Guns and Freedom

I’ve been looking at some of the comments made by the Founding Fathers regarding arms and freedom, and what strikes me most powerfully is how different the eighteenth century was from our current times.

Theirs was a world in which only 5% of the population was classified “urban.” The other 95% lived in the country, and worked the land, in a world where it took a gentleman in a light, fast carriage three days to travel from Philadelphia to New York City.

Central to their idea of “freedom” was the idea of self-sufficiency, an ideal that goes back to the Medieval serf, and was carried up through at least President Lincoln. But the idea of self-sufficiency in the eighteenth century US involved an entire household, which included smiths, foresters, cooks, and farm laborers, many or most of these being slaves. Thomas Jefferson, for instance, at the age of twenty-four inherited 5000 acres of land and fifty-two slaves, many with specialized skills such as smithing. George Washington inherited ten slaves at the age of eleven, and at time of his death, his Mount Vernon estate housed 317 slaves. Both men were “self-sufficient” in the sense that their estate could produce its own food, its own clothing, its own tools. If well-managed, it could become prosperous, even wealthy — that, at least, was the dream. These were the free men of eighteenth-century America.

Not every landholding was this large, of course. But original voting restrictions in the fresh-minted states required that a voter — a citizen — own land, as well as being male, white, and so forth. Delaware, for example, required that a man own fifty acres of land to vote. Other states had similar requirements.

The idea of a citizen militia was based on the premise that free (white, landowning) men would “naturally” protect their property. They would be motivated to fight for what was theirs in a way that no conscript, mercenary, or professional soldier would or could.

It seems doubtful that the Founders intended to arm servants (indentured or otherwise), slaves, “savages” (indigenes), or wild beasts.

This raises an interesting question: how would the founders view most people in the modern era? Free men, or property?

Let’s start with landowners.

The last summary I found in my quick survey of census data was for 1993, at which time there were about 3 million owners of farmland, which is about 1% of the population.

Only 20% of the population in the US currently lives in “rural” areas where they could conceivably own fifty acres of anything. Most of those don’t own any land at all: they are really suburban dwellers who live outside city limits, and commute to work in a city. If they own their property — many rent — the land parcels are quite small, perhaps up to five or ten acres, much less than the fifty acres required to vote in Delaware. Ownership often does not include water, logging, or mineral rights, and may include restrictive covenants that prevent owning chickens, or pigs, or making any use of the land that is “disruptive” to neighbors or wildlife.

There are 28.8 million small businesses in the US, which is only 10% of the current population (at one owner per business), which is another kind of property that the owners might defend.

The vast bulk of the US population owns neither land, nor a small business. We are employees, pensioners, welfare recipients, criminals, or bums. We own, at most, a house, a structure on a tiny scrap of land just big enough for a shrubbery and a tiny lawn; in larger cities, it might be an apartment with a balcony where we can grow tomatoes. Most of us don’t actually own property at all: we rent, or we are indentured to a mortgage for the next fifteen to thirty years. We set down no true roots: we wander from place to place, seeking “jobs.”

I’m pretty sure the Founders would consider most of us to be indentured servants or common laborers, or even slaves in a kind of corporate slave-pool, where we are “free” to change owners “at will” (assuming we can find a new owner that wants us), but we can never actually get out of the pool, short of dropping out of the bottom and becoming destitute. We are certainly not their vision of free men.

Under the Founders, almost none of us would have the right to vote. I think it’s reasonable to suppose that we would also not have the right to bear arms, save as enlisted soldiers in the Continental Army. We would have no natural right to serve in a “citizen militia” because we are not citizens: we are laborers, servants, and slaves.

Now, it’s conceivable that we could be deputized by our masters to bear a weapon against their enemies. But there’s a risk in that.

How many CostCo employees would take up arms to defend a warehouse from looting? How many employees would leap to the defense of a Monsanto factory? Or the Fidelity Mutual Home Office? Or a Comcast service center? How many would instead just drop the weapon on the ground and run the other way? You’re not paid to be shot at, after all.

The entire appeal of a citizen militia is that the citizen has a natural interest in protecting his own property. A servant or slave has no such interest in that property: they don’t own it. And as slave uprisings throughout history have always reminded us, servants and slaves often bear deep resentments against their masters, and may turn that weapon against them. It’s very risky to arm servants and slaves.

It seems to me that the Second Amendment was never intended to apply to us, the servants and wandering laborers

It applies, rather, to the ownership class. They used to be the landowners and shopkeepers, then the industrial owners. Now they are the corporate owners. The majority stockholders. The ultra-wealthy. The oligarchs. The real citizens. Theirs is the right to bear arms in a citizen militia. Except….

At this point, why would they bother?

There are no more savages lurking in the long grass. Wild beasts have (mostly) learned to avoid humans. The British left these shores a long time ago. Slavery and indentured servitude are gone, along with the resentments they breed. The threats that the oligarchs face now can’t be tamed with a gun — they are better-served with a team of lawyers, and a few senators in their pockets. If they have the occasional need to shoot someone, they have trained professionals (servants) to do that for them. The local police and the FBI exist to protect their property, paid for by taxes levied on the public. In a pinch, the US military machine will protect their holdings in the name of “national interest.”

Why would these true citizens even want to belong to a “citizen militia?”

Something to think about….


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