April 1, 2013, Democratic Perspective once again hosted Michael Austin, Provost, VP for Academic Affairs, Professor at Newman University and author of That’s Not What They Meant! Reclaiming The Founding Fathers from America’s Right Wing.
Austin explains that, far from a being a cohesive body, the framers of our Constitution were a diverse group of men who agreed on very little. “The one thing these men agreed on was that they did not want to be governed by the British,” he said.
After discussing proof texting, the technique used by the right wing to support their ideologies, we asked Austin about the lingering battle over states’ rights versus federal supremacy. Austin described the original debate over this issue as intense. According to Austin, much of the debate revolved around the southern states’ desire to maintain slavery, and the South’s fear that it would be under represented in Congress. As a result, there were a variety of compromises, including the three-fifths clause which counted slaves as three-fifths of a person with regard to representation. But, of course, the slaves were not allowed to vote.
Such compromises held our fledgling nation together and led to the ratification of the Constitution, but the issue eventually led to the Civil War.
We also asked Austin to comment on the Second Amendment which reads, “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.” Austin stated that this amendment was linked to the debate over whether or not the new nation should create a standing army. Some, like George Washington, felt a well-trained standing army was necessary. Others, like Jefferson, were very much opposed to a standing army.
Austin has recently published a supplement to his book, That’s Not What They Meant About Guns, which looks at the issue.
In his supplement, Austin states, “I argue that we should not try to govern our country through historical telepathy. The Founding Fathers gave us a way to frame our most important questions; they did not give us the answers to those questions. Nowhere is this easier to see than in the current debate over guns and gun control.”
“Even if we wanted to, we could not recapture the social and political contexts that produced the Second Amendment,” he continues. “To start, we would have to disband the professional military, require all citizens to own guns and to undergo regular military drills in public parks.”
“The militia was not simply all citizens bearing arms; it was all citizens bearing arms and entering into a compact to train together, serve together, and protect each other’s lives and interests. It was perhaps the most important aspect of citizenship in the early republic,” Austin wrote.
“In the beginning, then, bearing arms had something to do with being willing to work for the public good. It still should,” Austin states. “Owning firearms for the public good does not mean trying to wrest every single right one can from the Constitution without ever asking what responsibility one owes to the society that ensures those rights. It does mean recognizing that, for all of the acknowledged benefits of gun ownership, it brings some problems too, and society has both a right and a responsibility to address those problems.”
As you can see, Austin provides real context for this hotly debated and often misinterpreted amendment.