The Mythic Meanings of the Second Amendment: Taming Political Violence in a Constitutional Republic [NOOK Book]


The Second Amendment, which concerns the right of the people to keep and bear arms, has been the subject of great debate for decades. Does it protect an individual's right to arms or only the right of the states to maintain their militias? In this book David C. Williams offers a new reading of the Second Amendment: that it guarantees to individuals a right to arms only insofar as they are part of a united and consensual people, so that their uprising can be a unified revolution ...
See more details below
The Mythic Meanings of the Second Amendment: Taming Political Violence in a Constitutional Republic

Available on NOOK devices and apps  
  • NOOK Devices
  • NOOK HD/HD+ Tablet
  • NOOK
  • NOOK Color
  • NOOK Tablet
  • Tablet/Phone
  • NOOK for Windows 8 Tablet
  • NOOK for iOS
  • NOOK for Android
  • NOOK Kids for iPad
  • PC/Mac
  • NOOK for Windows 8
  • NOOK for PC
  • NOOK for Mac
  • NOOK Study
  • NOOK for Web

Want a NOOK? Explore Now

NOOK Book (eBook)
$48.00 price


The Second Amendment, which concerns the right of the people to keep and bear arms, has been the subject of great debate for decades. Does it protect an individual's right to arms or only the right of the states to maintain their militias? In this book David C. Williams offers a new reading of the Second Amendment: that it guarantees to individuals a right to arms only insofar as they are part of a united and consensual people, so that their uprising can be a unified revolution rather than a civil war.
Read More Show Less

Product Details

  • ISBN-13: 9780300127553
  • Publisher: Yale University Press
  • Publication date: 3/1/2003
  • Sold by: Barnes & Noble
  • Format: eBook
  • File size: 610 KB

Read an Excerpt

The Mythic Meanings of the Second Amendment


Yale University Press

Copyright © 2003 Yale University
All right reserved.

ISBN: 978-0-300-09562-3

Chapter One

The Background of the Framers' Thinking

Over the past several decades, the historiography of late eighteenth-century intellectual life has undergone not one but a whole series of sea changes. First, following the work of Louis Hartz, scholars commonly opined that America was conceived in the womb of classical liberalism, with its emphasis on individual rights and self-determination; in this view, America has always been captive to a liberal orthodoxy that haunts us still. Then, with the work of Bernard Bailyn, Gordon Wood, and J. G. A. Pocock, came the "republican revolution" in the writing of American history: in this view, the categories of civic republican discourse, with its emphasis on virtue and the common good, so captured the late eighteenth century that it was difficult to think outside that frame. According to this account, liberalism came to dominate our national consciousness in the nineteenth century only slowly and after great struggle. Finally, scholars have begun to argue that both liberalism and republicanism played a critical part in the great debates of the last half of the century. These two strainsswirled around each other and interacted in nuanced, variable ways in the minds of political thinkers. Some have even begun to write about a hybrid ideology called liberal republicanism, with an emphasis on both individual rights and the common good.

In recognition of this complex inheritance, I address here the doctrine of revolution offered by each of these traditions, civic republicanism and classical liberalism. In chapter 3, I shall suggest that, whatever the general mix of ideas at the time, supporters of the Second Amendment tended to rely more on republican than liberal language when discussing this provision, as they put the republican fondness for the militia at the center of their thinking. In the end, however, it is not very important to decide which ideology enjoyed prominence in the amendment's history because the two strains of thought converge on the two propositions central to my thesis: first, the people enjoy a right to resist a corrupt government, but, second, the people enjoy that right as a collective entity, not as disconnected individuals.

Civic Republicanism

Historians like Bailyn and Pocock have traced the civic republican tradition from Aristotle, through Machiavelli and the Italian Renaissance, to the beginnings of the Commonwealth Party in seventeenth-century Great Britain and such figures as James Harrington and Algernon Sydney. This tradition influenced American writers of the eighteenth century, who commonly drew on it to explain their relation to Great Britain. Some historians have claimed that republicanism formed a virtual orthodoxy, a hegemonic discourse, for late eighteenth-century Americans. Others have denied that republicanism's influence was so vast, but no one has claimed it was absent. It was in this collection of ideas that the militia held central prominence. To understand why the Framers insisted in the Second Amendment that the militia was "necessary to the security of a free state," we must therefore turn to this tradition.

In brief, republicans held that the government and its citizens should pursue the common good rather than the selfish interest of a faction. They also believed, however, that governments and citizens are prone to corruption, to putting their own good first. When designing a constitutional organization of violence, therefore, civic republicans looked for a body that would most reliably pursue the common good. They thought they found it in the militia because it was universal, the people-under-arms. As a result, the militia's good was by definition the common good, as it embraced all of society. Republicans imagined the militia as a highly unified, organic entity, the institutional manifestation of the Body of the People. The militia thus straddled the divide between governments and individuals. The government raised it to ensure that it was universal. Under normal circumstances, the militia functioned as a state instrument, expected to suppress revolts. Yet the militia was ultimately a people's body, and if the government should become corrupt, the militia could suppress an insurrection against the common good by the government itself. In either case, to deserve the trust entailed in bearing arms, the militia had to be universal and thus driven by a concern for the common good.


Eighteenth-century republicans shared certain views about the nature of human beings. First, they have public, political selves and for this reason can form cooperative ventures that will benefit all. The polity itself is a universal association "in which all types of men combine to pursue all human goods," and it can achieve a universal good that is more than the private interests of a few. At the same time, however, every individual has a private, particular self and self-interest, and his public and private selves can come into conflict. A good state is one in which citizens pursue the common good; a bad state is one that has been seized by a slice of society for its own narrow ends.

Republicans therefore hoped to induce citizens to pursue the common good, but they faced a problem: the virtue of the state and that of its citizens are interdependent. To be virtuous, a citizen must live in a state that enshrines the common good; otherwise he can be no more than one bit of self-serving flotsam swirling around other bits, for there is no common good to serve. The state, however, will never enshrine the common good unless its citizens are virtuous; but, in turn, the only way they can become virtuous is for the state to enshrine the common good. Citizens make the state, and the state makes citizens; neither can be virtuous unless the other is.

This closed circle created a republican paradox: citizens are simultaneously creatures of and creators of the state. And this paradox raised for republicans the troubling question of how one creates a republic: the problem of origins. Virtuous citizens can create virtuous states, and virtuous states can create virtuous citizens, but how does one secure either of these in the first place without the other? In this paradoxical formulation, republics appear to have a self-levitating quality: they do somehow come into being, but only because historical conditions happen to be right, not because humans consciously create those conditions. As a result, a republican form of government might not be viable at all times and for all peoples. Those hoping for a republic might simply have to wait for providence to deliver a virtuous people or a virtuous government to make it possible.

Even if the miracle did occur and a republican state came into being, it was always in danger of slipping into corruption: the problem of maintenance. Because state and society depended on each other, if either became corrupt it might contaminate the other. Because neither could serve as an anchor, republicans saw the path to perdition as short, smooth, and slippery. And the world contained many hostile forces: Fortuna, under various guises, always lurked to disrupt the best plans of men. At the first sign of corruption, then, there was only a limited time to save the republic before the Fall had become irreversible.

This set of relations is connected to a third paradox: the complicated republican view on rights and autonomy. In republican theory, citizens must be independent of the state in order to be able to critique it if it becomes corrupt: hence the republican denunciation of slavish subservience and praise of those brave enough to defy public ministers and even public opinion. In order to attain this independence, citizens must have rights that the political process may not touch, so that citizens will not feel threatened by reprisals from a corrupt government. Only in this way will they feel free to pursue the promptings of their conscience in the political arena. This end of the paradox reflects one side of the interdependence between state and society: for a virtuous state to exist, there must be virtuous citizens.

Republicans also believed, however, that individuals are unable to be truly separate or fully independent because they are products of the state. Rather than presocial givens, the very values republican citizens hold are the product of politics-deliberative, healthy politics, one hopes, but politics in any event. Citizens, moreover, must not use their rights to pursue their self-interest in derogation of the common good. Thus the citizen cannot stand apart from the political process and use it as a mere instrument of his desires. This conviction reflects the other side of the state / society equation: for there to be virtuous citizens, there must be a virtuous politics. For republicans, then, rights are not only the precondition for good politics, but also the product of politics. As a result, citizens should not generally invoke their rights in such a way as to remove themselves from the decisions of the deliberative dialogue.

Citizens must therefore have sufficient autonomy to stand against the state when it errs, but they must also be aware that their autonomy exists only for the common good. Republican virtue thus has two components: a good citizen must be self-abnegating enough to sacrifice his desires for the good of the whole, and he must also be independent enough to resist a corrupt state. There is no inherent contradiction in these dual duties because in both cases the citizen is pursuing the common good. When the state represents that good, the citizen must sacrifice his personal ends to the greater good of the state. In contrast, when the state is wandering, the citizen must resist. There is, however, a deep tension in the habits of mind required: republicans expected a citizen to be sometimes profoundly selfless and sometimes profoundly assertive. He must have the intelligence to know when to be which and the emotional agility to shift modes when appropriate.


Because these paradoxes suggested that corruption could make a republic impossible at any time, republicans endlessly analyzed its causes and cures. By the eighteenth century, two main themes had emerged: the danger of an imbalance of estates, which concerned corruption in government, and the danger of professionalization, which concerned corruption in society.

Balance-of-estates theory presented society as naturally divided into three estates-the One, the Few, and the Many-each with distinctive political virtues and vices. Unchecked, any of these might misdirect the state to its own partial good, so a republican polity should balance the estates against one another, each walking a distinct path to the universal good. The classic example, praised by some as the most stable and perfect product of political art, was the British constitution, balancing power between the two houses of Parliament and the monarch. Maintaining that balanced relation, however, was never easy. In the eighteenth century, concern about imbalance in the estates focused on the Crown. As the empire grew by trade and arms, so did the power of the Crown, through new military organizations, especially the standing army, and through newly developed financial practices, notably taxes, credit, and banks. The core of the fear was executive dominance of Parliament: with its expanded resources, the Crown could buy the loyalty of members of Parliament by offering places and pensions in the royal service.

During the imperial crisis, American colonials frequently expressed their grievances with Britain in similar terms: the tyrant George III had subverted Parliament, invaded historical colonial privilege, and appointed autocratic governors. Upon achieving independence, the new states reacted to this fear of the executive by drafting constitutions that curtailed executive power and expanded the power of the lower legislative house. In the process, they began to alter the meaning of mixed government by making it more democratic. They insisted that the Few and the One should not consist of hereditary estates, which tended to become overpowerful, throwing the balance into disarray. Moreover, while most republicans believed that a natural aristocracy existed in America, they viewed this aristocracy as one of talent rather than of birth. Although the elements of government that reflected aristocratic virtues might be less populist than the others, all would be directly or indirectly elected by the people. In this manner, Americans developed a system of democratic republicanism in which the One, the Few, and the Many ceased to be separate estates and became distinct parts of a balanced government staffed by the people's representatives.

In republican eyes, however, the threat of corruption also came from a second, newer source, imperiling not the balanced government but the citizenry itself. In the eighteenth century, as the economy and the empire modernized, the whole fabric of British society seemed in peril of being rent into partial interests. The new commercial society encouraged citizens to pursue selfish interests. Perhaps more important, it promoted specialization of economic function and so divided the citizenry into contending interests. By contrast, English republican writers held up as an ideal the ancient republics in which each citizen fulfilled every function: working his land, voting his mind, and taking up arms to defend the polity.

Many American writers shared these worries about Britain's social character. In their view, the English people had come to prefer luxury to liberty and so had come to peace with tyranny. More broadly, the degenerative effects of social development had fractured the English populace. Americans, by contrast, remained poised between rude barbarism and effete decay-sturdy but civilized farmers, independent and unspecialized. Consequently, they retained a virtue Britons had lost. American concern over professionalization as a cause of corruption again reflected a democratic drift away from the ideal of mixed and balanced government. Although many republicans praised a deferential society, others cast themselves as champions of the Many against the One within balance-of-estates rhetoric. And in standing against specialization, some republicans went even further: they cast themselves not as the representatives of any particular estate but as those virtuous souls-the demos, the mass of the American people-who stood for an unspecialized republic against the corrupting tide of modernity.


The danger of corruption in the government and in the citizenry prompted special anxieties for republicans in designing a constitutional organization of political violence. Republicans believed that the state must arm itself to resist foreign aggression and keep civil order. The distribution of arms, however, caused them great worry because whoever held the weapons and real property within a republic held ultimate control. In arming itself, the state had two traditional options: a standing army or a popular militia. An army posed two great threats of corruption: first, it could become a tool of executive usurpation, subverting the balance of estates; second, it posed a risk of professionalization and factionalism.

Evidence of executive subversion was ample. Standing armies arose in England as a tool of the Stuart monarchs' ambitions for power, and memories of that period remained vivid for a long time in the minds of later republicans. Professional soldiers would follow the king's will rather than the common good because they depended on him for their livelihood; with the army at hand to enforce his will, therefore, the king would be tempted to adopt tyrannical policies. The army was, moreover, one of the chief avenues for subversion of Parliament, as many members held lucrative places in the king's service.


Excerpted from The Mythic Meanings of the Second Amendment by DAVID C. WILLIAMS Copyright © 2003 by Yale University. Excerpted by permission.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
Excerpts are provided by Dial-A-Book Inc. solely for the personal use of visitors to this web site.

Read More Show Less

Table of Contents

Introduction 1
Pt. I The Framers' Constitution 15
1 The Background of the Framers' Thinking 21
2 The History of the Second Amendment 39
3 The Original Legal Meaning of the Second Amendment and the Military Provisions of the Constitution 69
Pt. II The Mythic Second Amendment Today 97
4 Antirevolutionists 102
5 Libertarians and Populists 151
6 The Militia Movement's Theory of the Second Amendment 191
7 Outgroups and the Second Amendment 220
Pt. III Reconstructing a Constitutional Organization of Violence 259
8 The Silent Crisis 261
9 Redeeming the People 281
Notes 327
Index 381
Read More Show Less

Customer Reviews

Be the first to write a review
( 0 )
Rating Distribution

5 Star


4 Star


3 Star


2 Star


1 Star


Your Rating:

Your Name: Create a Pen Name or

Barnes & Review Rules

Our reader reviews allow you to share your comments on titles you liked, or didn't, with others. By submitting an online review, you are representing to Barnes & that all information contained in your review is original and accurate in all respects, and that the submission of such content by you and the posting of such content by Barnes & does not and will not violate the rights of any third party. Please follow the rules below to help ensure that your review can be posted.

Reviews by Our Customers Under the Age of 13

We highly value and respect everyone's opinion concerning the titles we offer. However, we cannot allow persons under the age of 13 to have accounts at or to post customer reviews. Please see our Terms of Use for more details.

What to exclude from your review:

Please do not write about reviews, commentary, or information posted on the product page. If you see any errors in the information on the product page, please send us an email.

Reviews should not contain any of the following:

  • - HTML tags, profanity, obscenities, vulgarities, or comments that defame anyone
  • - Time-sensitive information such as tour dates, signings, lectures, etc.
  • - Single-word reviews. Other people will read your review to discover why you liked or didn't like the title. Be descriptive.
  • - Comments focusing on the author or that may ruin the ending for others
  • - Phone numbers, addresses, URLs
  • - Pricing and availability information or alternative ordering information
  • - Advertisements or commercial solicitation


  • - By submitting a review, you grant to Barnes & and its sublicensees the royalty-free, perpetual, irrevocable right and license to use the review in accordance with the Barnes & Terms of Use.
  • - Barnes & reserves the right not to post any review -- particularly those that do not follow the terms and conditions of these Rules. Barnes & also reserves the right to remove any review at any time without notice.
  • - See Terms of Use for other conditions and disclaimers.
Search for Products You'd Like to Recommend

Recommend other products that relate to your review. Just search for them below and share!

Create a Pen Name

Your Pen Name is your unique identity on It will appear on the reviews you write and other website activities. Your Pen Name cannot be edited, changed or deleted once submitted.

Your Pen Name can be any combination of alphanumeric characters (plus - and _), and must be at least two characters long.

Continue Anonymously
Sort by: Showing 1 Customer Reviews
  • Anonymous

    Posted March 20, 2003

    More Historical Revisionism?

    When the plain language is against you, reinterpret the words. When history is against you, rewrite it. The Framers, to a man, knew from first hand experience the arguments and methods of tyrants. They also knew that Freedom started with the individual. For this reason, the Bill of Rights were particular to the individual citizen, save for the 10th Amendment, which it shared with the State against the Federal government. They were not rights created in that instrument, but innate, and the Amendments were prohibitions against government interference with those rights. This author's revision of history will be discredited, just as Bellesiles' pseudo- history has been exposed.

    3 out of 4 people found this review helpful.

    Was this review helpful? Yes  No   Report this review
Sort by: Showing 1 Customer Reviews

If you find inappropriate content, please report it to Barnes & Noble
Why is this product inappropriate?
Comments (optional)