- Guns And The Constitution:A Complex Relationship
Saul Cornell has written an unusually illuminating book about various conceptions of "the right to bear arms" especially between the Revolution and the end of Reconstruction. Mark Tushnet has written an equally illuminating book about the contemporary debate over gun rights and gun control that concludes that the kinds of evidence that Cornell brings forth is highly unlikely in fact to change anyone's mind with regard to that issue. Agreeing with an argument most elaborately set forth by Yale law professor Dan Kahan and Donald Braman, Tushnet believes that debates surrounding guns are best understood in terms of basic cultural divides within the United States.1 As such, scholarly evidence is largely irrelevant or, which is much the same thing, likely to be perceived through the filters that cultural divides, by definition, provide as means of understanding the contexts within which we live.
Whatever one thinks of the contemporary debate over guns, historians are properly interested in trying to figure out what can be discerned from the past, independently of "lessons" it might teach us for the present. Cornell is a skilled discerner, especially of complexity. His book will scarcely be the "last word" on the topic, but it will certainly become an essential "first word," at least among secondary sources, that historians will want to consult as they traverse the intellectual minefield that surrounds any examination of the role of firearms in American society or law.
First, though, it is worth mentioning a couple of things that A Well-Regulated Militia is not. Although, as shall be noted presently, Cornell finds a close connection between eighteenth-century notions of militias and civic-republican political theory on the obligations of citizens to protect the public realm against [End Page 1] oppression, he makes no attempt to elaborate that theory. One will not, for example, find either Machiavelli or James Harrington in the index, nor is there any significant treatment of the various colonial theorists (or, more accurately, publicists) who imported civil republicanism to the New World. For that important topic, one is well advised to read not only J. A. G. Pocock's seminal work on "the Machiavellian moment" in Anglo-American thought, but also the far more recent and specific book by the late Richard Uviller and William Merkel, The Militia and the Right to Arms: Or How the Second Amendment Fell Silent, which does a superb job of detailing this history.2 Nor is Cornell especially interested in "the new social history," that is, the detailed examination of records that might enable us to know how many Americans, from what groups and social classes, actually possessed firearms. (And, even if they possessed then, how reliable were they as weapons?) Michael Bellesiles's ill-fated book, whatever its manifest deficiencies regarding some of his purported evidence, asked many important questions.3 Cornell does a fine job in answering the questions he asks, but no one should confuse his book with a comprehensive treatment of the empirical actualities of arms even during his primary period of study, the Revolution through Reconstruction.
Cornell almost literally begins his book with the angry response by many Bostonians to the attempted British seizure in June 1768 of John Hancock's sloop Liberty, which in turn helped to generate the occupation of Boston by British soldiers (pp. 9–13). Samuel Adams raised the possibility that Bostonians should "behave like men" and "take up arms immediately" to fight for their liberty (p. 10). It is therefore basically presented as a given that by the decade prior to Revolution, many American colonists, for whom Adams serves as a synecdoche, believed, whatever the particular source of their confidence, that they did indeed have a right not only to possess arms but also, more importantly, to use them in...