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Section 1.The right of citizens of the United States to vote shall not be denied or abridged by the United States or by any state on account of race, color, or previous condition of servitude.Section 2.The Congress shall have power to enforce this article by appropriate legislation.
Passed February 26, 1869. Ratified February 2, 1870.
See Background of the Fifteenth Amendment.See Table of Amendments. See also Constitutional textor a Constitutional narrative.
Amendment XV - History
The Fifteenth Amendment, adopted on February 26, 1869, was the third in the Reconstruction Amendments which were adopted after the Civil War. This particular amendment prohibits any government entity within the United States from denying a citizen the right to vote based upon the person’s race, color, or previous position of servitude (slavery, for example).
Section 1. The right of citizens of the United States to vote shall not be denied or abridged by the United States or by any State on account of race, color, or previous condition of servitude.
Section 2. The Congress shall have power to enforce this article by appropriate legislation.
Basis for the Amendment
This amendment was borne from the inherent need for the country to reunite after a long, bloody Civil War. Congress recognized that the newly-acquired freedom of slaves would require certain actions to be taken in order to enfold those people into the citizenry.
This concept was not at all a universal one. Some of the southern states were outraged by the proposition that these former slaves would not only be allowed to vote, but would also be granted citizenship by that very action. A prime example is North Carolina, the Supreme Court of which upheld the amendment, which in turn evoked the North Carolina legislature to enact its own amendments to its state constitution that rescind the provisions for free men of color to vote.
The process of obtaining ratification of this amendment was not an easy one. Legislators, wishing to unite the country while accomplishing the goal of freedom for all, were challenged to come up with a constitutional amendment that would serve the intended purpose without being doomed to non-ratification.
The House and Senate each adopted a draft of the proposed amendment. The House version was a bit more liberal in the allowances for eligibility to vote. It proposed that no one should be denied the right to vote on the basis of the usual “race, creed” and previous servitude. It also provided that such things as ownership of property, creed, and nativity shall not prevent one from being allowed to vote.
The Senate version was less wordy. It merely cited race, color, previous servitude, and also that of ancestry.
Both the House and Senate included the right to hold office in their drafts, along with the right to vote.
These versions were only two of several efforts to draft, rewrite, edit, and draft again the verbiage that would comprise the 15th Amendment. Some wanted to expound the list even further, adding such conditions as literacy and conditions of birth as reasons which were to not be considered. Others suggested just removing all of the conditions, and basically assert that all men over the age of 21 would be allowed to vote. This met with disapproval, though, due to some states fear that this would grant similar freedoms to the Irish who were not natives of the U.S. and also the Chinese who were living in the United States at the time.
In an effort to help ensure ratification, the committee charged with proposing the final language agreed to remove the clause about holding office, and decided to leave only the words “race, creed, and conditions of prior servitude” as the qualifiers for not being prohibited from the vote. Even so, ratification was not assured and Congress was apprehensive.
Four of the southern states who otherwise might have objected (Texas, Mississippi, Georgia, and Virginia) ratified the amendment without question due to the fact that it was a condition for them to obtain representation in Congress. Other states continued to have issue with how the amendment would affect the Irish who were not native to the U.S., as well as the Chinese. In fact, after ratifying the amendment, New York attempted to rescind their ratification on this very basis. However, their action was not sufficiently timely due to the fact that enough other states had ratified. New York’s ratification was no longer necessary and the matter was dropped.
The right to vote has been one of the most sought-after, fiercely fought-for, and closely-protected rights of the United States Constitution, and the very manner in which it is protected is one of the factors that sets the United States apart from other nations that allow their citizens to vote.
It is interesting to note that, after the Fifteenth Amendment was ratified during the period between 1865 and 1880, more African Americans were elected to hold public office than during any other period in American history. Included in these elections to office were several positions within the legislature, with two holding office in the Senate and 14 elected as representatives in the House.
Amendment XV - History
Election Day in 2019 didn’t involve any high-profile House or Senate or Presidential seats up for the taking, but it had historic consequences nonetheless. In the Commonwealth of Virginia, voters handed Democrats control of both its statehouse chambers, and within a week of the 2020 legislative session, the new majority voted to make Virginia the 38th state to ratify the Equal Rights Amendment (E.R.A.). Nearly a century after it was first suggested, the E.R.A. now stands a renewed chance of making it into the Constitution as the 28th Amendment.
What are the origins of the E.R.A.?
In 1921, the right for women to vote freshly obtained, suffragist Alice Paul asked her fellow women’s rights activists whether they wanted to rest on their laurels. The decision at hand, she said, was whether the National Woman’s Party would “furl its banner forever, or whether it shall fling it forth on a new battle front.”
Eventually, Paul and some fellow suffragists chose a new battle: a federal guarantee that the law would treat people equally regardless of their sex. Paul and pacifist lawyer Crystal Eastman, now considered the “founding mother of the ACLU,” drafted the “Lucretia Mott Amendment,” named after the 19th-century women’s rights activist. The original E.R.A. promised, “Men and women shall have equal rights throughout the United States and every place subject to its jurisdiction.”
Activist Alice Paul, who wrote the Equal Rights Amendment, wearing suffragist white and raising a toast at a women's rally. (© Corbis via Getty Images)
Paul’s insistence on a constitutional amendment proved to be controversial even in suffragist circles. Paul and other, like-minded activists believed an amendment would be the fastest path to social and economic parity for women, especially because their efforts to implement similar legislation on a state level hadn’t proved successful. But other prominent advocates objected, worried that the E.R.A. went too far and would eliminate hard-won labor protections for women workers. Florence Kelley, a suffragist and labor reformer, accused the N.W.P. of issuing “threats of a sex war.” And, as historian Allison Lange points out in the Washington Post, the N.W.P.’s new direction left behind women of color, who couldn’t exercise their newfound voting rights due to racially biased voter suppression laws.
Daniel Read Anthony Jr., Susan B. Anthony's nephew who represented Kansas in the House, and members of N.W.P. on the day Anthony introduced the earliest version of the E.R.A. in 1923. (Harris & Ewing)
Nevertheless, the N.W.P. persuaded Susan B. Anthony’s nephew, Republican Representative Daniel Anthony, Jr. of Kansas, and future vice president to Herbert Hoover Charles Curtis to introduce the earliest version of the E.R.A. to Congress in 1923. Despite repeated reintroduction, the E.R.A. got nowhere in the face of continued opposition from the labor and Progressive movements. The Republican Party added the E.R.A. to its platform in 1940, followed by the Democratic Party four years later. In 1943, as part of an effort to make the amendment more palatable to legislators, Paul rewrote the text to echo the “shall not be denied or abridged” wording of the 15th and 19th Amendments. Even rewritten, writes Harvard political scientist Jane Mansbridge in Why We Lost the ERA, the proposition made no headway until 1950, when it passed the Senate, saddled with a poison pill provision from Arizona Democrat Carl Hayden that E.R.A. advocates knew would nullify its impact.
The joint resolution, introduced December 13, 1923, that proposed a 20th amendment to the Constitution that would guarantee equal treatment regardless of sex. (National Archives)
Finally, amid the social upheaval, civil rights legislation and second-wave feminism of the 1960 and s, the E.R.A. gained traction. In 1970, Democratic Rep. Martha Griffiths of Michigan brought the E.R.A. to the floor of the house by gathering signatures from her colleagues, bypassing a crucial pro-labor committee chair who’d blocked hearings for 20 years and earning her the nickname the “Mother of the E.R.A.” The amendment won bipartisan support in both chambers the House approved it in October 1971 and the Senate in March 1972. With Congress signed on, the next stage of the process to change the Constitution began: ratification by the states.
Congresswoman Griffiths used the rarely used tactic of a discharge petition to get the E.R.A. on the House Floor to do so, she needed to gather 218 signatures from her colleagues. (National Archives)
How does ratification work?
The Founding Fathers knew the Constitution wouldn’t age perfectly in the Federalist Papers, James Madison forecasted, “Useful alterations will be suggested by experience.” The amendment process they devised was meant to provide a Goldilocks-like middle ground between “extreme facility, which would render the Constitution too mutable and that extreme difficulty, which might perpetuate its discovered faults.” Article V of the Constitution lays out their solution: Amendments can be offered up for consideration by a two-thirds majority in the House and the Senate (or, although it’s never happened, a convention of two-thirds of the states). After passing that threshold, the would-be change has to be approved by three-fourths of the states to actually become part of the Constitution. States certify an amendment by passing it through their legislatures or a state convention, although that method has only been deployed once, for the amendment that repealed Prohibition. In Virginia, for instance, that means the Commonwealth’s Senate and House of Delegates must vote for it unlike most legislation, amendment ratification does not require the governor’s signature.
Why didn’t the E.R.A. get ratified after Congress passed it?
In the first nine months after the E.R.A. was passed to the states, it racked up 22 ratifications in states from Hawaii to Kansas. That number swelled to 33 states by the end of 1974, and Gallup polls showed that almost three-fourths of Americans supported the E.R.A. But, says Mary Frances Berry, a University of Pennsylvania historian who wrote a book cataloguing the E.R.A.’s failure to launch, “The folks that were pushing it failed to notice that you needed states, not just popular opinion.”
National Organization for Women members demonstrated before the White House in support of the E.R.A. in 1969. (Bettman / Getty Images) Women of all ages demonstrated for the E.R.A., like these "Grandmas for the ERA" in Pittsburgh in 1976. (Barbara Freeman / Getty Images)
The E.R.A. had the support of the majority of the public during the years it was up for ratification, according to Gallup polling. But that enthusiasm waned over time, and its political momentum stalled, thanks to the anti-E.R.A. organizing efforts of conservative, religious women like Illinois’ Phyllis Schlafly.
Phyllis Schlafly, a traditionalist, conservative organizer and lawyer, protests against the E.R.A. in front of the White House in 1977. "The career most women want is marriage, home, husband, and children," Schlafly said after her quest to block the E.R.A. succeeded. (Warren K. Leffler / Library of Congress)
Schlafly’s organizations, STOP (an acronym for “Stop Taking Our Privileges”) ERA and the still-active conservative interest group Eagle Forum, warned that the E.R.A. was too broad, that it would eliminate any government distinctions between men and women. They circulated printouts of Senate Judiciary Chair Sam Ervin’s—popular for his handling of the Watergate investigation—invectives against it and trotted out socially conservative specters such as mandatory military service for women, unisex bathrooms, unrestricted abortions, women becoming Roman Catholic priests and same-sex marriage. STOP ERA members would lobby state governments, handing out homemade bread with the cutesy slogan, “Preserve Us From a Congressional Jam Vote Against the E.R.A. Sham.”
Schlafly and other E.R.A. opponents at a rally in the Illinois State Capitol in 1978. Illinois, Schlafly's home state, did not ratify the amendment before the 1982 deadline, but reversed course in 2018, becoming the 37th state to sign on. (Bettman / Getty Images)
Feminism, Schlafly told the New York Times, was “an antifamily movement that is trying to make perversion acceptable as an alternate life-style,” and the E.R.A., she portended, would mean “coed everything—whether you like it or not.” Schlafly’s status-quo message stuck and swayed politicians in states that hadn’t yet ratified the E.R.A. like Florida, Illinois, Georgia and Virginia.
In January 1982, six months before the time limit on the E.R.A. ran out, demonstrators for and against the amendment tried to outshout each other as Florida's legislature considered whether or not to ratify. (Florida has still not approved the E.R.A.) (Donn Dughi / State Archives of Florida)
This anti-E.R.A. sentiment grew against the backdrop of a ticking clock: in keeping with custom, lawmakers gave the E.R.A. a seven-year deadline to obtain ratification. In the early 70s, the arbitrary time limit—a tradition that began with political maneuvering around the 18th amendment (Prohibition)—had unsettled some. “There is a group of women who are so nervous about this amendment that they feel there should be unlimited time,” said Griffiths, the E.R.A.’s sponsor in the House. “Personally, I have no fears but that this amendment will be ratified in my judgment as quickly as was the 18-year-old vote [the recently passed 26th Amendment]. I think it is perfectly proper to have the 7-year statute so that it should not be hanging over our heads forever. But I may say I think it will be ratified almost immediately.”
Many of Griffiths’ peers shared her optimism. “I don’t think that they projected that [ratification] would be a problem,” says University of Pennsylvania historian Berry. “I don’t think they realized how hard it was going to be.”
The first of four charm bracelets owned by Alice Paul showing which states had ratified the amendment she authored. (Alice Paul Centennial Foundation, Inc. / NMAH)
As 1979 approached and the E.R.A. remained three states short, the Democrat-controlled Congress extended that deadline to 1982, but to no avail—not a single additional state signed on to the amendment. At Schlafly’s victory party on July 1, thrown the day after the clock ran out for her legislative nemesis, the band played “Ding Dong, the Witch Is Dead.”
Hasn’t the window for ratification passed?
Yes, the 1982 deadline is long gone, but legal scholars have argued that that’s reversible. The William & Mary Journal of Women and the Law makes the case that Congress can re-open the ratification window, pointing out that not all amendments (like the 19th) include a time limit and that Congress extended the deadline once before. While the Supreme Court previously ruled that amendments must be ratified within a “sufficiently contemporaneous” time, it also batted the responsibility of defining that window to Congress, as a 2018 Congressional Research Service report outlines. The most recent amendment, the 27th, was adopted in 1992 with the Department of Justice’s seal of approval—it was written by James Madison in 1789 as part of the Bill of Rights and had spent 203 years in limbo. (The 27th Amendment prohibits members of Congress from giving themselves a pay raise right before an election.)
While this precedent seems favorable, it’s worth noting that five states—Nebraska, Tennessee, Idaho, Kentucky and South Dakota—rescinded their early ratification of the E.R.A. as socially conservative anti-E.R.A. arguments gained ground. Legal scholars debate the validity of that rescission, as there is historic precedent implying that ratification is binding: Ohio and New Jersey tried to take back their approval of the 14th Amendment in 1868, but despite this retraction, the official documents still include them on his list of ratifying states. Robinson Woodward-Burns, a political scientist at Howard University, points out for the Washington Post that a similar situation cropped up with the 15th and 19th Amendments, “suggesting that states cannot withdraw ratification.” In 1939, the Supreme Court declared that ratification reversal “should be regarded as a political question” and therefore, out of its purview.
Women watch as a Colorado committee in 1975 considers retracting their ratification of the E.R.A. three years prior. (Ultimately, they stuck with their previous choice.) (Denver Post via Getty Images)
Until January 2020, the E.R.A. remained in the company of other passed-but-never-fully-ratified “zombie amendments,” to curb a phrase from NPR’s Ron Elving. Among them are amendments granting the District of Columbia voting representation in Congress (passed by Congress in 1978 and ratified by 16 states before it expired), an 1810 amendment prohibiting American citizens from receiving titles of nobility from a foreign government (sorry Duchess Meghan!) and the the Child Labor Amendment (passed by Congress in 1937 and ratified by 28 states). The Corwin Amendment, a compromise measure passed in the leadup to the Civil War and supported by Abraham Lincoln, is a more sinister, still-technically-lingering amendment. It would have permanently barred the federal government from abolishing slavery.
What happened in the years since the 1982 deadline passed?
The E.R.A. didn’t altogether fade from policymakers’ consciousness after its defeat. From the s until now, congresswomen and men routinely introduced bills to disregard the ratification window or resubmit the amendment (or an updated version that would add the word “woman” to the Constitution) to the states. No state had approved the E.R.A. in 40 years when, in 2017, Nevada’s newly Democratic legislature ratified the E.R.A. The next year, Schlafly’s home state of Illinois followed suit. On January 15, 2020, the Virginia General Assembly approved the E.R.A., setting up a heated constitutional debate.
A Virginia van had the text of the would-be amendment emblazoned on its side as it drove through the battleground state. (Mary Ann Beall / NMAH)
Virginia has come tantalizingly close to ratification before. In 1982, the Commonwealth’s last chance to vote for the E.R.A. before the deadline, a state senator hopped on a plane out of town, conveniently missing the roll call and evading the 20-20 tie that would have secured a pro-E.R.A. tiebreak vote from the lieutenant governor. Earlier in 2019, the E.R.A. passed the Virginia Senate but was stymied in a House subcommittee.
What would come next? “We fully anticipate that there will be a Supreme Court decision involved,” Krista Niles, the outreach and civic engagement director at the Alice Paul Institute, told the New York Times. But the Supreme Court’s scope of authority over amendments is nebulous based on precedent, writes Robert Black for the National Constitution Center.
Stories of Suffrage
Whose Voice is Heard?
In the United States, people have long fought to have their voices heard. One way of doing this is through voting.
The Fifteenth Amendment
When the 13th Amendment was passed in 1865, it abolished slavery. But African Americans still lacked many rights, such as the right to vote.
The Nineteenth Amendment
The 19th Amendment recognized the right of women to vote. Learn more about these suffrage stories.
Between Two Worlds
During the 19th and 20th centuries, Black women played an active role in the struggle for universal suffrage.
Comrades in Conflict
The struggle for voting rights involved a split between abolitionist Frederick Douglass and Susan B. Anthony and Elizabeth Cady Stanton.
Celebrations of Success
After the ratification of the 15th and 19th Amendments, the law recognized that discrimination based on race and sex is illegal.
Learn about the fight for voting rights after the passage of the 19th Amendment.
Three amendments passed after the Civil War transformed the women’s rights movement. The Thirteenth Amendment, passed in 1865, made slavery illegal. Black women who were enslaved before the war became free and gained new rights to control their labor, bodies, and time.
The Fourteenth Amendment affirmed the new rights of freed women and men in 1868. The law stated that everyone born in the United States, including former slaves, was an American citizen. No state could pass a law that took away their rights to “life, liberty, or property.”
The Fourteenth Amendment also added the first mention of gender into the Constitution. It declared that all male citizens over twenty-one years old should be able to vote. In 1870, the Fifteenth Amendment affirmed that the right to vote “shall not be denied…on account of race.”
The insertion of the word “male” into the Constitution and the enfranchisement of African American men presented new challenges for women’s rights activists. For the first time, the Constitution asserted that men—not women—had the right to vote. Previously, only state laws restricted voting rights to men. Elizabeth Cady Stanton wrote, “If that word ‘male’ be inserted, it will take us a century at least to get it out.”
Activists bitterly fought about whether to support or oppose the Fifteenth Amendment. Stanton and Susan B. Anthony objected to the new law. They wanted women to be included with black men. Others—like Lucy Stone—supported the amendment as it was. Stone believed that women would win the vote soon. The emphasis on voting during the 1860s led women’s rights activists to focus on woman suffrage. The two sides established two rival national organizations that aimed to win women the vote.
The 15th Amendment Was Ratified More Than 150 Years Ago, but the Fight to Protect Black Voters Continues
On February 3, 1870 African American men were given the right to vote with the ratification of the 15th Amendment, which declared that the “right of citizens of the United States to vote shall not be denied or abridged by the United States or by any state on account of race, color, or previous condition of servitude." This major milestone would appear to have empowered Black men by implying their voices mattered in this American democracy.
Instead, this date was just one major milestone in an ongoing fight for equality at the polls. Today, the Black vote remains a serious topic of discussion. To help understand our modern battle of voting, it’s helpful to look back at this breakthrough amendment.
Following the end of the Civil War in 1865, during the 12-year period referred to as the Reconstruction Era, a series of amendments were ratified to provide constitutional protections for the formerly enslaved Black population. There was the 13th Amendment, in 1865, which outlawed slavery. Three years later, in 1868, the 14th Amendment granted citizenship to everyone born or naturalized in the United States (prior to this amendment, a Supreme Court decision stated that descendants of enslaved people could not be citizens). Then there was the 15th Amendment, which enfranchised some of these newly freed citizens — but not for long.
For a brief time after the 15th Amendment’s ratification, Black men’s voices were being heard. Thomas Mundy Peterson cast the first known ballot by an African American on March 31, 1870. Hiram Revels was appointed in 1870 to be the first African American to serve in the U.S. Senate, but his qualifications came under dispute.
As remembered by the Senate itself on its website, members of Congress were able to disguise racist backlash to working with a Black colleague by claiming Revels hadn’t been a citizen for the nine years required to be a senator because, as a Black man, he’d only been technically legally considered a citizen for four years since the Civil Rights Act of 1866. These changes weren’t embraced by many white Americans, who had been beneficiaries of the country’s deeply ingrained racist roots.
As a result, Reconstruction was followed by a period of time that was referred to as "Redemption" — a time in which violence, terror, and the legal system were used by white Southerners to dismantle the gains made for African Americans during Reconstruction and to reinforce white supremacy.
In the recent book Stony the Road, historian and literary scholar Henry Louis Gates, Jr., described this period of Redemption as a time "when the gains of Reconstruction were systematically erased and the country witnessed the rise of a white supremacist ideology that, we might say, went rogue, an ideology that would long outlast the circumstances of its origin.”
During this decades-long time period, which began in 1873, political pressure to go back to a pre-Reconstruction society was enforced by violence as pro-Reconstruction politicians and Black Americans were attacked and murdered by the Ku Klux Klan, the White League, and the Red Shirts. Famous historian and activist W.E.B. DuBois put it poetically when he wrote, “The slave went free stood a brief moment in the sun then moved back again toward slavery.”
In addition to the violence that was inflicted upon Black Americans to keep them from voting, state laws were put into place to effectively institutionalize new forms of discrimination at the polls. Black men were subject to impossible literacy tests, poll taxes, and other legal hurdles.
As a result, in Mississippi, fewer than 9,000 of the 147,000 voting-age African Americans were registered to vote after 1890, according to the Smithsonian National Museum of American History. By 1904, in Louisiana there were only 1,342 registered Black voters — a drastic reduction from the more than 130,000 Black voters that had been registered in 1896.
Seemingly providing further clarification and proof that these laws were established specifically to prevent Black men from voting, a half dozen states passed laws in the early 1890s to protect poor Southern whites who may have lost their voting rights due to the barriers put in place. These laws declared that men who had been able to vote prior to the 15th Amendment (i.e., white men) and their lineal descendants (children, grandchildren, and so on) wouldn’t be subject to onerous requirements in order to vote — a measure that has been referred to as the grandfather clause, which spawned the phrase “grandfathering in.”
In response, the NAACP convinced a U.S. attorney to challenge Oklahoma's grandfather clause passed in 1910 in a case summarized by NPR. According to Harvard Law professor Michael Klarman's book From Jim Crow to Civil Rights, in 1900, only 57 of Oklahoma’s more than 55,000 Black citizens came from states that had permitted African-Americans to vote before the 15th Amendment’s ratification, meaning tens of thousands of potential Black voters would still face tactics like poll taxes and literacy tests. In 1915, the Supreme Court ruled in the case of Guinn v. United States* that the grandfather clause was unconstitutional. Despite that, a variation of the grandfather clause remained legal in Oklahoma until a Supreme Court ruling in 1939.
These tactics were very effective at keeping Black people out of the government. From 1870 to 1901, there were 20 Black U.S. representatives and two Black senators, but from 1901 to 1929, there were no Black representatives or senators, as noted by The Atlantic.
The 15th Amendment also faced opposition from suffragists who had been known abolitionists — specifically, white women who refused to support the amendment due to its exclusion of women. The famous activist Elizabeth Cady Stanton declared that “virtuous white women are more worthy of the vote.” While at a meeting with fellow American Equal Rights Association (AERA) member Frederick Douglass, Susan B. Anthony said, “I will cut off this right arm of mine before I will ever work or demand the ballot for the Negro and not the woman.”
Frederick Douglass agreed that women should have the right to vote but supported the 15th Amendment and felt the right to vote was more urgent for Black men than it was for women. “When women, because they are women, are hunted down through the cities of New York and New Orleans when they are dragged from their houses and hung upon lampposts when their children are torn from their arms and their brains dashed out upon the pavement when they are objects of insult and outrage at every turn when they are in danger of having their homes burnt down over their heads when their children are not allowed to enter schools then they will have an urgency to obtain the ballot equal to our own,” he said about the issue.
The Meaning, History, & Purpose of the Second Amendment
The right to bear arms protects every other right. Without its preservation, a nation would easily succumb to tyranny. As long as this right is upheld, protected, and exercised lawfully, the torch of liberty may continue to burn.
“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.”
The words that form the Second Amendment were chosen deliberately and purposefully. The founding fathers drew from Biblical principles, English and American history, and English common law to present an amendment protecting the individual right of Americans to keep and bear arms. At its center lie two core principles upon which both the Bill of Rights and the Declaration of Independence were founded: the law of self-government and the right of self-defense. The purpose of the Second Amendment was to promote peace, prosperity, and liberty, both by protecting one’s life and property from invaders and by lawfully resisting a tyrannical government.
The Meaning of the Second Amendment
The Second Amendment is an appendage to the Constitution, which in turn relies on the Declaration of Independence for meaning and purpose. Both documents are only lawful to the extent to which they conform to the “Laws of Nature and of Nature’s God,” as written in the Declaration. The Declaration articulates the law of self-government while the Constitution presents the application of self-government in various contexts, which includes the right to bear arms.
Let us examine the text of the Second Amendment.
A “well-regulated militia” is a collection of individuals covenanted together to defend each other. The phrase “well-regulated” required militia members to remain armed, trained, and vigilant. These “members,” understood at the time to mean all able-bodied male citizens, were to be prepared to engage with invaders—including a tyrannical government, should the need arise—in order to secure and defend the freedom of the states.
The responsibility and right of the people to bear arms for self-defense are God-given, natural rights of individuals. The right to self-defense was not man-invented or government-created. This amendment does not give the people their right to bear arms, but protects against the infringement of this right. From the context of the Bill of Rights and especially in the Fourth and First Amendment, “the people” refers to the citizenry, instead of certain bodies or groups of people.
The unqualified phrase “shall not be infringed” is seen only in the First and Second Amendment within the Bill of Rights. The First Amendment protects the rights to freedom of religion, speech, the press, assembly, and petition. The Second Amendment acts as the protector and enforcer of those rights, should they be infringed.
The phrase “to keep and bear” points toward an individual right of the people to possess and carry arms. Self-governing individuals bear the primary responsibility of defending and protecting themselves.
The word “arms” in the Second Amendment is crucial and must be understood correctly. In 1775, Samuel Johnson provided the following definition of the word “arms,” likely the definition intended by the founding fathers. Arms meant “weapons of offence and armor of defense.” Arms are weapons of war. This distinction is important for if “arms” meant anything less than weapons of war, the governing powers would have the monopoly of force over the people bearing inferior arms, and the country would be at risk of tyranny.
As we shall see by an examination of the historical background of this amendment, there are strong reasons for why the framers recognized the individual right to possess and carry weapons of war, and the need for a well-regulated militia, as vital to the creation and preservation of a nation of freedom and liberty.
The History Behind the Second Amendment
The historical foundations of the Second Amendment go further back in the past than events immediately prior to the drafting of the Bill of Rights. The legal recognition and protection of the individual’s right to bear arms in self-defense dates back to the Assize of Arms of England in 1181. Something else, however, influenced the founding fathers’ thinking more than historical events, and the common law—and that was the laws of nature and of nature’s God.
Samuel Adams, one of the men who signed the Declaration of Independence, affirmed that “all men are equally bound by the laws of nature, or, to speak more properly, the laws of the Creator. They are imprinted by the finger of God on the heart of man…. [T]he voice of Nature… is confirmed by written Revelation.” The Bible is the foundation for the ideas and principles underlying the Declaration and the Constitution. The founding fathers did not use explicit Biblical examples to support their arguments because they considered it more appropriate to use non-sectarian terminology in the legal sphere. Thus, they illustrated their arguments from history and “secular” writers, presenting the laws of God in non-religious terms.
A quick summary of the Scriptural foundations for the right of self-defense is as follows. In 1 Samuel chapters 21 and 24, David arms himself against King Saul’s attacks, who sought to kill him. The lawful boundaries of self-defense are clear from this example defense against an attack is justifiable, but there is nothing to resist if one is not in danger of harm. In both Numbers 32:20-22 and Nehemiah 4:13, the Israelites were required to bear arms. Conversely, Judges 5:8 and 1 Samuel 13:19-22 records two historical periods during which foreign nations kept the Israelites from bearing arms. For the Israelites, “weapons control” meant slavery, as other nations kept the Israelites in bondage as long as the Israelites were disarmed. The concept of a militia could also be found in Numbers 1 and 2 Chronicles 12:33 the nation of Israel had no standing army, and the defense of the nation rested on able-bodied males. In the New Testament, Jesus Christ never repealed the duty to bear arms. Instead, He upheld it in Luke 22:36-38, He commands His disciples to acquire swords even if their cloaks had to be sold to purchase one.
While the founding fathers built the Constitution and the American Bill of Rights on the principles found in nature and the Bible, they were also influenced by historical events. The founders had a strong grasp of English common law and of the historical background of the right to possess and use weapons in self-defense.
The Assize of Arms 1181 is one of the earliest legal documents protecting and even mandating the ownership of weapons for every English freeman between 15 and 40 years of age. England was under a feudal system of government at the time, and the king depended on a well-armed peasantry to defend the country against invaders. The Assize of Arms 1258 extended the right of ownership of weapons to serfs. The statute of Winchester 1258 mandated that the citizenry own and train with weapons. In 1369, citizens were commanded to spend their leisure time training with bows and arrows and to relinquish the playing of games that would distract them from practice. Similarly, the archery laws of 1515 commanded fathers to teach sons, beginning at the age of seven, to handle longbows. Although the mandating of arms is by no means a just law, these legal documents demonstrate that the idea of placing weapons into the hands of the citizens was an old and time-tested concept.
These rights to arms were threatened and restricted by the Militia Act of 1662 and the Game Act of 1671. William Blackstone, the great commentator on the laws of England, asserted that such restrictions were but an attempt by the government to prevent the people from any kind of insurrection and resistance. The individual right to own weapons was articulated in the English Bill of Rights of 1689. It said, in part, that “the subjects which are Protestant may have arms for their defense suitable to their conditions and as allowed by law.” Here, both the right to own weapons and the right to use weapons in self-defense are acknowledged and protected by law.
When King George III assumed that the right to self-defense originated in the government, he instituted standing armies without the consent of the people. This was seen as a tyrannical act that overlooked and overstepped the ultimate authority of the people to self-defense. As tensions grew between the thirteen American colonies and the British government, British soldiers marched into Lexington and Concord on the night of April 18, 1775 to seize the firearms and ammunition of the colonists. The colonists took decisive action to protect their unalienable rights, resist governmental overreach, and restore law, liberty, and order. Many great and valiant men died for the right to keep and bear arms in the bloody battles fought at Lexington and Concord. They understood that weapons of war are vital to the preservation of liberty.
The Second Amendment was written with the understanding of Biblical principles, English common law, and scenes like those of Lexington and Concord, and with a keen sense of responsibility.
The Purpose of the Second Amendment
The Preamble to the U.S. Constitution concisely articulated the reasons for the Constitution and, by attribution, for the Second Amendment. The Constitution existed to “establish Justice, insure domestic Tranquility, provide for the common defense, promote the general Welfare, and secure the Blessings of Liberty to ourselves and our Posterity.”
It must be understood that the Second Amendment is not a source of the right to self-defense, nor does it merely provide protection for a collective right to keep and bear arms. The nature of this right is limited one may use arms for righteous purposes, not for wrongful ones.
The Second Amendment’s first and most important goal is to protect the people from the tyrannical rule of an overly powerful government. The war over gun control is ultimately a struggle for power. Should the government have the monopoly of force over the people, or should the people hold that monopoly?
The founding fathers, from the lessons learned from battles fought by men such as Cromwell and Washington, understood that for a country to be free and prosperous, the people must hold the monopoly of force. The monopoly of force must never rest in the hands of a select few. As seen throughout history, the most atrocious crimes against humanity were committed by governments which held the monopoly of force over its insufficiently armed citizenry.
This is why the words “arms” in the Second Amendment meant—and should be understood to mean—weapons of war. The purpose of the Second Amendment would be rendered obsolete if the citizens may only own and carry inferior arms compared to those owned by the state.
The position of the Second Amendment in relation to the First is also crucial the Second Amendment protects the First and must be acted upon when the First is infringed upon. History has demonstrated that when a government decides to oppress its people unlawfully, forceful resistance may be the only way for the people to preserve law, liberty, and order in their land.
The Second Amendment emphasizes the “militia” and the “state,” not the “army” and the “country.” The organization of militia powers in the hands of the people allows for all citizens on official militia duty to bear the swords of vengeance and of self-defense, thus facilitating an effectual defense against tyranny by the “elite.”
Citizens cannot and should not rely on the government to protect them from violence. The government cannot keep all its citizens safe. One’s safety has always ultimately been one’s own responsibility. Individuals have the natural right to defend themselves. Guns cannot be uninvented even if guns were banned, those who wish to have guns and who will disregard the law will have guns, while law-abiding citizens would be prevented from arming themselves against such criminals. When governments pass gun control laws that limit citizens’ ability to adequately defend themselves, the people are forced to rely on the police for protection. This transfer of the responsibility and right to self-defense from the individual to the government has tragic effects, as seen in the case of Warren v. District of Columbia, D.C. (1981), when a woman was gang-raped for fourteen hours after she had twice called the police, who never arrived. This is not to point fingers at the police rather, this example demonstrates the importance of personal self-defense and the danger of relying on others for protection.
Even those who do not own and carry guns would benefit from those who do because it is better for criminals to imagine they face an armed citizenry than an unarmed one. An armed society is a polite society the lack of arms in the hands of law-abiding citizens makes aggression more likely to occur, whether in the form of violence from terrorists and criminals, or from tyrannical overreaches of a government. The genocides that have taken place in the 20th century demonstrate that a government whose aim is to bring harm and even death to its people first disarms them and renders them unable to resist.
The right to bear arms protects every other right. Unarmed people are easier to control, manipulate, and oppress. The founders understood the importance of the right to keep and bear arms as demonstrated by Biblical principles, historical examples, and the English common law. Without the preservation of this right, a nation would easily succumb to tyranny. As long as this right is upheld, protected, and exercised lawfully, the torch of liberty may continue to burn.
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The featured image is “Massachusetts Militiamen (American Revolution)” by Charles M. Lefferts (1873-1923) and is in the public domain, courtesy of Wikimedia Commons.
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Campaign to Commemorate 150th Anniversary of the 15th Amendment
The 150th anniversary of the 15th Amendment — the Reconstruction Amendment on the right to vote — is this year, also an election year.
This is an ideal time to teach about the long history of the struggle for voting rights, the Reconstruction era, and contemporary issues in voting.
The struggle for the ballot is emblematic of the struggle to make real the democratic promises of this country’s founding narrative. Just as the United States has never been a true “government by the people, for the people,” the right to vote has always been incomplete, contested, and compromised by the racism, sexism, classism, and xenophobia of policymakers and the status quo they act to protect.
Voting rights have expanded in the last 400 years but they have also been taken away, requiring activists to rise up, again and again, to restore of the achievements of prior generations. The fight for the ballot is ongoing.
In a moment of renewed and insidious voter suppression, examining the history of Reconstruction and the struggle for voting rights presents an opportunity to challenge the deeply entrenched fable of the steady forward progress of U.S. history. Students can learn about the tremendous accomplishments of an interracial Reconstruction era coalition that brought public education, the right to vote, and other progressive laws to African Americans and whites alike — and how those efforts were dismantled in the decades that followed.
Toward that end, the Zinn Education Project is partnering with Color of Change on a campaign to teach about voting rights — in history and today — on this 150th anniversary of the 15th Amendment. We are offering:
- unit with three lessons on the history of the fight for voting rights.
- Resources on the 15th Amendmentfor teachers and students Commemorationsof the 15th Amendment mini-grants for speakers and other resources. (Can be done remotely.) for students, parents, and community members who are committed to take action to protect and expand the right to vote.
- A formal request to school districts to devote more time and resources to the Reconstruction era.
Please share this announcement on social media with the hashtag #TeachVotingRights.
The right of citizens of the United States…
(The 14th amendment grants citizenship to all born in the United States and this amendment grants them the right to…)
…to vote shall not be denied or abridged by the United States or by any State…
(the federal or any state government may never take away this right)
…on account of race, color, or previous condition of servitude.
(all persons, regardless of their ethnicity, race or status as a former slave has the right to vote)
Today in History: 15th Amendment Opens Up Voting Rights (1870)
If history is a journey between our time and that of our ancestors, then it has been at times been a very rough journey. That is readily apparent when you look at the fights that many people had to win in order to have the right to vote. In America, the first step of that very long journey happened on this day in 1870 when the 15th Amendment made it legal for African-Americans (men only of course), most notably former slaves, to vote.
If it had been totally successful, the 15th Amendment would have allowed all African-American men to vote, however that didn&rsquot happen. Even as late as 1960, people of color were still overcoming obstacles that had been put in place to prevent them from exercising their democratic rights.
In truth, the 15th Amendment was just the first small step that allowed for anyone who wasn&rsquot a white male to vote. For the next 100 years or so, there would be a huge number of regulations and court decisions that would reinforce the 15th Amendment, and later the 19th Amendment.
African Americans Voting. History
Even as soon as May 1870, just a month and half after the ratification of the 15th Amendment, Congress was already passing laws that they hoped would allow more African-American men to vote without intimidation from white voters.
The Supreme Court itself would rule on this topic many times in the next 100 years, not always coming down on the side of black suffrage. It wasn&rsquot until the mid-1960s that African-Americans had a truly free path to the polls, and even that is a controversial statement, as to this day politics and gerrymandering are claimed to still disenfranchise some black voters.
In the end, the 15th Amendment was just the beginning of a 100-year (or longer) struggle for voting rights for African-Americans.