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8: “Engines of Despotism…”

December 31, 2012

8: “Engines of despotism…”

The Federalist 8: The Consequences of Hostilities Between the States. First published November 20, 1787. Author Alexander Hamilton. Please see Introducing the American Bible for an introduction to this project.

Twenty children died at Sandy Hook Elementary. Six staff members died with them; one, Vicki Soto, was shot while shielding her students with her body. She was all of 27 years old. Her life, like her students’ lives, had barely begun.

This was the fourth high-profile mass shooting my country suffered this year. 12 people died in a movie theater in July. Six more died just two weeks later in Wisconsin. They were at their temple; like all this year’s victims of mass murder, they were engaged in an activity perfectly ordinary and familiar. It is chilling to think America has become a place where a cinema, a house of worship, or an elementary school are places of fear. The NRA’s proposal to station armed guards at every school seems unlikely to make our children feel safe.

A scant four days before the Sandy Hook killings, my home state was visited with a senseless tragedy. Two people were killed at Clackamas Town Center, a shopping mall familiar to any Portlander. The shooter used a gun very similar to that used by Adam Lanza a few days later.

The M4A3, based on the same weapons platform wielded in the Newtown and Clackamas massacres. Photo credit: Ministry of Defence and Armed Forces of the Czech Republic

The M4A3, a sister weapon to the one wielded by Adam Lanza at Newtown

All this has, at last, returned our nation’s attention to gun control. America is peculiarly full of gun violence. David Hemenway has noted that an American child is 13 times more likely to be murdered by a gun then her OECD peers. Since our non-gun homicide rate is about the same, American children are about 3½ times more likely to die murder victims. American children are 8 times more likely to commit suicide by gun; once again, the non-gun rates are broadly similar. When I say children, I do mean children: These suicide victims are 5- to 14-year-olds, hardly a circumstance in which one can blame the victim.

Eliminating and reducing gun violence has been done by other countries, and the method is entirely straightforward: Eliminate and reduce guns. Japan essentially eliminated non-hunting guns in 1971, and the results have been astounding. PRI noted earlier this year that for every fifty Americans who die by accidental gun discharge, just one Japanese dies from a non-suicide-related gun death. Japan is a country of over 120 million people. Yet in 2006, just two Japanese were murdered by guns. Australia has similarly clamped down on gun access, with similarly encouraging results.

Yet even the most optimistic of liberal commentators would hardly dare to hope for such progress. The Constitution is the problem—or, rather, the Bill of Rights, and a certain conservative reading of the second amendment. This amendment is but a single sentence, yet it has spawned two very contrary interpretations:

A well regulated militia being necessary to the security of a free state, the right of the people to keep and bear arms shall not be infringed.

One interpretation reads this as protecting gun rights, but only with a view to ensuring the health of a “well regulated militia” (a militia in this context being a citizens’ army, called up in times of need and disbanded afterwards). In the absence of such citizen militias, an individual’s right to bear arms can be restricted. And outside the militias, the Second Amendment does not create any “right to possess and use guns for nonmilitary purposes like hunting and personal self-defense.”[1]

President Obama and staff share a minute of silence after the Newtown shootings.

President Obama and staff share a minute of silence after the Newtown shootings.

This liberal reading focuses on the first part of the text. Conservatives instead fix their eyes on its end, seeing an individual right to own weapons. In this view, citizens’ weapons may be useful to a militia, but the right is essentially about individuals.

So which is it? The question is one that has occupied many constitutional scholars, and is somewhat above my pay grade. But based at least on Federalist 8, I think the liberals may have it.[2]

Federalist 8 is nominally about Hamilton’s vision of a war between the states. But really, he instead paints a picture of one of the Founders’ greatest fears: Those “engines of despotism”, standing armies.

The very phrase “standing army” may require explanation for modern readers. A standing army is one that always “stands” ready for battle—unlike the citizens’ militias favored by the Founders, a standing army is not disbanded when not in use. Almost every modern army is a standing army.

The Framers had a great horror of such armies. They looked to Europe’s mighty armies, and saw a mighty hand always raised to quash the people. Most of the Framers thought only a militia could be trusted to remain loyal to its citizens’ interests. A standing army could too easily become the tool of a repressive dictator, or even a dictator in its own right.

But Hamilton’s fears have proved misplaced. America has had a standing army for decades, without sliding into dictatorship. The Founders underestimated the power of civilian control: the idea that President Truman could dispense with the highly-decorated General MacArthur. Though MacArthur’s military expertise certainly surpassed Truman’s, Truman was still the Commander-in-Chief; MacArthur, merely a soldier. When MacArthur forgot his place, he lost it.

Ultimately, it was this that broke the “engine of despotism”, not the citizen militias (which have long since faded into irrelevance).

The US military is sufficiently trusted that armed patrols in the wake of Katrina raised few eyebrows.

The US military is sufficiently trusted that armed patrols in the wake of Katrina raised few eyebrows.

Yet Hamilton’s obsessive concern with standing armies is suggestive. His concern is with standing armies, not with individual citizens’ self-defense. If Hamilton’s interests are any guide, the 2nd Amendment is not about self-defense, or sport shooting. It’s about national defense.

But national defense is one area our understanding has surpassed the Framers’. The answer was a professionalized army that knew its place, not an armed citizenry.

Today, most Western armies look like those of America or Germany or France: They are well-equipped, well-trained, and they know their place. Where armies are bad, it is because their governments and leaders are bad—where their governments have learned to be good, as in post-World War 2 Germany, armies have also learned to be good.

Intact, those countries whose people have retained the means to armed revolt are scarcely nations to envy: Afghanistan, Pakistan, Somalia. An armed citizenry often looks distinctly Hobbesian. Ordinary people are afraid; the government is unstable.

No, the best guarantor of liberty is not weapons. It is a strong civic culture. A history of deferring to the democratic process, to its laws and even to its mistakes.

America’s greatest revolutions have not emerged from a gun barrel. African-Americans did not win their civil rights by violence. Instead, they engaged with a government and a people that could ultimately be trusted to do the right thing. Other countries’ minorities have taken up arms under similar circumstances, and condemned all their neighbors to years of fear and bloodshed.

It would be a tragedy indeed, if the deaths of 26 more innocents were not enough to wake us up. The Founders’ greatest legacy is good law, respect for our neighbors, and trust in our government. This is what protects us from dictators, not millions of people with semi-automatic rifles.

Let’s not sell America short. We depend on our army and police for protection—and they, in turn, depend on us for legitimacy. Liberal to conservative, Americans trust their soldiers and their cops to do the right thing; and to follow orders.

Hamilton need not have feared a standing army: a country soaked in the cult of the gun has proved much more scary.

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  1. From Justice John Paul Stevens’ dissent in DC v. Heller.  ↩

  2. For a deeper, and certainly better-informed, argument that the 2nd Amendment was not originally intended to protect gun ownership, see Riva B. Siegel’s excellent Originalism and Popular Constitutionalism. Part I, “The Temporal Locus of Constitutional Authority in Heller”, is particularly good.  ↩


From → The Papers

  1. evelyn schaefer permalink

    Well said. Unfortunately, those who need to hear, won,t be willing to listen

  2. The Economist’s MS has written a great post expanding on the dangers and inadequacies of militias; check it out here:

  3. Ginger permalink


  4. Michael permalink

    1. [The NRA’s proposal to station armed guards at every school seems unlikely to make our children feel safe] I highly doubt this would be the case if people were more aware of statistics relating to homicides, weapon of choice, and injuries leading to death. For example, the FBI compiled a study last year showing that of 12,664 homicides last year, only 323 resulted from the use of any rifle. I’ll spare you the calculations but that is a measly 2.55%, especially when compared to homicides by hands/feet/body part (5.91%), knives (12.90%), and pistols (49.57%). In nearly every state, rifles were the least used weapon of choice in homicides. If that wasn’t enough, the CDC released a study(2007) of the 20 leading causes of injury leading to death and the leading causes were motor vehicle accidents(34%), Poisoning(24%), and Falls(17%) respectively. Firearms as a whole, not just rifles, only accounted for 2-3% of all injuries leading to death. When dealing with potential mass casualties an armed public is better than not; the DOJ reported that the average body count when a firearm is not immediately available to subdue a shooter is 16, whereas when a weapon is readily available such as someone with a CCW, the average body count is 2.5. An excellent example of this is the failed San Antonio theater shooting, in late December, which was widely unreported by mainstream network and cable news, where an off-duty officer had a CCW and subdued an angry restaurant from going “postal” on a crowd of late night movie-goers. Had that off-duty cop not conceal carried, we would have had another shooting similar to that in Aurora, CO only weeks after the Sandy Hook incident. With everything considered, especially the last statistic, I believe people would most definitely feel more comfortable with the idea of an armed guard. It is my opinion that people who have a misplaced stigma about firearms, are the result of the media for handpicking stories, sensationalizing them, and having all day analysis on our current 24-hour news cycle, as well as the under-education of the public on the subject matter.

    I will post again later with more on other parts of this post, but I’m tired of typing as of the moment. May my words serve as a teaching tool or simply an insight into the opposite side.

    P.S. All sources are available upon request, but to be honest they are public information and easy to find.

    • Good points all, but I think you approach the death stats in the wrong way. The relevant question is not: What proportion of deaths are attributable to firearms?

      Instead, it should be: Is the proportion of deaths attributable to firearms higher in this country than in other countries?

      The answer to that is clearly yes. America’s firearms death rate is 10.2. That’s higher than any developed country. It’s almost as high as Mexico! The next-highest developed countries are Switzerland at 3.84, and Finland at 3.64. From there it drops still further: Holland’s gun death rate was just 0.46 in a 2012 study. That’s 20x lower than America’s figure. Clearly, either Americans are considerably more violent than others, or America’s unnusually high gun-ownership rates lead to more gun deaths.

      Second, I think you misunderstand my objection to the NRA’s proposal. I’m not saying that armed guards/concealed carries cannot stop shootings (though Columbine is a famous anecdotal counter-point). My core objection, which you would find at the end of my post, is that an armed society is actually INIMICAL to freedom and rule of law.

      A stable, safe society comes when people trust their governments, their police forces, their army, and above all their neighbors. Surely the answer to guns violence is not to give more people the capacity for gun violence? I’m uncomfortable holding a gun, or even a knife. Should I have to carry a gun, just in case some whacko decides to pull out his handgun and start shooting? I think the answer is no.

      For a parallel piece, please see:

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