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America's Founding Fathers On The Individual Right To Keep And Bear Arms

Thursday, July 29, 1999

Thomas Jefferson, of Virginia:

"No free man shall ever be debarred the use of arms."-- Proposed Virginia Constitution, 1776

"Laws that forbid the carrying of arms. . . disarm only those who are neither inclined nor determined to commit crimes. . . Such laws make things worse for the assaulted and better for the assailants; they serve rather to encourage than to prevent homicides, for an unarmed man may be attacked with greater confidence than an armed man." -- Jefferson`s "Commonplace Book," 1774-1776, quoting from On Crimes and Punishment, by criminologist Cesare Beccaria, 1764

 

George Mason, of Virginia:

"[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 now of the whole people, except a few public officers."-- Virginia`s U.S. Constitution ratification convention, 1788

"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." -- Within Mason`s declaration of "the essential and unalienable Rights of the People," -- later adopted by the Virginia ratification convention, 1788

 

Samuel Adams, of Massachusetts:

"The said Constitution [shall] be never construed to authorize Congress to infringe the just liberty of the press, or the rights of conscience; or to prevent the people of the United States, who are peaceable citizens, from keeping their own arms."-- Massachusetts` U.S. Constitution ratification convention, 1788

 

William Grayson, of Virginia:

"[A] string of amendments were presented to the lower House; these altogether respected personal liberty."-- Letter to Patrick Henry, June 12, 1789, referring to the introduction of what became the Bill of Rights

 

Richard Henry Lee, of Virginia:

"A militia when properly formed are in fact the people themselves . . . and include all men capable of bearing arms. . . To preserve liberty it is essential that the whole body of people always possess arms... The mind that aims at a select militia, must be influenced by a truly anti-republican principle."-- Additional Letters From The Federal Farmer, 1788

 

James Madison, of Virginia:

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."-- The Federalist, No. 46

 

Tench Coxe, of Pennsylvania:

"The militia, who are in fact the effective part of the people at large, will render many troops quite unnecessary. They will form a powerful check upon the regular troops, and will generally be sufficient to over-awe them."-- An American Citizen, Oct. 21, 1787

"Who are the militia? Are they not ourselves? Congress have no power to disarm the militia. Their swords and every other terrible implement of the soldier, are the birthright of an American . . . . The 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." -- The Pennsylvania Gazette, Feb. 20, 1788

"As the military forces which must occasionally be raised to defend our country, might pervert their power to the injury of their fellow citizens, the people are confirmed by the next article (of amendment) in their right to keep and bear their private arms." -- Federal Gazette, June 18, 1789

 

Noah Webster, of Pennsylvania:

"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."-- An Examination of The Leading Principles of the Federal Constitution, Philadelphia, 1787

 

Alexander Hamilton, of New York:

"[I]f circumstances should at any time oblige the government to form an army of any magnitude, that army can never be formidable to the liberties of the people while there is a large body of citizens, little if at all inferior to them in discipline and the use of arms, who stand ready to defend their rights and those of their fellow citizens."-- The Federalist, No. 29

 

Thomas Paine, of Pennsylvania:

"[A]rms discourage and keep the invader and plunderer in awe, and preserve order in the world as well as property. . . Horrid mischief would ensue were the law-abiding deprived of the use of them."-- Thoughts On Defensive War, 1775

 

Fisher Ames, of Massachusetts:

"The rights of conscience, of bearing arms, of changing the government, are declared to be inherent in the people."-- Letter to F.R. Minoe, June 12, 1789

 

Elbridge Gerry, of Massachusetts:

"What, sir, is the use of militia? It is to prevent the establishment of a standing army, the bane of liberty. . . Whenever Government means to invade the rights and liberties of the people, they always attempt to destroy the militia, in order to raise a standing army upon its ruins."-- Debate, U.S. House of Representatives, August 17, 1789

 

Patrick Henry, of Virginia:

"Guard with jealous attention the public liberty. Suspect everyone who approaches that jewel."-- Virginia`s U.S. Constitution ratification convention

 

For more information, see Halbrook, Stephen P., "The Right of the People or the Power of the State: Bearing Arms, Arming Militias, and the Second Amendment," Valparaiso Univ. Law Review, Vol. 26, No. 1, Fall, 1991; and "That Every Man Be Armed: The Evolution of a Constitutional Right," Univ. of N.M. Press, 1984

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