What Would The Founders Do Today?


This is where the Second Amendment came from. But several complications must be added. Blackstone is a tricky oracle, for the only absolute in his world is legislative supremacy; what he gives to freedom with the right hand he is always willing to take back with the left, so long as the legislature (or Parliament) agrees. The right of “having arms,” he acknowledges, is subject to “due restrictions … such as are allowed by law.”

How can Blackstone’s “natural right of resistance” find a place in the Constitution in any case? It is the starting point of the Declaration of Independence, which opens with a recipe for just revolution. But how can the laws say when they should be overthrown? If things have reached that point, it’s time to clear the decks and not worry about the Bill of Rights.

Was the Second Amendment, then, a bulwark of liberty or a pious irrelevance? The framers of the Constitution doubted that any Bill of Rights was necessary, which was why they left it out. Under the Constitution power would derive from the people; how could the people oppress themselves? But Madison became midwife to the Bill of Rights, under pressure from his enemy Patrick Henry and prodding from his friend Jefferson. Jefferson, the amateur architect, saw a bill of rights as a useful structural prop. “A brace the more will often keep up [a] building which would have fallen” without it, Jefferson wrote Madison. Some Founders believed passionately in the Second Amendment and the other nine. The rest put up with them.

Guns were a fact of the Founders’ everyday lives. The cerebral Jefferson, in one of those sweetly pompous letters of advice that he loved sending his younger relatives, recommended taking walks with a gun. “While this gives moderate exercise to the body, it gives boldness, enterprise and independence to the mind. Games played with a ball … are too violent for the body, and stamp no character on the mind.” So much for baseball, already being played in early forms. “Let your gun, therefore, be the constant companion of your walks.”

One special type of gun was known to many of the Founders even though its use was illegal: the dueling pistol. Although Hamilton owned a fowling piece, he did not own dueling pistols, so when Vice President Aaron Burr challenged him to a duel for a political insult in the spring of 1804 he had to borrow a set from his brother-in-law. The pistols were made by the London gunsmith Robert Wogdon, the finest practitioner of his art. They were .544 caliber, meaning their bullets had a diameter of just over half an inch. The barrels were unrifled, but their careful balancing made the pistols accurate at the short distances of dueling. Burr’s bullet pierced Hamilton’s abdomen, and he died of spinal shock after 36 hours of agony. Burr was indicted for murder, but the prosecution lapsed, for no jury would convict a gentleman who had defended his honor.

The Founders lived among guns; they would never make them illegal; they would subject them to necessary laws, following Blackstone. And as in the duel that put Hamilton in his grave, they broke their own laws when honor demanded it.

How would the Founders fight the war on drugs?

Every time I talk about George Washington to an audience that is younger than the members of AARP, I get the following question: Did Washington grow hemp at Mount Vernon? This irrepressible query is asked by potheads, who know that the answer is yes and want me to say so publicly. One enthusiast, after a talk, gave me one of those modified dollar bills with i grew hemp stenciled over Washington’s head.

What I tell the hopeful is that Washington indeed grew hemp but that he grew it for fabric. The master of Mount Vernon was a meticulous farmer, and if he had found an additional intoxicating or medicinal use in any of his crops, he would have recorded it.

Opium was used as a medicine and was known to be addictive, and cranky Founders sometimes accused each other of being in its thrall. John Adams, the crankiest Founder, thought Alexander Hamilton relied on opium to get him through long speeches, while Gouverneur Morris, the sunniest Founder, who nevertheless deeply disliked James Madison, wondered if Madison was an opium addict. Both stories were preposterous.

The drug of choice in late-eighteenth-century America was alcohol. Franklin compiled a list of 128 phrases meaning “He’s drunk” (from “He’s pissed in the brook” to “He’s eaten a toad and a half for breakfast” to “He’s mellow”). In a more exalted mood, he cited wine as a mark of divine benevolence. In the miracle at Cana, Jesus converted water into wine (John 2:1–11). “But this conversion,” wrote Franklin, “is, through the goodness of God, made every day before our eyes. Behold the rain which descends from heaven upon our vineyards; there it enters the roots of the vines, to be changed into wine; a constant proof that God loves us, and loves to see us happy. The miracle [at Cana] was only performed to hasten the operation.” When George Washington ran for the Virginia House of Burgesses, he treated voters to drinks. (This was illegal but universally practiced.) The Washington campaign served 28 gallons of rum, 50 gallons of rum punch, 38 gallons of wine, 46 gallons of beer, and 2 gallons of cider, no doubt hard, for a total of 164 gallons of alcohol. There were 396 voters. Washington won.