Friday, June 6, 2008

Noah Webster and the Meaning of the Second Amendment

Stephen Halbrook, a well-known pro-gun rights attorney and author, offers an analysis of the meaning of the words in the Second Amendment ("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.") using the early Nineteenth century dictionaries of Noah Webster. Not surprisingly, he shows that the meaning of words like "militia", "people", "keep" and "bear" comport with the meaning ascribed to that amendment by millions of ordinary Americans: an individual right to possess and carry personal arms.

Known as the Father of American Scholarship and Education, Webster believed that popular sovereignty in government must be accompanied by popular usage in language. In "A Compendious Dictionary of the English Language," published in 1806, and "An American Dictionary of the English Language," published in 1828 and adopted by Congress as the American standard, Webster defined all the words in the Second Amendment.

"People" were "the commonality, as distinct from men of rank," and "Right" was "just claim; immunity; privilege." "All men have a right to secure enjoyment of life, personal safety, liberty and property," he wrote.

Thus in the language of Webster's time, "the people" meant individuals and individuals have "rights."

"Keep" was defined as "To hold; to retain one's power or possession; not to lose or part with ... To have in custody for security or preservation"; "Bear" as "to carry" or "to wear; name; to bear arms in a coat"; and "Arms" were defined as "weapons of offense, or armor for defense and protection of the body."

Only civilians would "bear arms in a coat" -- soldiers carried muskets in their hands, while officers carried pistols in holsters.

Thus the words "keep and bear arms" suggest a right to hand-held arms as a person could "bear," such as muskets, pistols and swords, but not cannon and heavy ordnance that a person could not carry.

Read the article here. As an aside, attorney Halbrook authored the amicus curiae brief signed by the Vice-President (in his capacity as President of the Senate) along with a majority of both houses of Congress, in support of the pro-individual rights position in D.C. v. Heller, the landmark Supreme Court case challenging D.C.'s handgun ban. You can read that amicus brief here.

1 comment:

Mulligan said...

interesting. there seems to be not only the right to own arms but to actually be able to carry them around in one's coat as well. thats a far cry from the current situation in many places where one can own arms but only if they are disassembled, inoperative, unloaded and locked up.