Some politicians are calling for new regulation and restrictions on firearms, but why and how does the Second Amendment strengthen liberty? In a thoughtful post at the Carolina Journal today, Troy Kickler offers this historical assessment:
What did early jurists and constitutional commentators say regarding the Second Amendment? St. George Tucker in View of the Constitution of the United States (1803), the first systematic commentary on the Constitution after its ratification, describes the Second Amendment to be “the true palladium of liberty.”
As the preservation of the statue of Pallas in mythological Troy — the Palladium — needed to be protected for the ancient city’s preservation, so the Virginian believed that the amendment ensured liberty’s protection in the United States. If the nation had a “standing army” — Revolutionary era-Americans’ description for a full-time, professional army — while individual Americans were denied the “right to keep and bear arms,” then “liberty, if not already annihilated,” Tucker wrote, “is on the brink of destruction.”
To Tucker, the Second Amendment is the linchpin that ensures the existence of all the other liberties.
Tucker was not alone. Although U.S. Supreme Court Justice Joseph Story believed the national government should have more authority than did Tucker, both jurists interpreted the Second Amendment as liberty’s safeguard. In 1833, Story noted in his influential Commentaries of the Constitution: “The right of the citizens to keep and bear arms has justly been considered as the palladium of the liberties of the republic, since it offers a strong moral check against the usurpation and arbitrary power of rulers, and will generally, even if these are successful in the first instance, enable the people to resist and triumph over them.”
These jurists repeated a widespread interpretation that had been practiced by the states. The first state constitutions — which remained unaltered and in effect after the Constitution’s ratification — protected individual rights to possess and bear arms and allowed for a state militia.