To Keep And Bear Arms: Armed Political Power in Virginia, 1648-1791

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2007-01-09

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Abstract

This dissertation offers an analysis of the political, ideological, and legal origins of the Second Amendment to the United States Constitution that significantly departs from the current conventions and concerns of constitutional scholars and historians. Succinctly stated, this is a political account about the armed political rights of Virginians in relation to the military power of the federal government--not another essay concerning the highly politicized yet largely apolitical merits of private gun ownership and use. My goal is to understand why Virginians feared national military power and sought constitutional protections against its misuse as an instrument of armed op-pression.

    The first segment examines the origins and evolution of the Radical Whig ideology that condemned standing armies as a threat to civil liberty and celebrated citizen militias as the safest means to execute military and police power.  It also contrasts that theory to the practical utilization of armies and militias in Virginia during wars and domestic rebellions, and examines the development of semiprofes-sional forces under statutory law.  While the militia rarely met theoretical expectations as a military force, it remained valuable for purposes of social control. 

    

    The remaining chapters investigate how Virginians reformed their sword during the Second, Third, and Fourth Revolutionary Conventions to combat Great Britain's standing army.  Then, the dissertation examines the crucial Fifth Convention with respect to Article Thirteen of Virginia's Declaration of Rights, which provided constitutional safeguards against the misuse of military and police power.  Finally, it evaluates the Virginia Ratifying Convention, where an attempt was made to provide protections against the military clauses in the federal Constitution with a modified version of Article Thirteen.  The resultant Second Amendment was an abridged synthesis of revised Article Thirteen that fell far short of expectations.  For many Virginians, the Second Amendment was a feeble shield that did not effectively protect the people from the potential abuses of the national government's sword.

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