As the George Mason Patriots prepare for the Final Four, and loyal V.C. readers everywhere hope for the ultimate National Championship match-up of George Mason vs. UCLA, I thought that now would be a good time to note some of George Mason’s contributions to the right to keep and bear arms.
On September 21, 1774, George Mason and George Washington co-founded the Fairfax County Militia Association, which Mason chaired. When Washington attended the May 1775 meeting of the Continental Congress, he wore the blue and buff uniform of the Fairfax County Militia; Congress appointed him General of the Continental Army and the blue and buff later became the colors of the Continental Army.
In January 1775, the Fairfax County Militia issued Mason’s Fairfax County Militia Plan:
A well-regulated militia, composed of the Gentlemen, Freeholders, and other Freemen was necessary to protect our ancient laws and liberty from the standing army…and we do each of us, for ourselves respectively, promise and engage to keep a good Fire-lock in proper Order & to furnish Ourselves as soon as possible with, & always keep by us, one Pound of Gunpowder four Pounds of Lead, one Dozen Gun Flints, and a pair of Bullet Moulds, with a Cartouch box, or powder horn, and Bag for Balls.
1 George Mason, Papers 210-11 (1970), quoted in Stephen P. Halbrook, That Every Man Be Armed: The Evolution of the Constitutional Right 60 (1984).
Mason authored the Virginia Declaration of Rights (June 2, 1776), which stated in article 13:
That a well regulated militia, composed of the body of the people, trained to arms, is the proper, natural, and safe defense of a free state; that standing armies, in time of peace, should be avoided as dangerous to liberty; and that, in all cases, the military should be under strict subordination to, and be governed by, the civil power.
Mason wrote the Richmond Antifederal Committee’s June 11, 1788, proposal for Bill of Rights to be added to the United States Constitution. The 17th item stated:
That the People have a Right to keep & bear Arms; that a well regulated Militia, composed of the Body of the People, trained to Arms, is the proper natural and safe Defence of a free State; that standing Armys in time of Peace are dangerous to Liberty, and therefore ought to be avoided, as far the Circumstances and Protection of the Community will admit; and that in all Cases, the Military ought shou’d be under strict Subordination to and be govern’d by the Civil Power.
As the Virginia ratifying convention, Mason pointed out:
Forty years ago, when the resolution of enslaving America was formed in Great Britain, the British Parliament was advised by an artful man [Sir William Keith], who was governor of Pennsylvania, to disarm the people; that it was the best and most effectual way to enslave them; but that they should not do it openly, but weaken them, and let them sink gradually, by totally disusing and neglecting the militia.
He also warned the convention (June 14, 1788):
The militia may be here destroyed by that method which has been practised in other parts of the world before; that is, by rendering them useless–by disarming them. Under various pretences, Congress may neglect to provide for arming and disciplining the militia….
But we need not give them power to abolish our militia. If they neglect to arm them, and prescribe proper discipline, they will be of no use.
Like many anti-federalists, Mason worried that the present militia, composed of the entire people, might one day be replaced by a much narrower militia:
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. But I cannot say who will be the militia of the future day. If that paper on the table gets no alteration, the militia of the future day may not consist of all classes, high and low, and rich and poor; but they may be confined to the lower and middle classes of the people, granting exclusion to the higher classes of the people. If we should ever see that day, the most ignominious punishments and heavy fines may be expected. Under the present government, all ranks of people are subject to militia duty. Under such a full and equal representation as ours, there can be no ignominious punishment inflicted. But under this national, or rather consolidated government, the case will be different. The representation being so small and inadequate, they will have no fellow-feeling for the people. They may discriminate people in their own predicament, and exempt from duty all the officers and lowest creatures of the national government. If there were a more particular definition of their powers, and a clause exempting the militia from martial law except when in actual service, and from fines and punishments of an unusual nature, then we might expect that the militia would be what they are. [Note: the final two concerns were partially addressed by the Fifth Amendment, which requires Grand Jury indictments before prosecutions for serious crimes, except “in the Militia, when in actual service in time of War or public danger” and by the Eighth Amendment, which forbids “cruel and unusual” punishments for anyone, including people in active militia service.] But, if this be not the case, we cannot say how long all classes of people will be included in the militia. There will not be the same reason to expect it, because the government will be administered by different people. We know what they are now, but know not how soon they may be altered.
Some persons argue that because Mason was so concerned about the militia, and because he was so influential in creating the pressure that led Madison to draft the Second Amendment (and the rest of the Bill of Rights), that the Second Amendment only protects militia rights (and, somehow, the militia rights have now dwindled into only the rights of members of the National Guard while on active duty). Such an interpretation, however, is not consistent with Mason’s proposed Richmond bill of rights, which first states “That the People have a Right to keep & bear Arms” and only thereafter adds other items dealing with the militia and with standing armies.
Some George Mason University publications involving the Second Amendment and related issues: Stephen P. Halbrook, The Jurisprudence of the Second and Fourteenth Amendments, 4 Geo. Mason U. L. Rev. 1 (1981); Stephen P. Halbrook, Second-Class Citizenship and the Second Amendment in the District of Columbia, 5 Geo. Mason U. Civ. Rts. L.J. 105 (1995); David B. Kopel, The Brady Bill Comes Due: The Printz Case and State Autonomy, George Mason University Civil Rights Law J.; Stefan B. Tahmassebi, Gun Control and Racism, 2 Geo. Mason U. Civ. Rts. L.J. 67 (1991).
Some notable George Mason Univeristy professors who have written about the Second Amendment: Stephen P. Halbrook (Asst. Prof. Philosophy, 1980-81); Walter Williams (Economics); Nelson Lund (Law), Patrick Henry Professor of Constitutional Law and the Second Amendment; Daniel Polsby (Dean, Law).