Saturday, January 26, 2013

Chernow's "George Washington" on gun control

Ron Chernow's biography on our first president, George Washington : A Life, may not visit the topic of gun control specifically, but in at least two chapters Chernow does (perhaps inadvertently) give readers a glimpse of how Washington thought about the constitution, the bill of rights, and the rights all are "endowed by their creator" with.

In Chapter 45, Mounting the Seat, Chernow writes:
As a stalwart realist, [Washington] thought it dangerous to demand perfection from any human production and questioned the propriety of preventing men from doing good because their is a possibility of their doing evil.
In the author's opinion, Washington might have thought it beyond the scope of government to pass laws restricting a right to carry guns into a church or school by peaceful, law-abiding citizens because of the fear of what one lunatic may do.  In other words, the government has neither the omniscience or the ability to pass laws restricting the freedoms of the many out of paranoia of what the few may do.

Or put in another context, should the state hasten to remove children from their parents merely by circumstance of their births into poverty, or must we restrain ourselves from premature actions based merely on probabilities and deny each family to make of their lives what they will regardless their circumstances?

A common misunderstanding of the Bill of Rights is that it alone protects citizens' rights to bear arms.  Imagine that the first ten amendments didn't exist, would citizens still have a right to free speech, assembly, petition and redress, self defense, due process, etc.?

At the time of the convention and even knowing what the Bill of Rights would contain, Washing still thought the amendments unnecessary and potentially dangerous.

In chapter 49 Chernow writes,
At the time of the Constitutional Convention, Washington deemed a bill of rights superfluous on the grounds that American citizens would retain all rights that they did not expressly renounce in the document.  During the ratifying conventions, he worried that opponents would seek to subvert the new political system by attempting premature amendments.  One surviving fragment of the undelivered [inauguration] speech says: "I will barely suggest whether it would not be the part of prudent men to observe [the Constitution] fully in movement before they undertook to make such alterations as might prevent a fair experiment of its effects."
One of the words in that paragraph that stands out is superfluous.  In Washington's (and the 9th amendment's) opinion, what became known as the Bill of Rights did not grant new rights to citizens because the people already possessed these rights inherently.  Furthermore, delegates to the constitutional convention believed government did not (or should not) have the power to revoke rights given citizens by their creator.

He didn't object to their content or words, but the premise that they were needed at all, or that some may misconstrue them as grants of rights rather than simply redundancies.

Given that background, one can imagine that Washington himself may have had some input on the 9th Amendment, and perhaps he did.  Credit is given, however, to his close political confident James Madison who proposed what later became the 9th Amendment.
The enumeration in the Constitution, of certain rights, shall not be construed to deny or disparage others retained by the people.
Over 200 years ago, at a time of with fewer luxuries, a higher mortality rate, a frontier beset with conflicts between settlers and Indians, and on the heels of both the French and Indian war and the Revolutionary war, Washington was more prepared to trust in the decency and civility of Americans than we are today.

Has America really become less decent and civil, or have its citizens merely become more timid and fearful?

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