The American colonists recognized that the right to bear arms and freedom of speech, before all others, were absolutely critical to the survival of their new republic. Without these rights, liberty was not possible.
George Washington certainly recognized this in a speech delivered to Congress on January 7, 1790: “A free people ought … to be armed….”
Newspapers were to become the most powerful weapon in passage of the Second Amendment, contrary to the print media of today which would like nothing more than to see it shot down. Here are a few samplings of commentaries which appeared in the popular press at the time.
The Connecticut Courant, Hartford, Jan. 7, 1788, stated: “In countries under arbitrary government, the people oppressed and dispirited neither possess arms nor know how to use them. Tyrants never feel secure until they have disarmed the people.”
The Winchester Gazette (Virginia), Feb. 22, 1788, reported: “There are other things so clearly out of the power of Congress, that the bare recital of them is sufficient. I mean rights of conscience, or religious liberty — the rights of bearing arms for defence, or for killing game — the liberty of fowling, hunting and fishing.”
Firearms were common throughout the countryside, in spite of what writers and reporters today would have us believe. In fact, British subjects immigrating to the colonies were promised “liberty of fishing and fowling.”
None of the colonies restricted the possession of firearms by citizens according to social status. Rather, the emphasis was on requirements to own sufficient firearms and the legal requirement to bear them.
An English minister on the eve of the American Revolution wrote: “In this country, my lord, boys, as soon as they can discharge a gun, frequently exercise themselves therewith, some a fowling and others a hunting. The great quantities of game, the many kinds, and the great privileges of killing making the Americans the best troops.”
In 1768, when the British reinforced their military in Boston, A Journal of the Times, a newspaper that popularized American grievances, urged Americans to retain their arms and reminded them that the English Bill of Rights had recognized the “privilege of possessing arms.” The paper declared: “It is a natural right which the people have reserved to themselves, confirmed by the Bill of Rights, to keep arms for their own defence.”
So, too, John Adams quoted Sergeant-at-Law William Hawkins' Pleas of the Crown, a widely used and authoritative treatise of 1716 and often reprinted, regarding the right: “Here every private person is authorized to arm himself for his own defence.”
In the only correspondence from a constituent to a congressman which explained the understanding of the proposal that became the Second Amendment, Samuel Nasson, an anti-Federalist representative to the Massachusetts ratification convention, in a letter to George Thatcher, a Federalist representative from Massachusetts, wrote the following in 1789:
“I find that Amendments are once again on the Carpet. I hope that such may take place as will be for the Best Interest of the whole. A Bill of Rights well secured that we the people may know how far we may Proceade in Every Department, then their [sic] will be no Dispute between the people and rulers. In that may be secured the right to keep arms for Common and Extraordinary Occasions such as to secure ourselves against the wild Beast and also to amuse us by fowling and for our Defence against a Common Enemy. You know to learn the Use of arms is all that can Save us from a foreign foe that may attempt to subdue us, for if we keep up the Use of arms and become well acquainted with them we Shall always be able to look them in the face that arise up against us.”
It is clear that Nasson read a broad personal right to “keep” arms in the proposed amendment, unconditioned upon militia service, and that familiarity and practice with arms enabled the citizenry to oppose effectively an invasion or tyranny by a standing army.
It is also clear from Nasson's remarks that he understood the common possession and use of arms was a major factor assuring that the people would be able to function effectively for “defence” on “extraordinary occasions”. That is why he supported protection for the right of the people to keep arms in a bill of rights against violation of that right by the government.
Nasson's bill of rights related to the use of “arms” is not in any sense limited to military purposes.
Others also understood James Madison's proposal to secure an individual's right to keep and bear arms. Leading Federalist Congressman Fisher Ames wrote: “Mr. Madison has introduced his long expected Amendments. … It contains a Bill of Rights … [including] the right of the people to bear arms.”
Elsewhere he wrote: “The rights of conscience, of bearing arms, of changing the government, are declared to be inherent in the people.”
Tench Coxe took the same view in his Remarks on the First Part of the Amendments to the Federal Constitution, published in the major cities. Writing as “A Pennsylvanian” (a pseudonym that he had used during the ratification debates), he explained the right that Madison's proposal protected as follows:
“As civil rulers, not having their duty to the people duly before them, may attempt to tyrannize, and as the military forces which must be occasionally raised to defend our country, might pervert their power to the injury of their fellow citizens, the people are confirmed by the … article in their right to keep and bear their private arms.”
Coxe recognized that the “right” of “the people” belonged to the “citizens,” who could both keep and bear “private” arms. He sent his “Remarks” to Madison the day they were published, and Madison six days later returned thanks for his “explanatory strictures” and the “co-operation of your pen,” noting from New York City that the Remarks “are already I find in the Gazettes here.” Neither Madison nor, it appears, anyone else disputed Coxe's interpretation.