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American Principles of Self-Defense

What were the perspectives of our founding fathers and the men who lived during the time of the birth of the United States of America? This section collects a variety of quotes from the men of the time. Many websites present quotes without context or citation. Citing sources and accurately presenting information is not a minor issue. It doesn't help a case to present information that the contrary position can easily dismantle. I've attempted to find citations for all quotes. I also note quotes that I've found to be dubious.

The Bill of Rights does not convey rights to people. For example, American citizens do not have a right to free speech because a piece of paper has conferred the right. Rights are given by God to men, in that God has created the world, directs its course, and establishes what is true and right. Rights are given by God, and the American experiment is an attempt to safeguard those rights from infringement by government. We hold these truths to be self-evident that men are endowed by their creator, not by writing them on paper.

This understanding makes these American principles applicable more broadly to all men. America's Founding Fathers weren't picking one possibly legitimate way to construct what men would be permitted, over against other possibly legitimate ways. When an American suggests that a certain right delineated by the Founders wouldn't apply to a foreigner, he is wrong. God did not endow Americans, but men generally.

There is debate over the issue of rights in contrast to duties or God-given duties. Some point out Enlightenment entanglements with the concept of rights. Some suggest that rights don't adequately express our duty to protect life. That is a discussion I may someday flesh out. The primary intention for this website is to provide a central repository of information, and, in this section, to show some of the prevailing thought about weapons and defense during the early development of the nation.

It is important to note that the right (or duty) to defend life is not given by men, not by a constitution or law, but by God. Constitutional or legal statements about that right or duty are a means of protecting what God has given and preserve the ability to act on the duties that He rquires. We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are...endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights


Quotes that I have reasonable confidence in will be marked with this symbol:  « . Quotes that I believe might not be legitimate will be marked with this symbol:  x . If there is no symbol I haven't yet done the research. I encourage you to validate any quote you find here which you plan to use and let me know if your investigation leads you to disagree with it's validity.

 «  “In time of actual war, great discretionary powers are constantly given to the Executive Magistrate. Constant apprehension of War, has the same tendency to render the head too large for the body. A standing military force, with an overgrown Executive will not long be safe companions to liberty. The means of defence agst. foreign danger, have been always the instruments of tyranny at home. Among the Romans it was a standing maxim to excite a war, whenever a revolt was apprehended. Throughout all Europe, the armies kept up under the pretext of defending, have enslaved the people.” – James Madison, Constitutional Convention, June, 1787  Source

 «  “A militia when properly formed are in fact the people themselves…and include, according to the past and general usuage of the states, all men capable of bearing arms…  “To preserve liberty, it is essential that the whole body of the people always possess arms, and be taught alike, especially when young, how to use them.” – Richard Henry Lee, Federal Farmer No. 18, January 25, 1788

 «  “A free people ought not only to be armed, but disciplined; to which end a uniform and well-digested plan is requisite; and their safety and interest require that they should promote such manufactories as tend to render them independent of others for essential, particularly military, supplies.” George Washington, Jan. 8, 1790 speech to Congress

 «  “No freeman shall be debarred the use of arms.” Thomas Jefferson's first draft of the Virginia Constitution. His second draft was modified to read, “No freeman shall be debarred the use of arms [within his own lands or tenements].” Neither version appears in the final Virginia Constitution. Source

 «  “Forty years ago, when the resolution of enslaving America was formed in Great Britain, the British parliament was advised by an artful man, who was governor of Pennsylvania, to disarm the people. That it was the best and most effectual way to enslave them.”  George Mason, Debate in Virginia Ratifying Convention, 14 June 1788 Elliot 3:380--95, 400--402,  Source

 «  “Mr. Chairman — A worthy member has asked, who are the militia, if they be not the people, of this country, and if we are not to be protected from the fate of the Germans, Prussians, &c. by our representation? I ask who are the militia? They consist now of the whole people, except a few public officers.”  George Mason, Debate in Virginia Ratifying Convention, 14 June 1788 Elliot 3:417--28,  Source

 «  “As civil rulers, not having their duty to the people before them, may attempt to tyrannize, and as the military forces which must be occasionally raised to defend our country, might pervert their power to the injury of their fellow citizens, the people are confirmed by the article in their right to keep and bear their private arms.”  Tench Coxe, Remarks on the First Part of the Amendments to the Federal Constitution, Under the pseudonym ‘A Pennsylvanian,' Philadelphia Federal Gazette, June 18, 1789 at 2 col. 1  Source

 «  “Who are the militia? Are they not ourselves? Is it feared, then, that we shall turn our arms each man gainst his own bosom. Congress have no power to disarm the militia. Their swords, and every other terrible implement of the soldier, are the birthright of an American.... [T]he unlimited power of the sword is not in the hands of either the federal or state governments, but, where I trust in God it will ever remain, in the hands of the people.”  Tench Coxe,  The Pennsylvania Gazette, Feb. 20, 1788.  Source

 «  “Before a standing army can rule, the people must be disarmed; as they are in almost every kingdom in Europe. The supreme power in America cannot enforce unjust laws by the sword; because the whole body of the people are armed, and constitute a force superior to any band of regular troops that can be, on any pretense, raised in the United States. A military force, at the command of Congress, can execute no laws, but such as the people perceive to be just and constitutional; for they will possess the power, and jealousy will instantly inspire the inclination, to resist the execution of a law which appears to them unjust and oppressive.”  Noah WebsterAn Examination of the Leading Principles of the Federal Constitution (1787)

 «  “And what country can preserve its liberties, if its rulers are not warned from time to time that this people preserve the spirit of resistance? Let them take arms...”  Thomas Jefferson  Source

 «  “Little more can reasonably be aimed at, with respect to the people at large, than to have them properly armed and equipped; and in order to see that this be not neglected, it will be necessary to assemble them once or twice in the course of a year.”  Alexander Hamilton, Federalist No. 29  Source

 «  “This will not only lessen the call for military establishments, but if circumstances should at any time oblige the government to form an army of any magnitude that army can never be formidable to the liberties of the people while there is a large body of citizens, little, if at all, inferior to them in discipline and the use of arms, who stand ready to defend their own rights and those of their fellow-citizens.  This appears to me the only substitute that can be devised for a standing army, and the best possible security against it, if it should exist.”  Alexander Hamilton, Federalist No. 29  Source

 «  James Madison, in federalist No. 46, when speaking of the check against a standing federal army, speaks of the states and the people as that check. He assumes a well provisioned citizenry. “Let a regular army, fully equal to the resources of the country, be formed; and let it be entirely at the devotion of the federal government; still it would not be going too far to say, that the State governments, with the people on their side, would be able to repel the danger.” Madison estimated the federal army that could be mustered at the time to be up to 30,000 men, while the states, due to the people being armed, could meet a tyrannical federal foe with 500,000. “This proportion would not yield, in the United States, an army of more than twenty-five or thirty thousand men. To these would be opposed a militia amounting to near half a million of citizens with arms in their hands, officered by men chosen from among themselves, fighting for their common liberties...Besides the advantage of being armed, which the Americans possess over the people of almost every other nation, the existence of subordinate governments, to which the people are attached, and by which the militia officers are appointed, forms a barrier against the enterprises of ambition, more insurmountable than any which a simple government of any form can admit of.  Notwithstanding the military establishments in the several kingdoms of Europe, which are carried as far as the public resources will bear, the governments are afraid to trust the people with arms. And it is not certain, that with this aid alone they would not be able to shake off their yokes...Let us not insult the free and gallant citizens of America with the suspicion, that they would be less able to defend the rights of which they would be in actual possession, than the debased subjects of arbitrary power would be to rescue theirs from the hands of their oppressors.”  James MadisonFederalist No. 46  Source

 «  “If ye love wealth better than liberty, the tranquillity of servitude than the animating contest of freedom—go from us in peace. We ask not your counsels or arms. Crouch down and lick the hands which feed you. May your chains sit lightly upon you, and may posterity forget that ye were our countrymen!”  Samuel Adams  Source

 «  “And that the said Constitution be never construed to authorize Congress to infringe the just liberty of the press, or the rights of conscience; or to prevent the people of the United States, who are peaceable citizens, from keeping their own arms; or to raise standing armies, unless necessary for the defense of the United States, or of some one or more of them; or to prevent the people from petitioning, in a peaceable and orderly manner, the federal legislature, for a redress of grievances; or to subject the people to unreasonable searches and seizures of their persons, papers or possessions.”  Samuel Adams, Debates and Proceedings in the Convention of the Commonwealth of Massachusetts, 1788  Source

 «  “If the representatives of the people betray their constituents, there is then no resource left but in the exertion of that original right of self-defense which is paramount to all positive forms of government, and which against the usurpations of the national rulers, may be exerted with infinitely better prospect of success than against those of the rulers of an individual state.” Alexander Hamilton, The Federalist No. 28  Source

 «  "The great object is that every man be armed" and "everyone who is able may have a gun." Patrick Henry, in the Virginia Convention on the ratification of the Constitution. Debates and other Proceedings of the Convention of Virginia, taken in shorthand by David Robertson of Petersburg, at 271, 275 2d ed. Richmond, 1805. Also 3 Elliot, Debates at 386  Source


 «  "Are we at last brought to such humiliating and debasing degradation, that we cannot be trusted with arms for our defense? Where is the difference between having our arms in possession and under our direction, and having them under the management of Congress? If our defense be the real object of having those arms, in whose hands can they be trusted with more propriety, or equal safety to us, as in our own hands?" Patrick Henry, 3 J. Elliot, Debates in the Several State Conventions 45, 2d ed. Philadelphia, 1836  Source

 «  "Guard with jealous attention the public liberty. Suspect everyone who approaches that jewel. Unfortunately, nothing will preserve it but downright force. Whenever you give up that force, you are inevitably ruined" Patrick Henry,  J. Elliot, Debates in the Several State Conventions 45, 2d ed. Philadelphia, 1836  Source

 «  What, sir, is the use of a militia? It is to prevent the establishment of a standing army, the bane of liberty. Now, it must be evident, that, under this provision, together with their other powers, Congress could take such measures with respect to a militia, as to make a standing army necessary. Whenever Governments mean to invade the rights and liberties of the people, they always attempt to destroy the militia, in order to raise an army upon their ruins. This was actually done by Great Britain at the commencement of the late revolution. They used every means in their power to prevent the establishment of an effective militia to the eastward. The Assembly of Massachusetts, seeing the rapid progress that administration were making to divest them of their inherent privileges, endeavored to counteract them by the organization of the militia; but they were always defeated by the influence of the Crown.  - Rep. Elbridge Gerry of Massachusetts, I Annals of Congress 750, August 17, 1789  SourceSource

 x  “The Constitution is not an instrument for government to restrain the people, it is an instrument for the people to restrain the government‑‑lest it come to dominate our lives and interests.” Patrick Henry

“Thomas S. Kidd, an associate professor at Baylor and author of Patrick Henry: First Among Patriots, debunked this quote...

“Another widely cited “Henry” quotation is: “The Constitution is not an instrument for the government to restrain the people, it is an instrument for the people to restrain the government — lest it come to dominate our lives and interests.” This is a more complex misquotation, because it sounds like something Henry might have said — maybe during the 1790s, after he opposed the Constitution’s adoption, when he was hoping to restrict the new government’s powers? The problem is that this quotation seems to have been entirely fabricated, and quite recently at that. The earliest reference I have found to this quotation is in two books published in 2003. But why create a bogus quotation when Henry actually said similar things about the need to restrain government? ”  Source

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