8: “Engines of Despotism…”
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.
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.”
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.
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).
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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From Justice John Paul Stevens’ dissent in DC v. Heller. ↩
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. ↩