Second Amendment Rooted in Southern States’ Control of Slavery, Academic Experts Say

For Release:  Thursday, May 14, 1998

Professors at Violence Policy Center Luncheon Explore “Hidden History” of Second Amendment

A groundbreaking new historical analysis of the Second Amendment to the U.S. Constitution exposes links between the amendment’s approval and appeasement of slave states during the campaign to ratify the Constitution, according to three professors who spoke at a Violence Policy Center (VPC) panel discussion Tuesday.

These revelations which could forever change the way Americans view the Second Amendment – were published in a recent U.C. Davis Law Review article, “The Hidden History of the Second Amendment,” written by Carl T. Bogus, a professor at Roger Williams University School of Law.

“The Second Amendment takes on an entirely different complexion when instead of being symbolized by a musket in the hands of the minuteman, it is associated with a musket in the hands of the slave holder,” Professor Bogus writes.

At Tuesday’s luncheon, held at the National Press Club in Washington, DC, Professor Bogus analyzed his findings in a panel discussion with Emory University Professor Michael Bellesiles, an early American legal historian, and Robert Spitzer, a political science professor at SUNY Cortland who has written extensively on gun control. Syndicated columnist Julianne Malveaux moderated the discussion.

Professor Bogus’ article demonstrates that, during debate over the new Constitution, Southern states feared the proposed federal government would use its new powers to disarm their state militia, rendering the states defenseless against a slave rebellion. Guarding against such an insurrection was a core function of the militia. As the idea of outlawing slavery gained support in the North, Southerners worried that undermining the militia might be a back-door way to achieve this goal.

Scholars who endorse this new thesis include Pulitzer Prize winning historian Garry Wills, who agrees that James Madison was responding to this fear when he wrote the Second Amendment. “Carl Bogus gives a powerful answer to the problem of the Second Amendment,” Wills states. “Madison was reassuring the states that had other uses for their well-regulated militias, including the internal policing of slave populations.”

In his 99-page article, Professor Bogus reviews wide-ranging evidence including an analysis of Madison’s original language and an understanding of how he and other founders drew on England’s Declaration of Rights. Madison’s concern, Professor Bogus concludes, was not hunting, self-defense, national defense, or resistance to governmental tyranny but slave control.

“We hear so many myths about the history of the Second Amendment,” states VPC Executive Director Josh Sugarmann. “By exposing the connection between slavery and the Second Amendment, this article gives us a whole new perspective and debunks some of the romantic half-truths about the history of gun ownership in America.”

During the panel discussion, all three experts said that “The Hidden History” has dramatic implications for the contemporary debate over gun control. Rather than applying to individual gun ownership, the three agreed, the Second Amendment is rooted in the political battle over control of militia forces and ratification of the Constitution. This history, which has been endorsed by the U.S. Supreme Court, is often ignored by modern day pro-gun lobbyists.

“The right to bear arms is invoked constantly on the political stump, the op-ed page, the radio talk show, and the floors of Congress,” Professor Bogus writes in his article. But, he notes, “The history of the Second Amendment is both more complex and more interesting than previously understood.”



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