2nd Amendment Passed to Protect Slavery? No!

A legal scholar lambastes a Truthout article claiming that it was for preserving slave-patrol militias.


(The Root) — Recently Thom Hartmann published an essay on Truthout titled “The Second Amendment Was Ratified to Preserve Slavery.” Hartmann, who is described on the Internet as a radio host, author, former psychotherapist and entrepreneur and a progressive political commentator, said the amendment to the U.S. Constitution was intended, in part, to protect slave-patrol militias. 

If Hartmann’s political goal is to argue for reasonable firearms regulations, then he and I are in the same camp. I have long argued that the Second Amendment does not protect an individual’s right to own firearms, and that the purpose of the amendment was purely to guarantee that the states could maintain their own militias. I have also written a great deal on how the Constitution protected slavery (see my book Slavery and the Founders: Race and Liberty in the Age of Jefferson), and I am not shy about pointing out how the founders protected slavery. Indeed, my most recent public comment on slavery and the founding was an op-ed in the New York Times on Jefferson and slavery titled “The Monster of Monticello.”

Still, however committed one may be to a political outcome, it serves no purpose to make historical arguments that are demonstrably wrong, misleading and inconsistent with what happened. Hartmann does not serve his cause well by purporting to write history when his version of history is mostly wrong, and very misleading.

Hartmann begins by arguing that “the real reason the Second Amendment was ratified, and why it says ‘State’ instead of ‘Country’ ” was that the framers wanted “to preserve the slave patrol militias in the southern states, which was necessary to get Virginia’s vote.” 

Hartmann implies that the Second Amendment was adopted (or at least written) to get Virginia’s “vote” for ratification of the Constitution, which took place in July 1788. But this is not even remotely true. In 1788 the Second Amendment was not yet written and was not part of the debate over ratification of the Constitution.

As everyone familiar with the ratification of the Constitution knows, Virginia’s ratification convention narrowly voted to support the Constitution because of the hard work of James Madison, John Marshall and Gov. Edmund Randolph. George Washington, who had attended the Constitutional Convention but was not at the ratifying convention, lent his great prestige in support of the Constitution. His nephew Bushrod Washington was a delegate and voted to ratify. 

Virginia’s ratification took place after New Hampshire had ratified — giving the Constitution the necessary nine states to go into effect. Virginia was the 10th state to ratify. But this had nothing to do with the Second Amendment, which had neither been proposed nor written at this time.

It is possible that Hartmann believes that Virginia only ratified the Constitution because of a promise of future amendments. But this is not the case. The opponents of the Constitution — led by Patrick Henry — wanted Virginia to give a conditional ratification that would require future amendments. But Henry lost on this issue. The Virginia convention ratified the Constitution over the strenuous objections — and absence of votes — of Henry, George Mason and their ilk. Only after the Virginia convention had ratified the Constitution did the victorious federalists — led by Madison — allow the anti-federalists to offer 40 proposed amendments, one of which allowed the states to arm their own militias.