paper 46, which ironically is one that the gun-rights advocates often cite in arguing in favor of a fully armed population.
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