The second amendment of the United States Constitution, which outlines one’s right to bear arms, would have been seen in the early nineteenth century as a necessary protection in order to ensure one’s liberty. The early nineteenth century was not too far removed from the American Revolution, and many who would have lived around the turn of the nineteenth century would have also been alive in 1776, when the United States first declared its independence. The war for independence necessitated an armed militia, and was seen as a response to an oppressive government.
Before the American Revolution, the original colonies of what would become the United States were under the authority of Great Britain. An unarmed population meant that these colonies would have been unable to protect themselves against what was perceived as an oppressive government. The war itself turned violent following a British order to confiscate arms, to ensure their enforcement of British taxation laws would not be met with armed resistance (Bailyn 47). Americans largely refused this order, which resulted in the outbreak of revolution, and ultimately independence.
From the perspective of someone who would have lived during this time, or perhaps who would have heard a first-hand account of the revolutionary era, if Americans had been unarmed, there would have been no revolution. Instead, the British would have continued to impose their will on the colonies. The originating issue of oppression stemmed from taxation without representation; colonists were being taxed, which was sent to England, but colonists had no political influence or representation in Parliament. The colonists were simply expected to pay tribute to England, in an era when many colonists would have lived their entire lives in the colonies. Without a means to protect themselves, colonists would have been simply forced to accept any law imposed upon them.
The secondary reason the second amendment would have value for someone from the 19th century was that an armed population provided an extra means of defense. In the nineteenth century, the United States had a much smaller military than countries in Europe, and did not have a history of military tradition. This meant the United States was vulnerable during the early nineteenth century to hostile forces; although the greatest natural defense against potentially hostile powers was its distance from Europe, the second best defense the country could have was a population that was willing and able to defend itself, without the reliance on a nationalized armed force.
The fear of invasion was not a hypothetical threat. Not only did many in the early nineteenth century experience the Revolutionary War, but the War of 1812, also against Great Britain, saw a direct invasion of American soil (Beul 217). Although the United States by then had a national army, the ability of everyday citizens to defend their property and resist invasion forces was also a great value. The United States did not have the ability to fund a nationalized army as many European countries did, so instead it relied on its own population being capable as a form of defense. This philosophy also applied to the frontier, where what were perceived as Native American threats, rightfully or not, could be defended against if the population was armed.
The second amendment would therefore have been seen by someone in the early nineteenth century as providing an essential defense against liberty. The first potential value was protection against a totalitarian government; the founders of the Constitution included this clause to ensure the United States itself would not become the type of totalitarian government it had originally fought against. Second, it had value as a means of defense against the threat of possible invasion.