guns, slavery, and civil rights

This issue is no longer live on Facebook, so people may no longer care—if indeed they ever did—and it’s solidly outside my wheelhouse(s?); but I’m going to swing anyway. Wish me luck.

TruthOut said, about six weeks ago, that the Second Amendment was ratified to preserve slavery. You’ll remember that the Newtown shootings were much closer to the front of people’s mind in mid-January than they are now, and it’s perhaps testament to the evanescence of what passes for political thought on social media that the headline already sounds a bit absurd, like “why would anyone go there?” But you’ll remember that we were all quite concerned about saying how concerned we were about guns back then, and this bit of analysis got passed around. The topic sentence is at the beginning:

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.

The sheer political convenience of this construal is cause enough to doubt its veracity, if you’re ignorant like me—but, if you’re ignorant like me, you’d better at least not be dumb enough to say flat out it isn’t true, and I won’t. I don’t know nearly enough about the political machinations surrounding the Bill of Rights to confirm or deny. What I will say is, then there’s this:

The History of the Second Amendment in two paintings

The WaPo link doesn’t contradict the TruthOut link, and for all I know they are both true. But the WaPo link complicates things more than a little. Arguably our major problem with guns today is not so much the Second Amendment itself, as its reconstrual to emphasize individual (rather than collective) rights to bear arms. And that seems to have been an unintended consequence of the reconstructionist Republicans’ very understandable desire to suppress insurrections and allow black families to defend themselves in the postwar South.

Which makes it seem a little off to go after guns with guilt by association to slavery.

By the same token, it’s off to valorize guns as a keystone of our civil rights. We’ve used violence for truly noble purposes a few times in the nation’s history, for purposes ranging from questionable to downright vile a bit more regularly. If we buy both articles linked above, what we learn is that the framers used the Second Amendment for bad, then the reconstructionist Republicans twisted it around to use it for good, but what was good back then is bad now. And even that is probably too simple.

It’s good to know history. But I think that knowing history tends to foreclose convenient analogies. It’s appealing for liberals (of whom I am one) to blame the South for things we don’t like—and the South has its share of things to answer for. But if we reject Virginia, we reject Washington, Jefferson, and Madison, all of whom owned slaves. Adams never owned a slave, but spoke out against emancipation. Hamilton was anti-slavery, but tried to kill Aaron Burr in a duel with a gun. And, of course, today’s President, beneficiary of a transformational respect for civil rights that is still new and far from total, only recently “evolved” enough to acknowledge the full civil rights of his gay countrymen.

This is a long way of saying that history only takes us so far; new worlds have new problems, and we have to assess the factors on their own merits. Lazy thinking doesn’t work. Believe me, I try it every day.

(Unrelated to the more sanctimonious bits of the above, it’s dynamics like this that make me understand how people become Civil War buffs. The more I learn about that period of time, the more interesting it gets. Although it swiftly becomes apparent that you need to go back to at least the Revolution to really understand how any of it works.)

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