A Living Constitution & The Right to Bear Arms

The Pennsylvania Constitution is an interesting beast.  Most of us are well aware of its right to bear arms provision, which is one of the strongest worded for an individual right. That’s what we will examine here, through the various revisions of the Pennsylvania Constitution, and there have been many:

The Commonwealth of Pennsylvania has been governed by five constitutions between 1776 and 1968. Before that, the province of Pennsylvania was governed for almost a century by four successive constitutions, referred to as The Frame of Government.

The first Frame of Government 1682, also known as Penn’s Charter, was written by William Penn while he was still in England, and was repudiated by Pennsylvania’s Colonial Assembly. In the preface, Penn stated his political philosophy on government: “Any government is free to the people under it … where the laws rule and the people are a party to those laws.”

None of the four Frames of Government that defined Pennsylvania’s colonial Quaker government had any right to bear arms provision. That had its start in the Constitution of 1776:

XIII. That the people have a right to bear arms for the defence of themselves and the state; and as standing armies in the time of peace are dangerous to liberty, they ought not to be kept up; And that the military should be kept under strict subordination to, and governed by, the civil power.

In the Constitution of 1790, the right to bear arms provision was changed to:

Sec. 21. That the right of citizens to bear arms, in defence of themselves and the State, shall not be questioned.

The Pennsylvania Constitution would undergo it’s next major revision in 1838, slightly changing the wording by changing “citizens” to “the citizens”:

Section XXI. The right of the citizens to bear arms, in defence of themselves and the State, shall not be questioned.

Move to the Constitution of 1874, you get some punctuation changes:

Section 21. The right of the citizens to bear arms in defence of themselves and the State shall not be questioned.

That language persisted through the Constitution of 1968, which is the current constitution the Commonwealth of Pennsylvania operates under. Pennsylvania has a living constitution, and multiple generations of revisions and conventions have chosen to preserve the right to bear arms as part of it. I would think that to even a living constitutionalist, this has to mean something.

4 thoughts on “A Living Constitution & The Right to Bear Arms”

  1. For the first 100 years or so, the Quakers had a lock on all important civil offices, and they, of course, had a principled moral antipathy to the bearing of arms. The people of the Pennsylvania “frontier” suffered much in the French and Indian War, and raised considerable complaint that they were defenseless without an orderly and reliable (“well-regulated”) Militia – which the Quakers were disinclined to authorize. But by 1776, the Quakers were no longer in the majority, the memory of the F&I War was only 20 years old, and thus the English tradition that all freemen could keep and bear arms was incorporated into the new Constitution of the Commonwealth.

  2. It is not uncommon for early constitutions to lack a specific provision dealing with the right to keep and bear arms. It did not occurr to the drafters that there could ever be such a question because the right to bear arms, even in the presence of the sovereign, was recognized and secured in the Magna Carta. Indeed the signators of the U.S. Constitution said that the “Bill of Rights” was unnecessary. It was only enacted to gain support for the Constitution by colonies and delegates who had an unusual degree of distrust for government, even for that time and considering that the conlonies had just overthrown their government and renounced their sovereign because of malgovernance.

    One of the problems with the interpretation of the U.S. Constitution, and others, is the misguided and unfounded belief by some that anything not specifically listed in the fashion of Napoleonic Civil Law does not exist. This is not a correct intepretation of Common Law or history. These pre-existing rights were merely recognized in these constitutions.


  3. “The right of the citizens to bear arms in defence of themselves and the State shall not be questioned.”

    How about “from the state” for the next revision?

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