General Benjamin Lincoln who led a force in 1787 to put down Shays' Rebellion in western Massachusetts. (Painting by Charles Willson Peale)
The Right's powerful propaganda apparatus has sold millions of Americans on the dangerous -- and false -- notion that the Framers of the U.S. Constitution incorporated the Second Amendment in the Bill of Rights so an armed population could fight the government that the Framers had just created.
As a result of that historical lie, many right-wingers today appear to be heeding a call to arms by buying up assault weapons at a frenetic pace. A "Gun Appreciation Day" is scheduled for the Saturday before Barack Obama's Second Inaugural, which coincidentally falls on Martin Luther King Day. Thousands of gun owners are expected to turn out waving flags and brandishing rifles.
In recent weeks, this bogus narrative of the Framers seeking to encourage violence to subvert the peaceful and orderly process that they had painstakingly created in Philadelphia in 1787 also has been pushed by prominent right-wingers, such as radio host Rush Limbaugh and Fox News personality Andrew NapolitanoThe organizer of that effort, right-wing activist Larry Ward, wrote that "the Obama administration has shown that it is more than willing to trample the Constitution to impose its dictates upon the American people."
Napolitano declared: "The historical reality of the Second Amendment's protection of the right to keep and bear arms is not that it protects the right to shoot deer. It protects the right to shoot tyrants, and it protects the right to shoot at them effectively, with the same instruments they would use upon us."
The suggestion is that armed Americans must confront the "tyrannical" Barack Obama -- the twice-elected President of the United States (and the first African-American to hold that office) -- if he presses ahead seeking commonsense gun restrictions in the face of the massacre of 20 schoolchildren in Newtown, Connecticut, and hundreds of other horrendous incidents of gun violence.
These "revolutionary" Americans have been persuaded that they are channeling the intent of the Framers who supposedly saw armed uprisings against the legally constituted U.S. government as an important element of "liberty."
But that belief is not the historical reality. Indeed, the reality is almost the opposite. The Second Amendment was enacted so each state would have the specific right to form "a well-regulated militia" to maintain "security," i.e., to put down armed rebellions.
The Framers also made clear what they thought should happen to people who took up arms against the Republic. Article IV, Section 4 committed the federal government to protect each state from not only invasion but "domestic Violence," and treason is defined in the Constitution as "levying war against" the United States as well as giving "Aid and Comfort" to the enemy (Article III, Section 3).
Second Amendment's History
The historical context of the Second Amendment also belies today's right-wing mythology. At the time of the Constitutional Convention, the young nation was experiencing violent unrest, such as the Shays' Rebellion in western Massachusetts. That armed uprising was testing the ability of the newly independent nation to establish order within the framework of a democratic Republic, a fairly untested idea at the time. European monarchies were predicting chaos and collapse for the United States.
Among the most concerned about that possibility was General George Washington, who had sacrificed greatly for the birth of the new nation. After the British surrender at Yorktown in 1781 and their acceptance of American independence in 1783, Washington fretted over the inability of the states-rights-oriented Articles of Confederation, then governing the country, to deal with its economic and security challenges.
Washington grew disgusted with the Articles' recognition of 13 "independent" and "sovereign" states and the correspondingly weak central government, called not even a government, but a "league of friendship."
As Commander-in-Chief of the Continental Army, Washington had watched his soldiers suffer when various states reneged on their commitment to supply money and arms. After the war, Washington retired but stayed active in seeking reforms that would strengthen the central government's ability to organize national commerce and to maintain order.
His fears deepened in 1786 when Daniel Shays, a former Continental Army captain, led an uprising of other veterans and farmers in western Massachusetts, taking up arms against the government for failing to address their economic grievances.
Washington received reports on the crisis from old Revolutionary War associates in Massachusetts, such as his longtime logistical chief, Gen. Henry Knox, and Gen. Benjamin Lincoln, who accepted the British surrender at Yorktown as Washington's second in command. They kept Washington apprised of the disorder, which he feared might encourage renewed interference in American affairs by the British or other European powers.
On Oct. 22, 1786, in a letter seeking more information about the rebellion from a friend in Connecticut, Washington wrote: "I am mortified beyond expression that in the moment of our acknowledged independence we should by our conduct verify the predictions of our transatlantic foe, and render ourselves ridiculous and contemptible in the eyes of all Europe."