The First and Second Amendments of the Constitution


As a student of history, particularly American, I have long considered why ou “Bill of Rights,” the first ten amendments to the U.S. Constitution, are in the order they are in and why they are written as they are.  Most historians agree that the writers of the Constitution, primarily were a small group comprising John Dickinson of Pennsylvania, Thomas Jefferson, and James Madison.  Dickinson did most of the draft writing and conferred with Jefferson and Madison on finer points.  Then it was brought to the Constitutional Convention for further discussion and revision.  A number of “plans” were put forth by various state delegations, one the best known being the “Virginia  Plan.”  What happened most was changing of some wording and elimination of a number of paragraphs.  To be sure, the ratified Constitution was considerably smaller than its original presentation.

The “Bill of Rights” came into being in the first two years of our nation.  They were added because the original document had to have ratification of ten states which would not happen if the words of the Bill of Rights were present.

The first amendment I have found to be particularly curious.  It has two seemingly unrelated parts folded into one amendment.  The first part addresses the establishment of religion.  The leaders of the day had an enormous distaste for a state established religion as had been the law in England.  The idea that any church had so much power within government was simply not acceptable to them.  In America, conversely, the three or four religions that first migrated to the American continent had given way to a multitude of religions.  Those present at the convention themselves came from Presbyters, Unitarians, Congregationalists, Lutherans, Quakers, and a few who were not allied with any particular religion. They realized quickly within their own small group that their own beliefs varied far too greatly to give countenance to any particular sect.  Although not a part of the Convention, Dr. Benjamin Franklin had made it known in the previous years how distasteful he found John Adams’ Puritan ethic.  They were at opposite ends of the religious spectrum even though they were mostly in sync in their political beliefs.  And that is what all the “framers” of the Constitution understood implicitly.  No one could pick any particular belief as the standard for our country.  They decided, perfectly, that to insure a continued an unfettered government that they would make it illegal for the government to favor any and all religious beliefs.  They were fully aware of people who were agnostic who balked at all religions as this had been both Franklin and Jefferson’s belief.

But then they wrote the send portion of the First Amendment: “Congress shall make no law . . . abridging the freedom of speech, or of the press; or the right of the people peaceably to assemble, and to petition the Government for a redress of grievances.”  This was John Adams at his finest.  No colony had suffered more oppression of suppressed rights to speak and write with impunity as Massachusetts had.  In 1768 when the Townshed Acts had been passed they were quite pointed towards Massachusetts.  England considered Massachusetts the greatest the greatest thorn in its side.  Newspapers written by Adams, Hancock and others consistently complained of the treatment by Parliament and the king.  Massachusetts had also gone through a series of public protests some of which ended in the loss of life or imprisonment.  To be fair, other colonies had suffered  similar events but not to the degree Bostonians had.

My only question is, why not make this declaration an amendment of its own?

Now we come to the infamous second amendment.  After the first amendment, no amendment has had more discussion.  The entire Constitution was written in some vague language.  The belief at the time was the Constitution should be a living document that would undergo change as the times called for.  With all due respect to my college professor in grad school, I do not believe the writers were thinking of individuals when this was written.  This is another Adams amendment.  The minutemen of Massachusetts, known as the state militia, had gone through repeated attempts by the British to curb their power.  One of the provisions of the Townshend Acts made it illegal for towns to warehouse stores of guns and gun powder.  Massachusetts towns had organized some years before into what were called “defense committees.”  Once a month the members would gather on the town green or common area to practice and drill with their weapons.  Many, if not most, of those weapons were provided to them by the state.  Contrary to any beliefs held today, those people were largely farmers and merchants who had no interest in hunting.  Gun ownership was of no particular interest to them.

But these same farmers and merchants did understand the need for home defense.  The British soldiers had shown no respect for their lands, their property, or their persons.  That meant these defense committees had a single purpose, to gather as a group, a militia, to protect those rights they staunchly believe in.  But I can assure you, their thought of the day was their remembering how crown had tried, in vain, to dismantle the colonial militia.  And that was the driving force behind the second amendment.  The right of the people (plural) to bear arms meant they could gather as a governmental body to protect themselves against any government that might try to gain control over them.  The thirteen original states were a very weak coalition held together by a piece of paper.  There was a high degree of mistrust between those various states.  It was felt that if each state could raise and support its own militia, that provided a safeguard against any other state trying to intrude on its rights.  They did not trust a central government’s military to protect them thusly.  If their governor controlled their militia they felt much safer

I am not making an argument here for any change in gun laws.  I am simply tired of the NRA, and others, pointing to the second amendment as the guarantee of an individual’s right.  It is not.  I am, in fact, very much in favor of the individual to have a right to gun ownership.  I am also a reasonable person and I believe there needs to be a reasonable amount of rules and regulation that keep those guns only in the hands of responsible and law-abiding citizens.  How do you do that?  I do not have an answer but I do know there is one but please do not point to the second amendment when  you make your argument.  Point to yourself as being a responsible and law-abiding citizen who has earned the right to have certain weapons of choice.

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