A Forgotten Battle For the Second Amendment

Thomas NastOne of the most interesting sections of Carole Emberton’s new book, Beyond Redemption, is her analysis of the relationship between gun ownership among newly-freed slaves, voting, citizenship and violence in the postwar South. By 1860 service in the military had already expanded the suffrage to include a large percentage of white men. The right to vote, achieved through military service defined what it meant to lay claim to citizenship in the United States. The defense of home and nation not only opened the doors to voting for many white men, but the weapons used proved to be extremely useful in the often violent world of political campaigns and gatherings on election day.

It should come as no surprise, then, that the claims to citizenship and the vote by a formerly enslaved population rested directly on the right to bear arms. Former black Union soldiers often purchased their weapons upon leaving the army while many others purchased weapons with what little money they earned. They did so to protect themselves, but also as symbols of freedom and independence. The right to own a weapon constituted a tangible break with a past in which masters controlled the conditions in which their slaves could shoulder a gun. Most importantly, gun ownership was understood as a direct claim through the Second Amendment to the rights of citizenship and the vote.

Of course, gun ownership among former slaves was seen as a direct threat to a society structured around white supremacy as well as a constant reminder of Confederate defeat. Many whites feared widespread violence and revolution from their once “loyal slaves” as they did during the antebellum years. Not surprisingly, whites took steps to disarm blacks.

Southern blacks fought against whites’ efforts to disarm them by claiming a right to bear arms as citizens of the United States. Delegates to the black state convention in Charleston, South Carolina, petitioned Congress to ensure the rights of citizenship for freedpeople, including the security of “life and property” schools access to land, “equal suffrage,” the right to sit on juries, and “the right to keep and bear arms” as guaranteed by the “Supreme law of the land.” Citing the Second Amendment, the convention decried a recent law passed by the state legislature outlawing black gun ownership as a “plain violation of the Constitution” and “unjust to many of us…who have been soldiers, and purchased our muskets from the United States Government when we mustered out of service.” Before claiming their right to bear arms, however, the convention appealed to the power of the United States, “the strong arm of the law and order,” to protect them. By doing so, they acknowledged not only the authority of the federal government but also its duty to them. Yet their subsequent invocation of the Second Amendment recognized the limits of state authority if not its obligation, which still might be fulfilled by securing for blacks the right to “keep and bear arms.” Likewise, the Loyal Georgian, a black newspaper published in Augusta, proclaimed the right to bear arms in self-defense a right of American citizenship to which blacks were now entitled. These petitions reveal that Southern blacks understood arms bearing and other citizenship rights, including voting, as mutually dependent; that is, without the ability to defend themselves against violence, then the other rights would be of little practical value. (p. 150)

What is interesting about Emberton’s analysis – if I understand it correctly -  is that that white Northerners (including Republicans) harbored some of the same fears about black gun ownership minus the concerns about revolution. Republicans found themselves in a difficult position as they anticipated that gun ownership would likely lead to continued violence even if they understood that those same weapons guaranteed a vote for their party. Beyond the Republican Party, however, many Northerners resisted the claims to citizenship and full rights that were now being asserted at the end of a barrel. It is what ultimately derailed their claims to citizenship.

It is interesting that this battle has been lost among those who wrap themselves in the Second Amendment. In this case the defenders of the right to bear arms were appealing to the federal government to counter the encroachment of the state on their rights. Today the most extreme Second Amendment advocates harbor what most reasonable people view as an irrational fear that the federal government is going to take away their guns.

Still, you would think that the vigilance on the part of African Americans, who demanded their right to bear arms during such a precarious time, would be front and center in their rhetoric about the consequences of losing such an important mark of citizenship.

17 comments… add one

  • Andy Hall Aug 30, 2013

    Thanks for this post. This provides a lot of the context for the Order of Pole Bearers, a Freedmens’ group that had multiple chapters across northern Mississippi and western Tennessee during Reconstruction. (It was the Pole Bearers chapter in Memphis to whom Forrest gave his famous address in 1875, encouraging them to be good citizens and to take active part in the political process.) The Pole Bearers are sometimes described today as a “civil rights organization,” but that’s not really accurate as we would use the term today. It was more of an organization for the mutual aid and self-defense of its membership. The name comes from the fact that its male members would sometimes organize military-style drills, armed with metal-tipped poles — something akin to a naval boarding pike, I gather. Such weapons were easily and inexpensively made or obtained, and more important, not subject to restrictions on African Americans’ possession of firearms. A quick glance at newspapers from that period makes it clear that the Pole Bearers were not seen by Southern whites as a passive or especially peaceful element in the highly-charged arena of race relations in the Mississippi Valley during Reconstruction.

    • Kevin Levin Aug 30, 2013

      Yes, I can definitely see how this particular chapter might help to interpret Forrest’s interest in the Order of Pole Bearers. You should definitely get to this book at some point. It’s a fascinating read.

  • Scott Smart Aug 30, 2013

    I take it that “most reasonable people” means “people who agree with me”. But what I find surprising is you seem to be unaware of the actions of RKBA supporters to use the Federal Courts against state/local laws infringing the right?

    • Kevin Levin Aug 30, 2013

      By “reasonable people” I mean those who believe in the right to bear arms, but also don’t necessarily head for the hills whenever the subject of regulation is introduced. I am indeed aware of this aspect of the debate, but this pales in comparison with the popular view that it is the federal government which constitutes the gravest threat to the second amendment. My goal here is not to get into a discussion about the current debate. Thanks for the comment.

      • Lyle Smith Aug 31, 2013

        Kevin if you don’t want people to talk about the current debate you can’t bring it up. You brought it up and therefore people are going to talk about it.

        People aren’t just worried about the Federal government. Cities and states legislate on guns as well. Guns are practically banned in Chicago and that freaks some people out too, especially because of the notorious gang violence in that city. Do you see the historical change in this kind of thinking? They’re not saying take the guns away from the gang members, but let all the citizens arm themselves in self-defense.

        • Kevin Levin Aug 31, 2013

          You just did and I am making my way through the links you provided 10 minutes ago. At least give me a chance to read.

        • Kevin Levin Aug 31, 2013

          The LA Times piece about the NRA’s endorsement of Colion Noir is quite interesting because his story seems to be the exception to how we think of the broader gun control debate or at least how the NRA itself promotes it. The Reason book review is also very interesting, but I don’t see how it is directly relevant precisely because it is a book review. The author obviously did his homework. Anyway, thanks for passing along the links. It definitely gives me more to think about.

          And you are right. I shouldn’t try to avoid the issue if I am the one that brought it up. :-)

          • Lyle Smith Aug 31, 2013

            I appreciate your last sentence. Thank you.

            I found those links in haste. I couldn’t quite find the ones I was looking for from Reason. They’re deeper down in the google search, I think. I just wanted to point out that Reason, which is the high brow/pish posh Libertarian publication in America, has been making this point for some time now. They’ve brought up Frederick Douglass multiple times in this context. Justice Clarence Thomas makes this argument in some of his Supreme Court rulings. And stuff like this is getting filtered through Tea Party types and others. There is a lot of reading and thinking going on out there, I think.

            • Kevin Levin Aug 31, 2013

              Please keep the links coming if you think of it. I read Reason fairly regularly, but missed that particular essay. Thanks again.

  • Dan Weinfeld Aug 30, 2013

    Maybe overlooked, but certainly not forgotten. Adam Winkler wrote an excellent essay in The Atlantic arguing, among other things, that the drafters of the XIV Amendment saw gun ownership as a fundamental right of citizenship. http://www.theatlantic.com/magazine/archive/2011/09/the-secret-history-of-guns/308608 . I also wrote a blog post that you might find interesting about the “black code” gun laws in Reconstruction Florida and the debate over their constitutionality at http://bloodandoranges.com/2012/12/gun-control-laws-in-florida-reconstruction-style.

  • Lyle Smith Aug 31, 2013
    • Kevin Levin Aug 31, 2013

      Thanks for the links.

  • Doug didier Aug 31, 2013

    Haven’t read this.. It’s on the wish list

    http://www.amazon.com/Freedmen-Fourteenth-Amendment-Right-1866-1876/dp/0275963314/ref=sr_1_4?s=books&ie=UTF8&qid=1377962000&sr=1-4&keywords=Halbrook+arms

    Freedmen, the Fourteenth Amendment, and the Right to Bear Arms, 1866-1876: Stephen P. Halbrook: 9780275963316: Amazon.com: Books

    Book Description
    The only comprehensive study ever published on the intent of the framers of the 14th Amendment and of Reconstruction-era civil rights legislation to protect the right to keep and bear arms from State infringement.

  • Lyle Smith Aug 31, 2013
  • Carole Emberton Sep 1, 2013

    Thanks, Kevin, for the thoughtful reading you’ve given the book. The bigger question I’m asking the reader is this: what kind of society do we get where gun ownership and voting rights are so closely tied together? Answer: one where political power is determined by who has the most arms, where elections are determined by bullets instead of ballots, and where violence and intimidation replaces reasoned debate. In short, the Reconstruction-era South. Ultimately, this is a story about the corrosive power of the Second Amendment on a nation’s political culture — not its liberating potential.

  • Judson Giddens Mar 22, 2014

    I disagree Carole, our right to bear arms has guaranteed that our vote counts, even if we don’t like the choices. This is a quick link to wiki, which I don’t care for as a source but it is fairly accurate and many other sources are out there if you want to look at it closer. http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Battle_of_Athens_%281946%29
    Remember that the government in our society carries a bigger gun than individual gun owners. So, you could say in a way you are right, in that the governments power at the end of a gun could derail our rights unless we have the force necessary to insure that it doesnt act contrary to the law. In this day and age we use lawyers to insure our rights, but that could change

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