The zeitgeist of the Second Amendment

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Since the Feb.14 mass shooting at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School in Parkland, Fla., the “BIG PICTURE” of the principles — once learned all during school before graduating high school — embodied in the Declaration of Independence and the Preamble to the U. S. Constitution, questionably, come into focus: “We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty and the Pursuit of Happiness…” Or, is it, now, the “Pursuit” of EVIL?

When the writer attended Sandy Gavin and Nora Davis Elementary and Oak Park High School, ethics, morals and citizenship were intertwined as part of education, which emphasized developing good, upstanding, law-abiding, young patriotic Americans.

Then, devotionals were every morning, chapel/auditorium weekly, and the Bible was a part of Miss Essie Mae “Big Mama” Harry’s literature class. Ms. Evangeline Lee interspersed scriptures into her English class. Chanting Mrs. Hattie V. J. McInnis’ Lord’s Prayer was routine on chapel day. The Golden Rule was elementary. And, that school environment helped to shape good character, affable personalities and sound behaviors geared toward bettering the succeeding generation.

Though SEGREGATION reigned, human worth, decency, dignity and humanity were supreme. Life, health and well-being were prized. Adjectives like kind, compassionate, nice, neat, friendly, peaceful, caring, congenial, neighborly, brotherly, sisterly, studious, industrious, ambitious and aspiring were the modifiers of students at Oak Park who were molded in the image of Booker T. Washington.

Of course, those days waned as Engel v. Vitale in 1962, Abington School District v. Schempp and Murray v. Curlett in 1963 took effect. As the writer’s class graduated during Curlett, classmates expressed sorrow for future generations — now mostly at a loss of the “Social Contract” cited in the Preamble:  “We the People of the United States, in Order to form a more perfect Union, establish justice, insure domestic Tranquility, provide for the common defense, promote the general Welfare, and secure the Blessings of Liberty to ourselves and our Posterity…”

Though segregated, Oak Parkites internalized the principles in the  Declaration of Independence and the Constitution, because these documents are the bedrock on which Blacks relied heavily from “slavery to freedom,” namely, the Thirteenth, Fourteenth and Fifteenth Amendments — with the 14th becoming a catchall for others.

Ironically, in 1866 in Presser v. Illinois, petitioner invoked the 14th Amendment, coupled with the Second Amendment, claiming his right to “parade with arms in cities and towns” WITHOUT being “a member of the organized volunteer militia of the State of Illinois; nor did he belong to the troops of the United States.,” which no “such privilege” was conferred by provisions of the Constitution or statutes of the U. S., because Congress and states have the authority to regulate arms. Thus, petitioner was denied his claim.

What is happening with congressional and other lawmakers is WANT of WILL to adhere, as local historian Cleveland Payne said, “to the zeitgeist of the Second Amendment in 1791.” When it was ratified, that era is paramount, and, its interpretation must be in context of that time. Horse-and-buggy transportation was primary. The population was overwhelmingly rural. Farmers were “90 percent of the labor force.” Eli Whitney invented the cotton gin two years later in Georgia. He also contracted with U.S. government to make 10,000 muskets, using unskilled labor, fabricating parts that were precision-made and interchangeable.

The Second Amendment evolved out of the demographics, social and economic conditions surrounding the musket in 1791 — slavery. The British used it in colonizing American territories, and both sides used it during the Revolution.

Compared to rifles of 2018, the 1791 rifles were very rudimentary, or, by today’s standards, “primitive,” like the Three-fifths clause–part of the “living Constitution.” The Second Amendment, in its origin, reckoned with the lives of David “Davy” Crockett, “king of the wild frontier” from Tennessee, and, slave trader, James “Jim” Bowie, reputed for the “hunting knife.” Both were killed at the Alamo in 1836 and featured as American heroes on TV in the 1950s-’60s wearing raccoon caps like contemporary frontiersman Daniel Boone (1734-1820) of Kentucky.

The Second Amendment was written at a time, in many instances, when “knives” and “bayonets” were more reliable than muskets — giving rise to Congress in 1792 passing a statute stipulating that, “…every white male citizen between the age of 18 and 45… provide himself with… a sufficient bayonet and belt, two spare flints, and a knapsack …”

So, in 2018, with assault-weapon-mania plaguing the U.S. — with “isms,” maladies and phobias of all kinds characterizing anti-gun control proponents — the “zeitgeist of the Second Amendment in 1791” is expressed by James Madison on interest groups and factions as “adversaries to liberty” with “specious declamations” on tyranny predicated on “the superior force of an interested and overbearing … faction … with latent causes,” such as the National Rifle Association. About which, Chief Justice Warren Burger said on Dec. 16, 1991, is “perpetrating ‘one of the greatest pieces of fraud…on the American public by special interest groups that I have ever seen in my lifetime.’”

Thus, the zeal for preeminence and power — without sagacious and judicious statesmen and legislators instituting measures to “secure the public good, and private rights against the danger of this propensity of mankind to fall into mutual animosity … actuated by some common impulse of passion, or of interest, adverse to the rights of other citizens, or to the permanent and aggregate interest of the community” — as uncontrolled guns, Madison concluded, “The regulation of these various and interfering interests form the principal task of modern legislation, and involves the spirit of the party and faction in the necessary and ordinary operations of the government,” like “possession or use of a ‘shotgun having a barrel of less than eighteen inches in length’” was outlawed in United States v. Miller in 1939.

Harvey Warren lives in Laurel.