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Was the Constitutional Right to Bear Arms Designed to Protect Slavery?

In “The Second: Race and Guns in a Fatally Unequal America,” the historian Carol Anderson argues that the Second Amendment to the United States Constitution, which provides for a “well regulated militia” and “the right of the people to keep and bear arms,” offers “a particularly maddening set of double standards where race is concerned.” On the one hand, she claims that slaveholding founding fathers insisted on the inclusion of the Second Amendment in the Bill of Rights in order to assure themselves of a fighting force willing to suppress slave insurrections. On the other hand, she maintains that racist practices have deprived Blacks of access to arms that might have enabled them to defend themselves in the absence of equal protection of law.

These discriminations and the attitudes behind them, Anderson charges, have generated a baleful catalog of affronts that predate the establishment of the United States and that grow apace. She shows that the specter of armed Blacks was so alarming that white authorities revisited their fears obsessively, enacting statute after statute with alterations that invariably broadened prohibitions and intensified punishments.

For purposes of policing Blacks’ access to firearms, differences in legal status between African-Americans who were free and those who were enslaved were often swept aside. A Virginia law enacted in 1723 provided that, under penalty of whipping, “no Negro, mulatto or Indian whatsoever” was allowed to possess a firearm. A Florida law authorized whites “to seize arms found in the homes of slaves and free Blacks.” African-Americans deemed to be in violation of such prohibitions could be summarily punished with up to “39 strokes on the bare back,” all “without benefit of judicial tribunal.”

Anderson notes that in the struggle for independence from Britain, many white American leaders resisted arming Blacks who were willing to fight for the rebels. The racial policy of the Continental Army varied. At one point, it became “whites only.” But the exigencies of war forced a reconsideration of that exclusion. Connecticut allowed masters to free slaves for enlistment. Rhode Island offered freedom to enslaved Blacks who enlisted. Virginia began to recruit free Blacks. South Carolina, however, steadfastly refused. Its leaders said that they were more appalled by the prospect of Negroes with guns than of submission to King George.

Read entire article at New York Times