The new book Madison’s Militia: The Hidden History of the Second Amendment (Oxford Univ. Press, 2023) by Carl Bogus is an engaging history overturning the conventional wisdom about the Second Amendment – showing that the right to bear arms was not about protecting liberty but about preserving slavery.
In Madison’s Militia, Carl Bogus illuminates why James Madison and the First Congress included the right to bear arms in the Bill of Rights. Linking together dramatic accounts of slave uprisings and electric debates over whether the Constitution should be ratified, Bogus shows that – contrary to conventional wisdom – the fitting symbol of the Second Amendment is not the musket in the hands of the minuteman on Lexington Green but the musket wielded by a slave patrol member in the South.
Bogus begins with a dramatic rendering of the showdown in Virginia between James Madison and his federalist allies, who were arguing for ratification of the new Constitution, and Patrick Henry and the antifederalists, who were arguing against it.
Henry accused Madison of supporting a constitution that empowered Congress to disarm the militia, on which the South relied for slave control. The narrative then proceeds to the First Congress, where Madison had to make good a congressional campaign promise to write a Bill of Rights – and seizing that opportunity to solve the problem Henry had raised.
Three other collections of stories – on slave insurrections, Revolutionary War battles, and the English Declaration of Rights – are skillfully woven into the narrative and show how arming ragtag militias was never the primary goal of the amendment. And as the puzzle pieces come together, even initially skeptical readers will be surprised by the completed picture: one that forcefully demonstrates that the Second Amendment was intended in the first instance to protect slaveholders from the people they owned.
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