The Second Amendment was Ratified to Preserve Slavery
By Thom Hartmann,
Truthout - News Analysis
January 15, 2013
Reprinted with permission of the author.
The real reason the Second Amendment was ratified, and why it
says "State" instead of "Country" (the Framers knew the
difference - see the 10th Amendment), was to preserve the
slave patrol militias in the southern states, which was
necessary to get Virginia's vote. Founders Patrick Henry,
George Mason, and James Madison were totally clear on that . .
. and we all should be too.
In the beginning, there were the militias. In the South, they
were also called the "slave patrols," and they were regulated
by the states.
In Georgia, for example, a generation before the American
Revolution, laws were passed in 1755 and 1757 that required
all plantation owners or their male white employees to be
members of the Georgia Militia, and for those armed militia
members to make monthly inspections of the quarters of all
slaves in the state. The law defined which counties had which
armed militias and even required armed militia members to keep
a keen eye out for slaves who may be planning uprisings.
As Dr. Carl T. Bogus wrote for the University of California
Law Review in 1998, "The Georgia statutes required patrols,
under the direction of commissioned militia officers, to
examine every plantation each month and authorized them to
search 'all Negro Houses for offensive Weapons and Ammunition'
and to apprehend and give twenty lashes to any slave found
outside plantation grounds."
It's the answer to the question raised by the character played
by Leonardo DiCaprio in Django Unchained when he asks, "Why
don't they just rise up and kill the whites?" If the movie
were real, it would have been a purely rhetorical question,
because every southerner of the era knew the simple answer:
Well regulated militias kept the slaves in chains.
Sally E. Haden, in her book Slave Patrols: Law and Violence in
Virginia and the Carolinas, notes that, "Although eligibility
for the Militia seemed all-encompassing, not every middle-aged
white male Virginian or Carolinian became a slave patroller."
There were exemptions so "men in critical professions" like
judges, legislators and students could stay at their work.
Generally, though, she documents how most southern men between
ages 18 and 45 - including physicians and ministers - had to
serve on slave patrol in the militia at one time or another in
And slave rebellions were keeping the slave patrols busy.
By the time the Constitution was ratified, hundreds of
substantial slave uprisings had occurred across the South.
Blacks outnumbered whites in large areas, and the state
militias were used to both prevent and to put down slave
uprisings. As Dr. Bogus points out, slavery can only exist in
the context of a police state, and the enforcement of that
police state was the explicit job of the militias.
If the anti-slavery folks in the North had figured out a way
to disband - or even move out of the state - those southern
militias, the police state of the South would collapse. And,
similarly, if the North were to invite into military service
the slaves of the South, then they could be emancipated, which
would collapse the institution of slavery, and the southern
economic and social systems, altogether.
These two possibilities worried southerners like James Monroe,
George Mason (who owned over 300 slaves) and the southern
Christian evangelical, Patrick Henry (who opposed slavery on
principle, but also opposed freeing slaves).
Their main concern was that Article 1, Section 8 of the newly-
proposed Constitution, which gave the federal government the
power to raise and supervise a militia, could also allow that
federal militia to subsume their state militias and change
them from slavery-enforcing institutions into something that
could even, one day, free the slaves.
This was not an imagined threat. Famously, 12 years earlier,
during the lead-up to the Revolutionary War, Lord Dunsmore
offered freedom to slaves who could escape and join his
forces. "Liberty to Slaves" was stitched onto their jacket
pocket flaps. During the War, British General Henry Clinton
extended the practice in 1779. And numerous freed slaves
served in General Washington's army.
Thus, southern legislators and plantation owners lived not
just in fear of their own slaves rebelling, but also in fear
that their slaves could be emancipated through military
At the ratifying convention in Virginia in 1788, Henry laid it
"Let me here call your attention to that part [Article 1,
Section 8 of the proposed Constitution] which gives the
Congress power to provide for organizing, arming, and
disciplining the militia, and for governing such part of them
as may be employed in the service of the United States. . . .
"By this, sir, you see that their control over our last and
best defence is unlimited. If they neglect or refuse to
discipline or arm our militia, they will be useless: the
states can do neither . . . this power being exclusively given
to Congress. The power of appointing officers over men not
disciplined or armed is ridiculous; so that this pretended
little remains of power left to the states may, at the
pleasure of Congress, be rendered nugatory."
George Mason expressed a similar fear:
"The militia may be here destroyed by that method which
has been practised in other parts of the world before;
that is, by rendering them useless, by disarming them.
Under various pretences, Congress may neglect to provide
for arming and disciplining the militia; and the state
governments cannot do it, for Congress has an exclusive
right to arm them [under this proposed Constitution] . . .
Henry then bluntly laid it out:
"If the country be invaded, a state may go to war, but
cannot suppress [slave] insurrections [under this new
Constitution]. If there should happen an insurrection of
slaves, the country cannot be said to be invaded. They
cannot, therefore, suppress it without the interposition
of Congress . . . . Congress, and Congress only [under
this new Constitution], can call forth the militia."
And why was that such a concern for Patrick Henry?
"In this state," he said, "there are two hundred and thirty-
six thousand blacks, and there are many in several other
states. But there are few or none in the Northern States. . .
. May Congress not say, that every black man must fight? Did
we not see a little of this last war? We were not so hard
pushed as to make emancipation general; but acts of Assembly
passed that every slave who would go to the army should be
Patrick Henry was also convinced that the power over the
various state militias given the federal government in the new
Constitution could be used to strip the slave states of their
slave-patrol militias. He knew the majority attitude in the
North opposed slavery, and he worried they'd use the
Constitution to free the South's slaves (a process then called
The abolitionists would, he was certain, use that power (and,
ironically, this is pretty much what Abraham Lincoln ended up
"[T]hey will search that paper [the Constitution], and see
if they have power of manumission," said Henry. "And have
they not, sir? Have they not power to provide for the
general defence and welfare? May they not think that these
call for the abolition of slavery? May they not pronounce
all slaves free, and will they not be warranted by that
"This is no ambiguous implication or logical deduction.
The paper speaks to the point: they have the power in
clear, unequivocal terms, and will clearly and certainly
He added: "This is a local matter, and I can see no propriety
in subjecting it to Congress."
James Madison, the "Father of the Constitution" and a
slaveholder himself, basically called Patrick Henry paranoid.
"I was struck with surprise," Madison said, "when I heard him
express himself alarmed with respect to the emancipation of
slaves. . . . There is no power to warrant it, in that paper
[the Constitution]. If there be, I know it not."
But the southern fears wouldn't go away.
Patrick Henry even argued that southerner's "property"
(slaves) would be lost under the new Constitution, and the
resulting slave uprising would be less than peaceful or
"In this situation," Henry said to Madison, "I see a great
deal of the property of the people of Virginia in
jeopardy, and their peace and tranquility gone."
So Madison, who had (at Jefferson's insistence) already begun
to prepare proposed amendments to the Constitution, changed
his first draft of one that addressed the militia issue to
make sure it was unambiguous that the southern states could
maintain their slave patrol militias.
His first draft for what became the Second Amendment had said:
"The right of the people to keep and bear arms shall not be
infringed; a well armed, and well regulated militia being the
best security of a free country [emphasis mine]: but no person
religiously scrupulous of bearing arms, shall be compelled to
render military service in person."
But Henry, Mason and others wanted southern states to preserve
their slave-patrol militias independent of the federal
government. So Madison changed the word "country" to the word
"state," and redrafted the Second Amendment into today's form:
"A well regulated Militia, being necessary to the security
of a free State [emphasis mine], the right of the people
to keep and bear Arms, shall not be infringed."
Little did Madison realize that one day in the future weapons-
manufacturing corporations, newly defined as "persons" by a
Supreme Court some have called dysfunctional, would use his
slave patrol militia amendment to protect their "right" to
manufacture and sell assault weapons used to murder
Copyright, Truthout. May not be reprinted without permission
of the author.
[Thom Hartmann is a New York Times bestselling Project
Censored Award winning author and host of a nationally
syndicated progressive radio talk show. You can learn more
about Thom Hartmann at his website and find out what stations
broadcast his radio program. He also now has a daily
independent television program, The Big Picture, syndicated
by FreeSpeech TV, RT TV, and 2oo community TV stations. You
can also listen or watch Thom over the Internet.]
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