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No, the Second Amendment wasn’t about racism

A new book tortures the historical record

C and D have both written books about the Second Amendment. C is an academic. D is a former sportswriter. Which one of them said the following about the history of the Second Amendment in an interview with a somewhat prestigious publication:

At the Ratification Convention in Virginia, the Constitution has been drafted, ratification is happening, and then it stalls. Virginia is one of the big holdouts. James Madison runs down back home to Virginia to try to push this thing through. He runs up against Patrick Henry and George Mason, who are apoplectic because Madison has put control of the militia in the federal Constitution, under federal control. They’re like, You know the North detests slavery. If we have a slave revolt, how can we count on them to get the militia to come down here and protect us, to put the slave revolt down? We will be left defenseless.

Madison is quaking in his boots because his arguments aren’t working. He’s already like, Look, slavery is protected. You already got the three-fifths clause. You already got 20 extra years on the Atlantic Slave Trade. You already got the Fugitive Slave Clause. But what they wanted was a bill of rights that would protect them. And they said, If we don’t get it, we’re going to push for a new Constitutional Convention. What Madison was afraid of was that this would hurl the U.S. back to the unworkable Articles of Confederation. He runs to that first Congress, and he was obsessed with drafting these amendments.

When you think about it, in these amendments, you get freedom of the press, freedom of speech, the right not to be illegally searched and seized, the right to a speedy and fair trial, the right not to have cruel and unusual punishment—and then you have the right to a well-regulated militia for the security of the state? This thing is such an outlier in this Bill of Rights. And this outlier is because this is the bribe to Patrick Henry, to George Mason, to the Southern slaveholders.

Was it the academic or the former sportswriter who said this? If you guessed the academic, give yourself a pat on the back.

“C,” who said the above in an interview with Slate, is Carol Anderson, the Charles Howard Candler professor at Emory University as well as the chair of the school’s African American Studies department.

She has written a new book titled “The Second,” which argues that the whole purpose of the Second Amendment of the United States Constitution was to keep the African slaves and their descendants down.

It wasn’t about the right of citizens to “keep and bear arms,” as the text of the amendment clearly states.

Nor was it about guaranteeing the right of rebellion against an unjust authority, a right that the Declaration of Independence had clearly claimed on behalf of Britain’s North American colonies.

Nor was it about assuring the states that the federal government would not be so overweening as to stop them from organizing men to defend against threats from Indians and European powers on much of what was still contested, frontier territory.

Nope, it was all about racism and oppression.

Anderson quotes a quip from progressive Daily Show host Trevor Noah approvingly: “the Second Amendment is not intended for Black people.”

Now, the “D” cryptically referenced above is David Harsanyi, a former sportswriter who moved into political writing. He has written the book “First Freedom,” and he doesn’t think much of Anderson’s historical reconstruction.

“‘The Second,’” Harsanyi writes in National Review, “is an attempt…to reimagine history in purely racial terms. The result is tendentious polemic that suffers not only from a paucity of historical evidence, but from a dishonest rendering of the facts we do know.”

What did Anderson ignore and what did she get plain wrong, according to Harsanyi? Here are the big ones:

1) “After comprehensively detailing the constitutional debate over slavery and the nefariousness of that institution, Anderson takes the liberty of asserting that the Second Amendment was ‘not some hallowed ground but rather a bribe, paid again with Black bodies.’ This is a contention that isn’t backed by a single contemporaneous quote or piece of hard evidence in the book.”

2) “Anderson ignores the tradition of militias in English common law — codifying the ‘ancient and indubitable’ right in the 1689 English Bill of Rights — which had nothing to do with chattel slavery.”

3) “Anderson ignores the fact that nearly every intellectual, political, and military leader of the Founding generation — many of whom had no connection to slavery — stressed the importance of self-defense in entirely different contexts.”

4) “[B]y 1791, of the four jurisdictions that had written their own Second Amendments, three of them — Vermont, Massachusetts, and Pennsylvania — had already abolished slavery. When Vermont authored its first constitution in 1777, in fact, it protected the right to keep and bear arms in the same document that it banned slavery.”

5) Read this passage: “In short, James Madison, the Virginian, knew ‘that the militia’s prime function in his state, and throughout the south, was slave control.’” Does it sound like she’s saying James Madison said those words? It’s on the line. Only the “his” gives you some clue that this is not Madison speaking. “When you follow the book’s endnote…it leads to a 1998 paper titled ‘The Hidden History of the Second Amendment,’ written by anti-gun activist Carl T. Bogus, who shares Anderson’s thesis. It is his quote. Nowhere does Bogus offer any sample of Madison declaring, or even implying, that slave control was the impetus for the Second Amendment.”

6) “Anderson declares that among his ‘great rights,’ Madison discusses only ‘trial by jury, freedom of the press, and ‘liberty of conscience,’ and that the right to bear arms does not even ‘make the list.’ … Early in his argument [that she’s referring to], Madison mentions, in passing, some of the ‘great rights,’ before literally listing — ‘fourthly,’ in fact, right after freedom of religion and assembly — the ‘right of the people to keep and bear arms shall not be infringed; a well armed, and well regulated militia being the best security of a free country: but no person religiously scrupulous of bearing arms, shall be compelled to render military service in person.’”

We will revisit this subject soon, because it points to other problems in the academy. Anderson’s shoddy, nigh unto fraudulent scholarship is exactly what I was getting at in a previous column with this warning to progressive scholars who write about the Second Amendment:

In this age of Way Too Much Information, trust is a ridiculously important sorting mechanism. We face a deluge of claims on our attention, every day, and have to find some way to sift through that to get at good information. … [W]hen we do read, we often do so through a hermeneutic of suspicion. If a source isn’t credible in our eyes for some reason, that’s one less claimant on our time to worry about.

What I’m saying, my fine south-pawed friends, is this: Don’t shoot your own credibility in the foot by making ridiculous claims about a cherished, historical right of the American people.

MORE: Professor hits NRA silence on cop who shot gun-owning black man, ignores gun owner outrage

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About the Author
Jeremy founded three of the Real Clear Politics family of websites and has covered subjects ranging from religious trends to space travel to an armed standoff, for hundreds of publications. His books and comic books include The Warm Bucket Brigade: A History of the Vice Presidency, William F. Buckley, and Movie Men. Jeremy graduated from Trinity Western University, where he served as an editor for the Mars Hill newspaper.