The Founders Who Didn’t Believe in Self-Defense

You hear now, from the gun control groups (or is that group at this point) who do not accept Heller, and deride it as without historical basis, that our founding fathers did not create the Second Amendment with self-defense in mind, and there is no evidence the Second Amendment was about that at all. The true answer is that there were no founding fathers who disagreed with the idea that a person had a right to a firearm for self-defense. In 18th Century America, it would have been like announcing the sky is blue. So they argued about the things they did disagree on, like the distribution of military power in the new republic. Our opponents enjoy acting like this argument is a cop out, and that our side has never presented evidence. This could not be further from the truth. Do these appear to be men who find the notion of carrying arms in self-defense unusual?

I left at your house, the morning after I lodged there, a pistol in a locked case, which no doubt was found in your bar after my departure. I have written to desire either Mr. Randolph or Mr. Eppes to call on you for it, as they come on to Congress, to either of whom therefore be so good as to deliver it.

A gun in a bar? For shame Mr. Jefferson! Clearly you must have gotten drunk and shot the place up. But it does beg the question of why Jefferson had a pistol on his person. Perhaps he merely was transporting it?

I left at Orange C. H. one of my Turkish pistols, in it’s holster, locked. I shall be glad if either yourself or Mr. Eppes can let a servant take it on to this place. It will either bind up in a portmanteau flap, or sling over the back of the servant conveniently.

Of course, one normally does not transport in a holster unless one is carrying for purposes of self-defense. Of course, this is when Jefferson was President, so maybe they view that he was authorized, or something. I mean, they didn’t have any secret service back then. Also, Jefferson was kind of a nut. Surely the federalists were more level headed, right?

Resistance to sudden violence, for the preservation not only of my person, my limbs, and life, but of my property, is an indisputable right of nature which I have never surrendered to the public by the compact of society, and which perhaps, I could not surrender if I would.

John Adams, Boston Gazette, 9/5/1763

But that was before the Constitution, way before. Surely Adams’ views matured as he considered the Second Amendment.

To suppose arms in the hands of citizens, to be used at individual discretion, except in private self-defense, or by partial orders of towns, countries or districts of a state, is to demolish every constitution, and lay the laws prostrate, so that liberty can be enjoyed by no man; it is a dissolution of the government. The fundamental law of the militia is, that it be created, directed and commanded by the laws, and ever for the support of the laws.

John Adams, A Defence of the Constitutions of the United States 475 (1787-1788)

Well, that sounds like Adams endorsing the Heller view of the Second Amendment to me. But OK, so we have Jefferson and Adams. Big deal. Surely Washington didn’t need to compensate for anything by carrying a gun around with him?

As was then the custom, the General had holsters, with pistols in them, to his saddle. On returning to Mount Vernon, as General Washington was about to enter on this private road, a stranger on horseback barred the way, and said to him, “You shall not pass this way.” “You don’t know me,” said the General. “Yes, I do,” said the ruffian; “you are General Washington, who commanded the army in the Revolution, and if you attempt to pass me I shall shoot you.” General Washington called his servant, Billy, to him, and taking out a pistol, examined the priming, and then handed it to Billy, saying, “If this person shoots me, do you shoot him;” and cooly passed on without molestation.

Never a good idea upset George Washington. You never know when he might have his servant shoot you. It’s pretty clear that a broad swath of our founders, either through words or actions, believed in the right of self-defense, and believed in guaranteeing the idea of keeping and bearing arms for that purpose. These are a few things I’ve been able to find. Further evidence can be found in “The Founders Second Amendment” by Steven Halbrook.

17 thoughts on “The Founders Who Didn’t Believe in Self-Defense”

  1. My dear ruffian,

    Should you molest me, I have people to do my shooting for me. With that sentiment, I remain, sir,

    yr. obt. svt.

    Geo. Washington

  2. Great post, Sebastian! I am bookmarking this for future reference. I really need to buy that book!

  3. Sorry, but none of your examples prove that the second amendment was created with self-defense in mind. You conflate two separate ideas: a belief in the right to self-defense generally, and the original purpose of the second amendment. One does not necessarily have anything to do with the other.

    From the preamble of the Bill of Rights:

    “THE Conventions of a number of the States, having at the time of their adopting the Constitution, expressed a desire, in order to prevent misconstruction or abuse of its powers, that further declaratory and restrictive clauses should be added: And as extending the ground of public confidence in the Government, will best ensure the beneficent ends of its institution.”

    This shows that the Bill of Rights was an attempt to make clear the limits of the new central government’s power, because there was a sneaking suspicion among the Jeffersonians/antifederists that it would creep “like a thief in the night” toward total supremacy.

    The second amendment only guaranteed that the “federals” could not go around confiscating guns and things of that nature. Whether or not armed self-defense was legal was a function of state police powers (or state constitutional protections, hence “shall not be questioned…”.

    1. Thank you, asdf! Where did you find that preamble? None of ny pocket Constitutions contain it. I love it!

      Regarding the right to personal self-defense, I agree that that was not the purpose of the Second Amendment (whose recorded purpose was to secure State freedom from federal tyranny); but the Ninth Amendment secures all of our other natural, common law rights from federal infringement, and self-defense, as Sebastian’s quotes confirm, was clearly one of them.

    2. It shows that armed self-defense was not controversial among the founders, and Adams’ invocation of “to be used at individual discretion, except in private self-defense, or by partial orders of towns, countries or districts of a state, is to demolish every constitution,” shows that Adams at least understands the Second Amendment as to protect the right for purposes of “private self-defense.”

      I agree that the primary purpose was as a check on governmental power.

      1. The primary purpose of an armed citizenry is still a check on governmental power, but protection from thugs is an added benefit. I’m impressed you were able to find a topic on which Jefferson & Adams were so much in agreement, given their famous mutual dislike of each other and inability to agree on most concepts.

    3. He didn’t say it – the Second Amendment – was created with self-defense in mind.

      The argument is than it doesn’t mention self-defense because nobody even considered the idea of the State banning it.

      Read closer: The true answer is that there were no founding fathers who disagreed with the idea that a person had a right to a firearm for self-defense. In 18th Century America, it would have been like announcing the sky is blue. So they argued about the things they did disagree on, like the distribution of military power in the new republic.

      So, yes, the Second Amendment is not about self-defense; that at the time it was enacted, self-defense was simply assumed to be a natural right that the State had no power to even contemplate interfering with*.

      The argument is against the idea that, roughly, “the Founders didn’t mention self-defense because they didn’t value it”, which is simply false. They didn’t mention it because it wasn’t considered as something that was remotely threatened.

      (* Beyond the standard Common Law exception that people under law arrest or in prison have no right to arms, given that they will use them literally “against the Law”; at the same time thus the State is bound to defend them from attack.)

    4. Here is the full text, how you can divine what that the Founding Fathers were thinking on self-defense from the preamble is astounding.

      The Preamble to The Bill of Rights

      Congress of the United States
      begun and held at the City of New-York, on
      Wednesday the fourth of March, one thousand seven hundred and eighty nine.

      THE Conventions of a number of the States, having at the time of their adopting the Constitution, expressed a desire, in order to prevent misconstruction or abuse of its powers, that further declaratory and restrictive clauses should be added: And as extending the ground of public confidence in the Government, will best ensure the beneficent ends of its institution.

      RESOLVED by the Senate and House of Representatives of the United States of America, in Congress assembled, two thirds of both Houses concurring, that the following Articles be proposed to the Legislatures of the several States, as amendments to the Constitution of the United States, all, or any of which Articles, when ratified by three fourths of the said Legislatures, to be valid to all intents and purposes, as part of the said Constitution; viz.

      ARTICLES in addition to, and Amendment of the Constitution of the United States of America, proposed by Congress, and ratified by the Legislatures of the several States, pursuant to the fifth Article of the original Constitution.

  4. How could anyone possibly believe that the founders didn’t believe human beings didn’t have a right to self-defense?

    From David T. Hardy’s essay on the origins of the 2A:


    The second amendment to the Constitution had two objectives. The first purpose was to recognize in general terms the importance of a militia to a free state. This recognition derives from the very core of Classical Republican thought; its “constituency” among the Framers was found primarily among conservatives, particularly Virginia’s landed gentry. Indeed, prior to Virginia’s proposal, no federal ratifying convention had called for such recognition. The second purpose was to guarantee an individual right to own and carry arms. This right stemmed both from the English Declaration of Rights and from Enlightenment sources. Its primary supporters came from the Radical-Democratic movement, whether based among the small farmers of western Pennsylvania or the urban mechanics of Massachusetts. Only by incorporating both provisions (p.60)could the first Congress reconcile the priorities of Sam Adams with those of George Mason, and lessen the “disquietude” both of the Pennsylvania and Massachusetts minorities and those of the Virginia and New York majorities. The dual purpose of the second amendment was recognized by all early constitutional commentators;[264] the assumption that the second amendment had but a single objective is in fact an innovation born of historical ignorance.

    The distinction between the second amendment’s purposes enables us to avoid the pitfalls of the collective rights view, which would hold that the entire amendment was meant solely to protect a “collective right” to have a militia.[265] The militia component of the second amendment was not meant as a “right”, collective or individual, except in the sense that structural provisions (e.g., requirements that money bills originate in the House, or military appropriations not exceed two years) are considered collective “rights.” Indeed, the militia component was meant to invoke the exertion of governmental power over the citizen, to inspire it to require citizens to assume the burdens of militia duty. In this respect it differs radically from any other provision of the Bill of Rights. To read what was a recognition of an individual right, the right to arms, as subsumed within the militia recognition is thus not only permitting the tail to wag the dog, but to annihilate what was intended as a right.[266] As the one (p.61)provision of the Bill of Rights which encourages rather than restricts governmental action, the militia component’s terms were necessarily vague and its phrasing a reminder rather than a command.[267]

    The right to arms portion of the second amendment, in contrast, was meant to be a prohibition, as fully binding as those in the remainder of the Bill of Rights. Madison intended that the second amendment be read as incorporating the individual rights proposals put forward by the Pennsylvania minority and by Sam Adams and the New Hampshire convention. Judging from contemporary discussion in Massachusetts and Pennsylvania, he succeeded.[268] If either clause can be accorded primacy, it is the right to arms clause; only in Virginia, at the eleventh hour of the ratification process, was a militia clause appended to a federal bill of rights proposal.

    Reading the entirety of the second amendment as militia-related, based upon some contemporary references to the need for constitutional (p.62)recognition of the militia concept, confuses the purpose of one provision with the text of another. The second amendment, in short, cannot be explained simply as a last avowal of the classical ideal, as “the last act of the Renaissance.”[269] Rather, it is a bridge between the decline of that ideal and the rise of the liberal democracy. Part of the second amendment looks backward to the worlds of Polybius and Machiavelli; but part looks forward, to the worlds of Jefferson and Jackson. Only a recognition of the dual nature of the second amendment will enable us to give meaning to the aspirations of Thomas Jefferson and Samuel Adams as well as those of George Mason.

    The Second Amendment and the Historiography of
    the Bill of Rights by David T. Hardy

    1. I seem to recall CSGV responding to Dave Hardy’s scholarship with a quote that goes something very close to: “Dave Hardy? Are you kidding me? He’s a pro-gun blogger!”

      Because if you’re pro-gun, you can’t have the right opinion, you see. Everything you do is tainted by the fact that you’re a gun nut.

    2. Good info, Tim! Thanks for posting Dave’s insights. I found especially interesting his assertion that the militia purpose was not even considered until the 11th hour. I’d never heard that before. That would certainly have significant bearing on the PRIMARY purpose of the Second Amendment, although the actual wording seems to state otherwise.

      Nevertheless, Sage Thrasher’s comment remains most accurate: the right is secured to every individual citizen from all federal infringement, allowing for armed self-defense as well as State freedom from federal tyranny.

      Again, thanks for posting that, Tim!

      Respectfully, Arnie

  5. One could make the argument that the Right to Self-Defense is inherent in the Bill of Rights because of all the limits that are supposed to restrain the abuse of Individual Liberty. Just look at what the Government is NOT allowed to do to the Individual in the other Amendments. By having so many “Big Government Shall NOT…” Amendments, the entire Bill of Rights implies in its very Nature that the Individual is responsible for their daily lives and actions and consequences.

    To say that the Federal or any other Government is the only one responsible for a Person’s Self-Defense needs, yet they are NOT responsible for anything else affecting the Individual is the same as saying one can buy a Car, pay the Taxes and Insurance, Fill it up, but one is NOT allowed to use it. Absolutely Silly!

  6. What I found interesting in the Geo. Washington anecdote was that Washington, a gentleman, did not arm himself against the ruffian (who was not a gentleman) but rather armed his servant. Servants took care of trash removal in a gentleman’s domestic establishment, in Washington’s era. Gentlemen of that time did not fight with the lower classes.

    A gentleman like Washington would never be insulted by another gentleman; and anyone who did insult him, as this ruffian attempted, was no gentleman.

  7. If you ever get the chance to visit Mount Vernon, as you walk through General Washington’s study you will see in the corner of the room, his favorite gun. Still in the same place he kept it until the day we lost that great American.

    As for asdf and his preamble of the Bill of Rights, rational people have to remember as a liberal it is not about facts or the reality of history. It is about feelings and how he feels about history, if he feel that the founding fathers did not want to defend themselves ( not counting a few thousand dead British ) then that is the truth. ( Glad you never insulted Alexander Hamilton ) You can not convert asdf with facts and statistics that show something is not the truth if he feels it is so. He feels that guns are not apart of our history and that feeling converts to his extensive knowledge of history through some process’s I will never understand. So asdf I hope you feel better and learn how to use more than 4 keys in a rowon the board.

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