Mark L. Hopkins: The Second Amendment and Shays' Rebellion
Feb 6, 2017 12:28 PM -
This is the second in a series of columns that relate to the purpose of the Second Amendment and the gun rights issue that continues to fester in our society. The first column pointed out the strong desire on the part of the leadership of the country to have a strong federal government. The focus here is in the feeling of necessity in the leadership to have a means to enforce federal law and to protect the government from citizen rebellions. The Second Amendment became the law of the land in 1791. Prior to that Daniel Shays, a former captain in the Continental Army, became the leader of a citizens' rebellion in Massachusetts in response to what Shays and other farmers believed were high taxes and a government that was unresponsive to their grievances. In January 1787, they raided the arsenal in Springfield, Massachusetts and continued their anti-government rebellions through the winter of that year. This was two years before the writing of the U.S. Bill of Rights with its all-important Second Amendment. Retired General George Washington was so upset by Shays Rebellion that he wrote three letters commenting on it. Excerpts from these letters follow: "But for God's sake tell me what is the cause of all these commotions. Do they proceed from licentiousness, British influence disseminated by Tories, or real grievances which admit of redress?" In a second letter he worried that, "Commotion of this sort, like snowballs, gather strength as they roll, if there is no opposition in the way to divide and crumble them. I am mortified beyond expression that in the moment of our acknowledged independence we should by our conduct verify the predictions of our transatlantic foe, and render ourselves ridiculous and contemptible in the eyes of all Europe." Later he wrote, "If three years ago any person had told me that at this day I should see such a formidable rebellion against the laws and constitutions or our own making as now appears, I should have thought him a bedlamite, a fit subject for a mad house." Shays' Rebellion was eventually put down when a group of wealthy merchants in Boston pooled their resources and created their own militia to quell the uprising. In the early 1790s, a second major rebellion began in Western Pennsylvania. It was called the Whiskey Rebellion and, again, was a revolt against taxes. Thus, the Second Amendment was written and signed into law in the shadow of these two major citizens' rebellions. The U.S. Congress reacted to this second major rebellion by passing "The Militia Act" which gave teeth to the Second Amendment by requiring all military-age "free adults" to stand for service to "enforce the laws of the Union, thereby insuring "domestic tranquility." President Washington himself gave orders to form a militia of 13,000 men to put down the Whiskey Rebellion. His words later were "…..this is how a "well-regulated Militia" should be used to serve the government in maintaining a strong "security" in each state, as the Second Amendment of The Bill of Rights intended. From the letters written by George Washington and the actions of Congress it is obvious that the purpose of the Second Amendment was to strengthen the Federal Government against rebellion and insurrection. It was not, as some contend, to equip the citizens to make war on the government. In fact, it was just the opposite. My first of the three gun rights columns focused on the desire of the U.S. leadership to have a strong central government and the means to protect that government from rebellion. In this column the focus has been on the like-minded efforts of both President George Washington and Congress to put teeth in the Second Amendment so security and an orderly society could be fostered. My third and final column on this subject will come next week. -- Dr. Mark L. Hopkins writes for More Content Now and Scripps Newspapers. He is past president of colleges and universities in four states and currently serves as executive director of a higher-education consulting service. You will find Hopkins' latest book, "Journey to Gettysburg," on Amazon.com. Contact him at firstname.lastname@example.org.