The Second Amendment in the Light of American Republicanism

Article excerpt

The "transforming" ideology of America's revolutionary period saw the chief conflict in society as one between liberty and power. That ideology synthesized themes from several sources.1 Given the differing origins and jumping-off points of classical liberalism and classical republicanism (the two most important elements), the American "synthesis" might be expected to undergo some unraveling when up against the harder problems of political life. What is striking, however, is the surprising tenacity and coherence of American republicanism over the long haul, the persistence of its language, and the continuing relevance of its key ideas down to the present.

One of these key ideas is the notion of the individual properietor on his own land, capable of bearing arms in defense of himself, his property, his family, and the republic. In his role as defender of his free society, the armed citizen served with his fellows in the militia, which republican thinkers regarded as the military system most compatible with republican liberty and whose existence helped offset the menace of "standing armies" drawn from outside the community ("crimped scum") loyal only to their immediate superiors (men of "ambition" or a "court party"). The armed proprietor was the idealized republican citizen, and the Second Amendment enshrines his role in the ideological and political systems.

Some latter-day writers on republicanism have a way of overestimating the tensions within the American synthesis. But some of the alleged incompatibilities-"agrarianism" versus "commercialism," "virtue" versus "luxury"-were either handled well enough by Americans, or exist mainly in the eye of the beholder. Wendy Kaminer, for example, writes that "[alt the heart of the gun-control debate is a fundamental tension between republicanism and individualism" (that is, liberalism).2 A look at the Second Amendment is an opportunity to learn more about American republican ideology and to gain a better understanding of the Amendment itself.

Kaminer writes of "the challenge posed by republicanism to the individualist culture that many gun owners inhabit."3 But when have Americans not inhabited an individualist culture? And when did American "individualists" not live in communities? (Re-read Tocqueville.)

The problem as set up by Kaminer rests on the old caricature of "atomistic liberalism." It does not follow that because John Locke started with individuals and their rights, that he or any other liberal writer overlooked the existence of families, churches, and other social institutions. It has never been strictly a matter of "the individual versus society"; rather it has been about what kind of society we live in, or wish to live in, and whether or not a free society is desirable and possible. If there are "atomistic" versions of liberalism, the French can answer for them, since the English, Scottish, and American writers did not create them. The rootless, abstract individual, who can only be made "whole" again by participating in an authoritarian-to-totalitarian form of republic, is central to Rousseau's systemnot Locke's.4

The Second Amendment in a Distinctively American Republicanism

Anti-Second Amendment writers have great sport trying to separate the individual's right to bear arms from the same individual's role in the militia. On their reading of republicanism, the community stands opposed, somehow, to those who make it up, and the people have "the right to keep and bear arms" only in relation to their duties in the militia. We are asked to take seriously the view that these individuals only keep and bear arms at the command of the state, and really ought to store them all in a central warehouse, whence they will be issued when the state organs (of "national security"?) decide there is an emergency. The state militias, it is likewise asserted, mean nothing today, having been consumed by the National Guard, with its sort of Third World name. …