Opinion | Civil Rights

From ancient Athens to modern America: Thank the right to 'bear arms' for freedom

From ancient Athens to modern America: Thank the right to 'bear arms' for freedom

Former Supreme Court Justice John Paul Stevens’ recent opinion piece in the New York Times advocating the repeal of the Second Amendment appears to have surprised many, but it shouldn’t have. In 2008, while considering the District of Columbia v. Heller case, Stevens and three of his “progressive” colleagues on the United States Supreme Court attempted to effectively repeal the Second Amendment by judicial fiat. Their failure to do so was a victory for our republic and its inheritance of ordered liberty that predates the ancient societies of Athens and Rome.

Owning and bearing arms for a variety of legitimate purposes (such as collecting, hunting, and defense of self, family, and state) has been a vital part of the Western tradition for millennia and is our birthright as a free people. This right (or the lack thereof) has separated the free and the enslaved since before the rise of Athenian democracy.

The Greek philosopher Aristotle asserted that the private possession of arms was a right and duty of citizenship that secured the state against internal and external threats. Centuries later, the Roman statesman Cicero (whom our nation’s founders admired and emulated) argued that the use of arms for self-defense was part of a natural law that must be respected. He also adhered to the long-standing conviction that the use of private arms for the defense of the republic was an essential duty of Roman citizenship.

Our English forebears also understood well the link between the people’s possession of arms and liberty. In 1688, a coalition of forces loyal to the English Parliament and William of Orange removed James II from the throne in a relatively bloodless affair that became known as the “Glorious Revolution.” One of the major grievances the revolutionaries lodged against the king was that he disarmed many of his subjects. Indeed, Parliament insisted that, as a condition of assuming the throne, the new sovereigns — William and Mary — agree to a declaration of rights that, in part, protected fundamental liberties of the English people. One of the individual liberties enumerated in the document, which became known as the English Bill of Rights, was that of possessing arms “for their defence.”

The English political philosopher John Locke published his “Second Treatise of Civil Government” in the wake of the Glorious Revolution. Locke argued that all men possess “natural rights” by virtue of their birth — the rights of life, liberty, and property (a trio that emerged, in slightly altered form, in our own Declaration of Independence).

Our nation’s founders (including those who proposed and approved the Bill of Rights) understood that for these natural rights to mean anything, people had to possess the capacity to defend their lives, liberty, and property from offenders, both foreign and domestic. They further understood that the government frequently was unable to protect these rights adequately. Consequently, each individual was ultimately responsible for his own security, and firearms were considered a proper and effective means of attaining that end.


As the majority in the Heller decision pointed out, those who crafted the Second Amendment intended for it to protect a pre-existing, individual right. Indeed, when James Madison, the “Father of the Constitution,” introduced the Bill of Rights in the House of Representatives, he made clear his understanding that the guarantees contained therein protected individual rights.

Notably, when the Senate considered the provision that became the Second Amendment, its members defeated a proposal that would have limited the right to keep and bear arms to “the common defense.” In other words, the Senate deliberately chose not to restrict this right to service in an organized body such as a militia.

Those who suggest that the Second Amendment is “outdated” or “irrelevant” today are often poor students of human nature and history. Many notorious attempts to restrict or ban firearms have been directed at the most vulnerable members of our society, and this trend continues today.


Shortly after the Civil War, many Southern states enacted so-called “black codes” that prohibited freedmen from keeping or bearing arms — a clear attempt to keep former slaves in a state of virtual slavery. In the early 20th century, states such as New York and Michigan enacted schemes to require permits for the purchase of handguns under the guise of keeping such firearms out of the hands of so-called undesirables. To many who supported these laws, “undesirables” included blacks and recent immigrants.

Today, proposals to bar young adults from purchasing firearms of any kind threaten to deprive this segment of our population of the natural right of self-preservation.

Ultimately, the final and most effective barrier between the citizens of our republic and any number of gun control schemes that would rob them of their God-given natural rights is the Second Amendment. Any attempts by John Paul Stevens or anyone else to repeal it should be resisted with a civil but firm response reminiscent of the legendary John Paul Jones: “I have not yet begun to fight!”

David A. Raney is professor of history at Hillsdale College where he holds the John Anthony Halter Chair in American History, the Constitution, and the Second Amendment.