Libertarian State Leadership Alliance

Second Amendment Quotes from the Founding Fathers

The Founders on the Second Amendment

Our correspondents have provided us with a variety of quotes, some even footnoted.

From FEDERALIST No. 29 Concerning the Militia.

From the Daily Advertiser. Thursday, January 10, 1788


A tolerable expertness in military movements is a business that requires time and practice. It is not a day, nor a week nor even a month, that will suffice for the attainment of it. To oblige the great body of the yeomanry and of the other classes of the citizens to be under arms for the purpose of going through military excercises and evolutions, as often as might be necessary to acquire the degree of perfection which would entitle them to the character of a *well-regulated militia,* would be a real grievance to the people and a serious public inconvenience and loss. It would form an annual deduction from the productive labor of the country to an amount which, calculating upon the present numbers of the people, would not fall far short of a million pounds...

To attempt a thing which would abridge the mass of labor and industry to so considerable an extent would be unwise: and the experiment, if made, could not succeed, because it would not long be endured. Little more can reasonably be aimed at with respect to the people at large than to have them properly armed and equipped; and in order to see that this be not neglected, it will be necessary to assemble once or twice in the course of a year.

"On every question of construction (of the constitution) let us carry ourselves back to the time when the Constitution was adopted, recollect the spirit manifested in the debates, and instead of trying what meaning may be squeezed out of the text, or invented against it, conform to the probable one in which it was passed." (Thomas Jefferson, letter to William Johnson, June 12, 1823, The Complete Jefferson, p.322)

"The right of the people to keep and bear...arms shall not be infringed. A well regulated militia, composed of the body of the people, trained to arms, is the best and most natural defense of a free country..." (James Madison, I Annals of Congress 434, June 8, 1789)

"I ask, sir, what is the militia? It is the whole people, except for a few public officials." (George Mason, 3 Elliott, Debates at 425-426)

"A militia, when properly formed, are in fact the people themselves... and include all men capable of bearing arms." (Richard Henry Lee, Senator, First Congress, Additional Letters from the Federal Farmer (1788) at 169)

"Congress have no power to disarm the militia. Their swords, and every other terrible implement of the soldier, are the birthright of an American... The unlimited power of the sword is not in the hands of either the federal or state government, but, where I trust in God it will ever remain, in the hands of the people" (Tench Coxe, Pennsylvania Gazette, Feb. 20, 1788)

"As civil rulers, not having their duty to the people duly before them, may attempt to tyrannize, and as the military forces which must be occasionally raised to defend our country, might pervert their power to the injury of their fellow citizens, the people are confirmed by the article in their right to keep and bear their private arms." (Tench Cox in "Remarks on the First Part of the Amendments to the Federal Constitution." Under the pseudonym "A Pennsylvanian" in the Philadelphia Federal Gazette, June 18,1789 at 2 col. 1)

"The supposed quietude of a good man allures the ruffian; while on the other hand, arms like laws discourage and keep the invader and the plunderer in awe, and preserve order in the world as well as property. The same balance would be preserved were all the world destitute of arms, for all would be alike; but since some will not, others dare not lay them aside... Horrid mischief would ensue were one half the world deprived the use of them..." (Thomas Paine, I writings of Thomas Paine at 56 (1894))

"To preserve liberty, it is essential that the whole body of people always possess arms, and be taught alike, especially when young, how to use them..." (Richard Henery Lee, 1788, Initiator of the Declaration of Independence, and member of the first Senate, which passed the Bill of Rights.)[5]

"A free people be armed..." (George Washington, speech of January 7, 1790 in the Boston Independent Chronicle, January 14, 1790)

"The great object is that every man be armed. Everyone who is able may have a gun." (Patrick Henry, in the Virginia Convention on the ratification of the Constitution.)[1]

"That the said Constitution shall never be construed to authorize Congress to infringe the just liberty of the press or the rights of conscience; or to prevent the people of The United States who are peaceable citizens from keeping their own arms..." (Samuel Adams)[4]

"No freeman shall ever be debarred the use of arms." (Thomas Jefferson, proposal Virginia Constitution, June 1776, 1 T. Jeferson Papers,334 (C.J. Boyd, Ed.,1950))

"The strongest reason for the people to retain the right to keep and bear arms is, as a last resort, to protect themselves against tyrany in government." (Thomas Jefferson)

"As civil rulers, not having their duty to the people duly before them, may attempt to tyrannize, and as the military forces which must be occassionally raised to defend our country, might pervert their powers to the injury of their fellow-citizens, the people are confirmed by the next article [the Second Amendment] in their right to keep and bear their private arms." (from article in the Philadelphia Federal by Tench Cox ten days after the introduction of the Bill of Rights)[7]

[1] Debates and other Proceedings of the Convention of Virginia,...taken in shorthand by David Robertson of Petersburg, at 271, 275 (2d ed. Richmond, 1805). Also 3 Elliot, Debates at 386.

[4] Debates and Proceedings in the Convention of the Commonwealth of Massachusetts, at 86-87 (Peirce & Hale, eds., Boston, 1850)

[5] Walter Bennett, ed., Letters from the Federal Farmer to the Republican, at 21,22,124(Univ. of Alabama Press,1975).

[7] Philadelphia Federal Gazette June 18, 1789 at 2, col. 1

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