Archive for Politics

When Does “History” Begin?

I know that it’s been a while since I’ve posted anything – I’ve now let life get in the way of three different series that I’ve started on here. For now, I can’t fix that, but I trust that I’ll come back to each of those in the near future.

For today, I just wanted to make note of something I’ve noticed dozens of times, but haven’t really processed fully.

I met a few of my wife’s family members down at Fort McHenry today for a tour. While I was waiting for them to arrive, I wandered over to the George Armistead Monument near the parking lot.

The Monument to George Armistead.

The Monument to George Armistead.

It’s a nice, simple monument. There’s a likeness of him, birth and death dates, and a line about why he was important. All the usual stuff you’d expect on a memorial for a man with a great role in history. The issue I want to explore comes in on “the back” of the pedestal:

This is where the monument gets meta.

This is where the monument gets meta.

Everyone's a hero!

Everyone’s a hero!

There is more text on this monument that describes how, when, and by whom it was put in than there is to describe the thing it is actually memorializing. Like I said, I’ve seen this same type of thing on monuments dozens of times, and it always strikes me as being pretty narcissistic. As if the people who decided on the design and placement of the marker deserved equal praise and billing with the memorialized person or event!

The thing is, this is some useful information in some ways. Who and what a people choose to memorialize can tell you something about those people – George Armistead was obviously enough of a hero in Baltimore in 1914 that this commission decided they needed a sculpture of him. And you don’t have to do any further research to discover who the sculptor was. You can further infer that there was a big to-do made of the centennial celebrations of the Battle of Baltimore, what with a monument dedication and all. Maybe one of these commissioners was a relative of yours – a remote possibility to be sure, but something similar happened to my dad years ago at the Maryland Institute.

I guess what I’m saying is that there’s a place or time when this kind of thing stops being the grandstanding of politicians and influential businessmen, and becomes “history” that is worthy of study. Not so much of the event itself, but of how the event is portrayed, and by whom. “Meta-history” if you will, but history nonetheless.

Where is that line? I have a hard time deciding. 50 years? 100? A generation or two? Maybe when the day-to-day decisions of these politicians and notable citizens fade from our memory, and thus cease to have so much controversy associated with them? History is curved, after all. I suppose it’s up to the future viewers of the monuments to make that call for themselves.

There may be some merit to exploring the backs of the monuments, too.

Breaking Down The Second Amendment

One short, two-clause sentence. That’s all the 2nd amendment is.

A well regulated militia being necessary to the security of a free state, the right of the people to keep and bear arms shall not be infringed.

Pretty simple, right? Well, apparently not. Few parts of the Constitution are as willfully misunderstood as this one. Granted, that misunderstanding is well-intentioned, but that doesn’t make it right. Let’s break it down, shall we?

First of all, the 2nd amendment is obviously one of the first 10 amendments to the Constitution – the part that is commonly referred to (even back in 1789) as “The Bill of Rights“. The whole point of The Bill of Rights – the reason the Anti-Federalists insisted on creating it – was to secure individual rights against a tyrannical government that might be possible under the Constitution. So it would be pretty nonsensical to read one of those 10 amendments in a way that doesn’t secure an individual right, doesn’t it? But this is exactly what these (admittedly well-intentioned) people do. They tell us that your right to “keep and bear arms” relies on you being part of a “militia” – you gain the right only collectively. But now, I’m getting ahead of myself.

I mentioned before that there are two clauses. These are generally referred to as the “prefatory” and the “operative” clauses. The prefatory clause sets the table and lays out the driving purpose, and the operative clause gets the actual work done. We’ll begin the analysis with the operative clause since it is the easiest to understand (and where the real work of the amendment gets done anyway):

the right of the people to keep and bear arms shall not be infringed.

“the right” – The important word here is “the”. We aren’t talking about “a” right, but “the” right. Think about it this way: if I ask for “a” book off the shelf, that could be any of them. If I ask for “the” book, I’m talking about a specific one – one that definitely already exists. I’m not creating it out of thin air; it’s already here and pre-defined. We aren’t making a right with this amendment – we’re talking about one that is already firmly in existence.

“of the people” – So who does this right belong to? “the people”. Everywhere else in the Constitution where this phrase is used, it refers to everyone – not some nebulous subset like “the militia”. So, this right already exists, and everyone already has it. Madison himself reinforces this reading in Federalist #46, where he talks about the American people as a whole being armed. He sees this as an advantage that we have against tyranny as opposed to the people in the European countries whose governments don’t trust them with weapons. It’s also helpful to remember that Federalist #46 was published in January of 1788 – almost 4 years before the 2nd amendment was ratified. Further proof that this right was not “made” by the 2nd amendment.

“to keep and bear arms” – The right that the people have is to possess, carry, train with, and use (if needed) weapons. They don’t just have to keep them locked up in a display case.

“shall not be infringed.” – No one can take away or limit this right in any way. There is no exception given for “reasonable” restrictions or limitations. There is not a provision for “unless most people think it’s OK”. There is no distinction between hunting or defense uses. These rights shall not be infringed. Period.

Now to look at the first clause:

A well regulated militia being necessary to the security of a free state,

“A well regulated” – These days, people think that “regulations” is just a fancy word for whatever rules the government wants to come up with. Of course, this clause doesn’t talk about “regulations” per se, but about a thing that ends up being “well regulated” in the end. What does that mean? Think about it this way: if you put a flow regulator on a shower head, what does that do? It makes the flow regular – another way to say that would be consistent, or normalized. The whole point of having a well regulated flow of water is to make sure that that water pressure is consistent – the same every time you turn it on. The same sense of “well regulated” is used by the founders here. We need to have a militia capability that is consistently available and of reliable quality across the country, so people need to be familiar and proficient with weapons. They can’t have that level of comfort or availability for defense if they don’t have ready access to those weapons by owning them. It’s as simple as that. This reading is backed up by Hamilton’s argument in Federalist #29:

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 exercises 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 isn’t about them being members of something, or having a bunch of rules to follow – it’s about achieving a state of proficiency in the use of weapons, especially around others.

Also, like I talked about above, the word “a” is used here, as opposed to “the“. The other place in the Constitution where “militia” is mentioned (Article 1, Section 8), refers to “the militia”, and that Congress can make rules about it. So you see, the 2nd amendment isn’t talking about a specific group, but only laying out a theoretical scenario that would apply to any “free state”, further cementing this initial clause as being prefatory in nature.

“militia” – This is the word that causes the most confusion. This word makes people think that the right discussed above isn’t held by the people, but only by members of “militia” units (what people today think of as the National Guard, though this isn’t accurate in the historical context). If you aren’t a member, then you don’t have the right to have weapons. This is of course nonsense, as most gun control advocates insist that they don’t want to take hunting rifles away and hunting has nothing to do with militia membership. Luckily, the founders left us with a definition of “militia”. Less than 6 months after the 2nd amendment was ratified, Congress passed The Militia Act of 1792, which included this definition:

…each and every free able-bodied white male citizen of the respective States, resident therein, who is or shall be of age of eighteen years, and under the age of forty-five years (except as is herein after excepted) shall severally and respectively be enrolled in the militia…

All white males aged 18 – 45, who were healthy and not in jail. That’s what the militia was. Mind you, this is not worded as eligibility for service, but these qualifications make you an immediate member in the militia, whether you like it or not.

“being necessary to the security of a free state,” – Everyone listed above had to be a member of the militia, and that militia had to be consistently available in all the states (“well regulated”) because we didn’t have a standing army (since we were a “free state”, not a police state) to provide security in the case of an invasion or domestic uprising. We may not have time to raise an army in a crisis and we need to have enough people who are able to defend themselves until we can.

So, taken all together, the amendment means basically this:

Since we need to have a competent militia that is available nationwide to defend us in case of an immediate crisis, everyone needs to have the right to keep and train with weapons so they may join in that militia effort if needed.

That’s all there is to it.

As an addendum: Gun control advocates will say that machine guns and other “assault weapons” have no place in modern society and shouldn’t be counted as “arms” because the founders couldn’t have envisioned them. There are two responses to this argument:

1) The founders couldn’t have imagined cell phones, Internet, 24-hour worldwide cable news, satellite communications, nationwide newspapers, radio, or even telegraphs. Should the 1st amendment speech protections not apply to those forms of technologically-advanced media as a result? Should 4th amendment search protections not apply to wiretaps, or email systems? Is there ANY other part of the Constitution that we interpret as being technologically-limited to 1791?

2) Yes, the founders allowed citizens to own smoothbore, single-shot, muzzle-loading long guns, and these seem weak to us today in the context of machine guns, grenade launchers, and the like. But these were THE MOST technologically-advanced personal weapons available at the time (along with being the standard issue weapon of the military in those days). The founders certainly could have limited the people to lesser weapons (bow-and-arrow, swords, knives, clubs) but they did not. They chose to allow the people the same weapons that the military had. Why shouldn’t that principle endure?

Opponents of the 2nd amendment are clear on the 1791 definition of arms, and want that one to be used. As demonstrated above, I don’t think they would be quite so happy living with the rest of that sentence as if it were 1791, though.

Commas have a purpose in the English language, and I don’t think it is to say “read the rest of this sentence like it’s 200 years ago”.

The Constitution lays out a set of principles that should be followed. It isn’t about living in the past – it’s about figuring out what the founders were trying to accomplish and applying that same thinking about principles to today. Freedom of speech applies just as much to your blog as it applies to your quill pen – it should be a concept that is technologically-neutral. The founders didn’t literally want us to be equipped with smoothbores – they wanted us to be as well equipped as the military. They didn’t want weapons limited to the militia, but weapons to be freely available so that anyone could join and be useful in the militia.

A sentence taken out of context (“for our own good”) can be a dangerous thing for liberty.


One of the things that REALLY irks me, is the idea that politics was never this bad back in the “good old days”.

They say it about nasty election-season ads. They say it anytime there’s a natural disaster (like the recent Hurricane Sandy). They say it wistfully, in support of a return to “civility” (whatever that means). Most importantly, they say it when they’re in the majority.

The trouble is, this “good old days” that people pine for never existed. This sentiment is raised by those who are utterly ignorant of history (which seems to be a requirement for political punditry nowadays).

To wit:

1) The Election of 1800.

This video from Reason pretty much says it all (all of these lines were written by the partisans for each candidate):

2) Abraham Lincoln.

While Lincoln is widely regarded these days as being one of our greatest Presidents, contemporaries did not see it that way.

The event of his election -literally- tore the country apart. He had no support in the South. His re-election in 1864 was far from certain until the tide of the war changed shortly before the election. Many members of his own cabinet didn’t like him.

He was accused of waging a war for his own political gain (and for the financial gain of the monied industrial interests in the north) against the simple, agrarian South that wanted nothing but peace (or so they claimed). Even his refusal to “compromise” on the issue of slavery was trumpeted by his opponents. On top of that, he was apparently a terrible public speaker!

And as if you needed more evidence, he was assassinated because of his politics.

3) FDR.

We think of FDR as being a super popular President (since he was elected to 4 terms – more than any other President), but his pinnacle really occurred in that second election (the election of 1936) when Roosevelt got almost 61% of the vote. His final 2 re-election campaigns saw steadily declining numbers.

Of course, the only thing you need to know about FDR is the history of the 22nd amendment.

FDR died April 12, 1945. On March 21, 1947 (less than 2 years later), Congress passed an amendment to the Constitution limiting the President to only 2 terms (it would officially become part of the Constitution in 1951 when Minnesota ratified it). Some may say this is purely coincidence. I’d argue that the country had just lived through the economic disaster that was FDR’s Presidency and collectively said, “Lets not do THAT again.”


The point is, we’ve NEVER been “civil”. We’ve never all agreed. We’ve never had an issue that had no dissenters. We’ve always been pricks to each other when it comes to politics.

That hasn’t changed – and I don’t think it ever will.

Votes and Rifles


“A vote is like a rifle: its usefulness depends upon the character of the user.”

-Teddy Roosevelt

No matter your political stripe, this election matters. But I don’t think it was ever intended to be like this.

Our system has been morphed into one where the Federal government can do virtually anything it wants. Between the expansion of the Commerce Clause, and the farce that is “rational basis” scrutiny, there are almost no substantive limits on government anymore. Society has decided that if there is a problem (no matter how small), the government should solve it.

There is NO Constitutional basis for this. Nothing in the Federalist Papers mentions this philosophical idea behind our founders’ actions.

The downside of this all-powerful government is that now we get to treat EVERY election like it is the apocalypse. As the experience of the current administration teaches us, the Patriot Act, torture, killing U.S. citizens without trial, and the TSA are all TERRIBLE ideas. That is unless “our guy” is in charge. Then they’re fine. But if that “other guy” wins, with ALL THIS POWER we gave “our guy”, well – it would be THE END OF THE WORLD!

We need a return to a proper role of government in our society.

One of the reasons that I love that quote from Teddy at the top of this post is that it has multiple levels to it. I think his main message is that a rifle is neither good nor bad – it’s just a tool. If a good person uses it, it can be life-saving. In the hands of a mad man, it can cause horrendous destruction. Clearly, Teddy thinks that the same is true of votes.

I would take it a step further: a rifle can solve A LOT of problems – I’m sure that you’d have fewer stupid little disagreements with co-workers if you walked around with one all the time, for example – but the rifle isn’t the FIRST tool that you should grab for in that situation, right? Aren’t there more civilized and advanced solutions than jumping to the use of coercive force?

A vote for an all-powerful government is a vote for the use of force. You just aren’t the one carrying the rifle around – you’ve outsourced the function.

When you go into the election booth, don’t think about what YOU as an individual stand to gain “for free” with your vote – think about what is the best way to run our country. Remember that “your guy” won’t always be in charge, and the “other guy” might not be as trustworthy with an unlimited “kill anyone we call a ‘terrorist’ with absolutely no trial or oversight” power. Don’t use your vote as the first tool to solve all your problems. Use it like a rifle should be used – as a purely defensive last resort.

And if you get upset after the election because the “other guy” won, remember this comforting thought from the brilliant Frederick Douglass:

“Nothing is settled that is not right.”

It’s not the end of the world.

Free Speech

For those who don’t know (or can’t tell from the links on the page), I’m a libertarian and I have a deep respect for the Constitution. Our system of government was brilliantly constructed to protect our rights.

The key word there is “protect”. The Constitution does not grant rights. The philosophy of the founders was one of natural rights – you are entitled to rights because you are human, not because a government has been nice enough to cede a privilege or two. You can see this clearly in the Declaration of Independence (emphasis mine):

…We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness.–That to secure these rights, Governments are instituted among Men…

This is what America is built on. Our rights belong to us – we aren’t borrowing them from a government that is perfectly justified in taking them away if it thinks that’s best. That’s why stories like this one are so troubling.

When rights are left up to the will of the majority, or the government, or whoever happens to be in charge, they cease to be “rights”. If we are only being benevolently gifted a limited amount of freedom, what makes us think we can complain when that freedom is taken away? As long as the majority voted on it, that’s what has to be.

This is why democracy is a nightmare – and why the founders wisely gave us a republic with a Constitution.

“You lie.”; “No, YOU lie.”

Pretty much everything you need to know about the debate the other night from our friends over at Volokh.

This is why I can’t stomach watching these things anymore.