Two amendments and why they were written

History tells us that two of the first 10 constitutional amendments, the Bill of Rights, were written to promote a money-saving militia in place of what the leaders of the new nation considered an expensive and potentially dangerous standing army.

History tells us this but most of us don’t pay attention.

The Founding Fathers would tolerate a standing American army only if one were needed in a true national emergency, and then, only on a temporary basis. And they said so right near the top of the new Constitution.

Article 1 gave Congress “the power to raise and support armies,” but the article makes it clear the power is limited by adding that “no appropriation of money to that use shall be for a longer term than two years.”

The British Army had been highly visible and meddlesome in the Colonies since the middle of 18th century, when the mother country went to what was called the Seven Year War in Europe and the French and Indian War in North America.   

But the victorious British troops didn’t go home after the war.  They stayed on to make sure the Colonists produced the taxes and tariffs needed to pay for the war. The taxes, you’ll recall, were imposed by a Parliament that practiced taxation without representation. And they were most unpopular.

The tea tax was especially obnoxious and led to the raucous Boston Tea Party. Boston was also the scene of the more serious 1770 massacre in which British soldiers fired upon demonstrators who were physically and verbally abusing them, killing five.

And if the presence of an army of occupation wasn’t sufficiently irritating, some of the new taxes went to pay the soldiers’ upkeep — up to and including their room and board — and their rum ration. Some taxpayers even had to provide quarters for troops in their homes when there was no room elsewhere.

So when Jefferson, Madison and other Founders considered constitutional amendments spelling out the freedoms to be enjoyed by citizens in dealing with their government — speech, religion, the press, assembly — the dangers of becoming a European type monarchy with a large, expensive, professional army was still on their minds.

As a result, two of the first three amendments penned by Madison were designed to clarify and strengthen the constitutional provisions aimed at avoiding such an army.

The Third Amendment got things going:

“No soldier shall, in time of peace, be quartered in any house without the assent of the owner, nor in a time of war, but in a manner to be prescribed by law.”

But without an army supported by taxpayers, who would do the job? Hence the Second Amendment:

“A well regulated militia being necessary to the security of a free state, the right of the people to keep and bear arms shall not be abridged.”

In other words, the freed Colonies shall enjoy the protection of a military force but it will live in its own quarters with its own rifles in its own closets. And that’s how sacred rights are born. Madison’s draft clearly shows the Founders used the need for a militia as justification for allowing everyone to keep and bear a rifle.

You could say Madison and Jefferson were inspired. The earlier, 1776 Virginia constitution was pretty straightforward on the issue, saying, “a well regulated militia, composed of the body of people trained to arms, is the proper, natural and safe defense of a free state.” The constitution also declared that “standing armies, in time of peace, should be avoided, as dangerous to liberty…and should be under strict subordination to, and governed by, the civil powers.”  The constitution’s drafters included James Madison and Thomas Jefferson.

Of course, Mr. Madison could not envision the kind of arms he would be giving the people to keep and bear over the centuries.

Had he been able to see how many of his teenage “militiamen” would buy powerful weapons of war and use them to kill innocent children and adults, might he have had second thoughts?

The militia idea proved to be unworkable the first time the citizenry got into a big war, which happened to be among themselves. Even the little Spanish American War at the dawn of the 20th century required a professional military and the two World Wars left no doubt.

Just something to recall the next time you hear the gun marketers of the National Rifle Assn. peddling the Second Amendment as a right comparable to freedom of religion, speech and assembly.



June 2 column on the Connecticut Senate race stated Republican Themis Klarides had raised $8 million in contributions.  That was the figure raised by incumbent Democrat Richard Blumenthal. There is $392,000 on hand for Klarides, $450,000 for challenger Leora Levy and $447,000 for Peter Lumaj, according to the authoritative   I regret the error.


Simsbury resident Dick Ahles is a retired journalist. Email him at

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