A pinch of wisdom from the Founders with a dash of commentary.
A strong body makes the mind strong. As to the species of exercises, I advise the gun. While this gives moderate exercise to the body, it gives boldness, enterprise and independence to the mind. Games played with the ball, and others of that nature, are too violent for the body and stamp no character on the mind. Let your gun therefore be your constant companion of your walks.
--- Thomas Jefferson to Peter Carr, 1785. The Writings of Thomas Jefferson, (Memorial Edition) Lipscomb and Bergh, editors.One loves to possess arms, though they hope never to have occasion for them.
--- Thomas Jefferson to George Washington, 1796. The Writings of Thomas Jefferson, (Memorial Edition) Lipscomb and Bergh, editors.We established however some, although not all its [self-government] important principles . The constitutions of most of our States assert, that all power is inherent in the people; that they may exercise it by themselves, in all cases to which they think themselves competent, (as in electing their functionaries executive and legislative, and deciding by a jury of themselves, in all judiciary cases in which any fact is involved,) or they may act by representatives, freely and equally chosen; that it is their right and duty to be at all times armed;
---Thomas Jefferson to John Cartwright, 1824. Memorial Edition 16:45, Lipscomb and Bergh, editors.No freeman shall ever be debarred the use of arms.The thoughtful reader may wonder, why wasn't Jefferson's proposal of "No freeman shall ever be debarred the use of arms" adopted by the Virginia legislature? Click here to learn why.
---Thomas Jefferson: Draft Virginia Constitution, 1776.They that can give up essential liberty to obtain a little temporary safety deserve neither liberty nor safety.
---Benjamin Franklin, Historical Review of Pennsylvania, 1759.To model our political system upon speculations of lasting tranquility, is to calculate on the weaker springs of the human character.Quotes from the Founders During the Ratification Period of the Constitution
---Alexander Hamilton[The Constitution preserves] the advantage of being armed which Americans possess over the people of almost every other nation...(where) the governments are afraid to trust the people with arms.
---James Madison,The Federalist Papers, No. 46.To suppose arms in the hands of citizens, to be used at individual discretion, except in private self-defense, or by partial orders of towns, countries or districts of a state, is to demolish every constitution, and lay the laws prostrate, so that liberty can be enjoyed by no man; it is a dissolution of the government. The fundamental law of the militia is, that it be created, directed and commanded by the laws, and ever for the support of the laws.
---John Adams, A Defence of the Constitutions of the United States 475 (1787-1788)
John Adams recognizes the fundamental right of citizens, as individuals, to defend themselves with arms, however he states militias must be controlled by government and the rule of law. To have otherwise is to invite anarchy.
The material and commentary that follows is excerpted from Halbrook, Stephen P. "The Right of the People or the Power of the State Bearing Arms, Arming Militias, and the Second Amendment". Originally published as 26 Val. U. L.Rev. 131-207, 1991.Before a standing army can rule, the people must be disarmed; as they are in almost every kingdom in Europe. The supreme power in America cannot enforce unjust laws by the sword; because the whole body of the people are armed, and constitute a force superior to any band of regular troops that can be, on any pretence, raised in the United States. A military force, at the command of Congress, can execute no laws, but such as the people perceive to be just and constitutional; for they will possess the power, and jealousy will instantly inspire the inclination, to resist the execution of a law which appears to them unjust and oppressive.
---Noah Webster, An Examination of the Leading Principles of the Federal Constitution (Philadelphia 1787).Who are the militia? Are they not ourselves? Is it feared, then, that we shall turn our arms each man gainst his own bosom. Congress have no power to disarm the militia. Their swords, and every other terrible implement of the soldier, are the birthright of an American...[T]he unlimited power of the sword is not in the hands of either the federal or state governments, but, where I trust in God it will ever remain, in the hands of the people.During the Massachusetts ratifying convention William Symmes warned that the new government at some point "shall be too firmly fixed in the saddle to be overthrown by anything but a general insurrection." Yet fears of standing armies were groundless, affirmed Theodore Sedwick, who queried, "if raised, whether they could subdue a nation of freemen, who know how to prize liberty, and who have arms in their hands?"
---Tenche Coxe, The Pennsylvania Gazette, Feb. 20, 1788.[W]hereas, to preserve liberty, it is essential that the whole body of the people always possess arms, and be taught alike, especially when young, how to use them; nor does it follow from this, that all promiscuously must go into actual service on every occasion. The mind that aims at a select militia, must be influenced by a truly anti-republican principle; and when we see many men disposed to practice upon it, whenever they can prevail, no wonder true republicans are for carefully guarding against it.The Virginia ratifying convention met from June 2 through June 26, 1788. Edmund Pendleton, opponent of a bill of rights, weakly argued that abuse of power could be remedied by recalling the delegated powers in a convention. Patrick Henry shot back that the power to resist oppression rests upon the right to possess arms:
---Richard Henry Lee, The Pennsylvania Gazette, Feb. 20, 1788.Guard with jealous attention the public liberty. Suspect every one who approaches that jewel. Unfortunately, nothing will preserve it but downright force. Whenever you give up that force, you are ruined.Henry sneered,O sir, we should have fine times, indeed, if, to punish tyrants, it were only sufficient to assemble the people! Your arms, wherewith you could defend yourselves, are gone...Did you ever read of any revolution in a nation...inflicted by those who had no power at all?More quotes from the Virginia convention:[W]hen the resolution of enslaving America was formed in Great Britain, the British Parliament was advised by an artful man, who was governor of Pennsylvania, to disarm the people; that it was the best and most effectual way to enslave them; but that they should not do it openly, but weaken them, and let them sink gradually...I ask, who are the militia? They consist of now of the whole people, except a few public officers. But I cannot say who will be the militia of the future day. If that paper on the table gets no alteration, the militia of the future day may not consist of all classes, high and low, and rich and poor...Zacharia Johnson argued that the new Constitution could never result in religious persecution or other oppression because:
---George Mason[T]he people are not to be disarmed of their weapons. They are left in full possession of them.The Virginia delegation's recommended bill of rights included the following:That the people have a right to keep and bear arms; that a well-regulated militia, composed of the body of the people, trained to arms, is the proper, natural, and safe defence of a free state; that standing armies, in time of peace, are dangerous to liberty, and therefore ought to be avoided as far as the circumstances and protection of the community will admit; and that, in all cases, the military should be under strict subordination to, and governed by, the civil power.The following quote is from Halbrook, Stephen P., That Every Man Be Armed: The Evolution of a Constitutional Right, University of New Mexico Press, 1984.The whole of that Bill [of Rights] is a declaration of the right of the people at large or considered as individuals...[I]t establishes some rights of the individual as unalienable and which consequently, no majority has a right to deprive them of.Gallatin's use of the words "some rights," doesn't mean some of the rights in the Bill of Rights, rather there are many rights not enumerated by the Bill of Rights, those rights that are listed are being established as unalienable.
---Albert Gallatin to Alexander Addison, Oct 7, 1789, MS. in N.Y. Hist. Soc.-A.G. Papers, 2.
Roger Sherman, during House consideration of a militia bill (1790):[C]onceived it to be the privilege of every citizen, and one of his most essential rights, to bear arms, and to resist every attack upon his liberty or property, by whomsoever made. The particular states, like private citizens, have a right to be armed, and to defend, by force of arms, their rights, when invaded.
14 Debates in the House of Representatives, ed. Linda Grand De Pauw. (Balt., Johns Hopkins Univ. Press, 1972), 92-3.
For post-ratification quotes, see GunCite's: Quotes from constitutional commentators.