I was at a reception on a riverside screened-in patio somewhere in South Georgia, a convivial, countrified place that was bedecked with old pressed-metal advertising signs. Right next to a Coke-bottle-shaped thermometer (in mint condition), I spied one of those old-timey, rusty-on-purpose-nail-up-on-the-wall sayings that read:
What Part Of
“SHALL NOT BE INFRINGED”
Do You Not Understand?
It looked to be the kind of souvenir you’d find at a roadside fireworks store.
I had been gazing at that wall-mounted objet d’art for a bit too long. My host sidled up to me and inquired, “So, what do you think of that?” He was asking it in a slightly baiting yet cheerful way.
Now, remember, he asked for my opinion.
I said, “Well, that’s the last four words of a twenty-seven-word sentence.” (Uh-huh, nerdy that I know that.) He looked puzzled. I continued, “The whole thing is just one sentence. A confusing one, at that. That’s one of the reasons it gets debated so much. But if you hack off the first twenty-three words, you end up with a pretty compelling bumper sticker argument.” I could tell I was messing with my host’s patriotic dogma.
He said, “I just want my God-given right to my guns.” Then he made an assumption. “You don’t own a gun, do you?”
I told him that nobody is suggesting that he give up his guns. Then, I answered his question by telling him that my only firearm is a .410 shotgun that I use during mistletoe season. (All my hunting is vegetarian and ornamental.) My last rifle was a .22-long semi-automatic that I traded with my brother-in-law for a 1940s galvanized steel Coca-Cola ice chest – red with embossed white lettering, complete with a bottle opener on the end. I said, “It’s a cooler that would fit handsomely on this very patio.” I was attempting to change the subject; mayhap I could find détente through our shared appreciation of barbecue-joint decor and The Pause that Refreshes.®
As I lightly debated with my host – again, at his continued invitation – I had the maturity to avoid the question: “What part of ‘a well regulated militia’ do you not understand?” (Georgia’s current governor, in his 2018 political TV ads, took a literal chainsaw to regulations.) Indeed, it seems that the first four words of the Second Amendment can conflict with the last four.
• • •
James Madison, who in his own lifetime was known as the “Father of the Constitution,” is credited with composing the Bill of Rights. He was a prolific political intellect and statesman who wrote and wrote and wrote. That’s why it is curious that the Second Amendment is so short, clipped, and grammatically confusing, with a hazy if not completely unclear antecedent. (C’mon, English teachers; chime in.)
Maybe on the day he wrote it, James Madison got in a hurry because he was hungry and having a sugar crash; he was often distracted by the aroma of his wife Dollie’s baking. (Mrs. Madison, of course, went on to become a successful merchant of those delicious little pre-packaged cakes.) Maybe Mr. Madison, who was famously bashful, had been visited that day by his more bothersome colleagues, Anti-Federalists George Mason and Patrick Henry, who had arrived to pester and look over Madison’s shoulder as he worked. Both men had refused to sign the Constitution of the United States because of its lack of freedoms granted to individuals over the power of the Federal Government. Indeed, much of what was included in the Bill of Rights came from George Mason’s own drafting of the Virginia Constitution. Mr. Henry was in concurrence with Mr. Mason, but the hot-headed gentleman was particularly loud in the home of the shy Mr. Madison. It is fair to say that Patrick Henry did not possess what we would now call, an “indoor voice.”
The Republic, of course, was still in the throes of just being born and the Revolutionary War was fresh in the memory of its citizens. Local militias had contributed to fighting the British, and there were still Tories about, loyal to the British Crown.
It is important to note that early on, James Madison was against a standing army in times of peace.
• • •
This brings my thinking to our current age. I would wager that the Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, General Mark Milley, is familiar with the writings of this forward-thinking Founding Father. The General might have been thinking of James Madison as he found himself taken down a garden path – as it were – crossing Lafayette Square on the way to St. John’s Church with the President on June 1, 2020.
General Milley might have been thinking of Madison’s words when he made that phone call to China on January 8, 2021, words that James Madison said at the Federal Convention in Philadelphia in 1787:
“A standing military force, with an overgrown Executive will not long be safe companions to liberty. The means of defense against foreign danger, have been always the instruments of tyranny at home.”