Well-regulated, part 3

Well-regulated, part 3

Following up on the two previous posts–

As written earlier, as often as we hear about “the second amendment” in the public discourse, we seldom hear the phrase “well regulated.” The first is a slogan for banners and bumper stickers; the second is being obliterated. But the framers of the constitution included that phrase well regulated in the second amendment because it was paramount. It involved among other things two attributes much prized–wisdom, and energy. In those pre-Nietzschean times, after all, wisdom was considered manly. Wisdom and prudence in fact were considered masculine attributes–a perspective often reversed today by a triad of corporatism, media consolation, and consumerism pushing the line that they are qualities we teach women and children. Two sides of the same sexist coin, of course; but the immediate point is the dishonesty of gun lobbyists who hide behind the second amendment even while they and their allies work full-time to make “regulation” a dirty word in every context including children’s toys.

 

Straight to the mouth

Nobody says it, but a phrase like “take up arms” itself implies well-regulated. As Clinton L. Rossiter writes in Seedtime of the Republic: the origin of the American tradition of political liberty (1954), the Cincinnatus ideal ruled: “No army of mercenaries could ever fight as bravely or successfully as a ‘well-regulated militia’ defending hearth and home.” The ability to take up arms was linked inextricably with the willingness to put them down. As such, it was the best alternative to, and antidote against, “the inherent danger of standing or ‘mercenary’ armies, ‘a tremendous curse to a state’ and ‘the scourge of mankind'” in sources quoted from the Revolutionary period.

 

Working from home

This historical perspective yields little justification for freely arming every disgruntled ex-employee or newly separated father engaged in a custody dispute or wishing to avoid alimony and child support, let alone every meth-head, gang member and cartel associate. As Josiah Quincy, Jr., wrote in 1774,

“No free government was ever founded or ever preserved it’s [sic] liberty without uniting the characters of citizen and soldier in those destined for defence of the state. The sword should never be in the hands of any, but those who have an interest in the safety of the community . . .”   [emphasis added]

Examples of persons depended upon to be well regulated included “freeholders, citizen and husbandman” (Quincy); the government (“Pacificus,” pseud.); and “the publick” and “the collective body of the state” (Samuel West, 1776). Examples of people and entities who could not be depended upon to be well regulated included “a strong military power in the very heart of their country” and “the power of soldiers” (Samuel Adams); “the supreme magistrate and his creatures” and “every thing of a factious nature and complexion” (‘Pacificus’); “rulers” (West); “unjust and unlawful force” (“John Locke,” pseud.); “a few disaffected individuals” (West); and “oppressive officers” (Thomas Jefferson). [Quoted in Rossiter]

In short, well-regulated meant democratic (and republican); unregulated meant anti-democratic. All the individual liberties supported by Jefferson in Virginia before the Declaration of Independence–including Habeas Corpus, the right to a fair trial, and freedom of the press–had the same fundamental aim of regulating those who would insolently go overboard in oppressing others:

“These are the invaluable rights, that form a considerable part of our mild system of government; that, sending its equitably energy through all ranks and classes of men, defends the poor from the rich, the weak from the powerful, the industrious from the rapacious, the peaceable from the violent, the tenants from the lords, and all from their superiors.”

Part of the picture here is that the founders liked to see things done well rather than badly. As with well regulated currency, it was all rather like having your heart keep pumping and your blood circulating, to which the sweet air of freedom conduced. Even getting rid of a tyrant was supposed to be done well, rather than badly; as in John Milton’s epic narrative there was payback even for getting rid of an alleged tyrant poorly or for wrong motives. Thus the arbitrary, the irrational, the selfish all fell into the bad column; peaceableness, reason and looking out for others fell into the good column. Quoting Rossiter again,

“Resistance in the extreme sense of outright revolution–the “appeal to God by the sword,” as the Colony of New Hampshire labeled it–was never to be undertaken except by an overwhelming majority of a thoroughly abused people. There was no place in Revolutionary theory for the coup d’etat of a militant minority dedicated to the building of a new order. Samuel West expressed this thought in his election sermon of 1776:

‘If it be asked, who are the proper judges to determine, when rulers are guilty of tyranny and   oppression? I answer, the publick; not a few disaffected individuals, but the collective body of the state must decide this question.'”

The well-regulated was meaningful. The meaningless was anathema, including meaningless selfishness. Hence it goes without saying that revolution for its own sake was no democratic ideal for American colonists:

“Finally, all colonial writers agreed with Jefferson’s assumption that any exercise of “the Right of the People to alter or to abolish” government would be followed almost immediately by an exercise of their associated right “to institute new Government.” For all their flirtation with the state of nature, for all their loyalty to the mechanistic explanation of government, Americans could think of man only as a member of a political community. Men did not revolt against government to eliminate it entirely and return to a state of nature, but to organize a new one, “laying its foundation on such principles and organizing its powers in such form, as to them shall seem most likely to effect their Safety and Happiness.” God granted men the right of resistance to help them preserve orderly constitutional government, not to induce them to fly from the tyranny of arbitrary power to the tyranny of no power at all.”

The lessons of history are many, and mixed. But adhering to principle is not cherry-picking.

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