When George Washington wrote that “free people ought … to be armed,” he gave us a clue as to the kind of America the Founders envisioned. It was one where the government stayed within its bounds, carrying out its limited duties while leaving the people free to exercise their rights and liberties. Thomas Jefferson spoke to this when he described the “good government” as one that “shall restrain men from injuring one another [and] shall leave them otherwise free to regulate their own pursuits of industry and improvement.” In other words, the “good government” is one that enforces the law, thus preserving order, but otherwise remains within the limited parameters established for it, so that people can go about their business, whatever that business may be.
The Constitution outlined what the government could do and the Bill of Rights outlined what it couldn’t do. This positioned America to be a country of free men with all the rights and liberties befitting those living in freedom. And while this may be 180 degrees out of sync with life as we experience it in America today, it is the way our Founders envisioned things nonetheless.
And it’s important to note that part of the reason for a limited government was our Founders’ goal of keeping government out of the people’s way: of leaving the people room to exercise their rights, one of which was the right to keep and bear arms. In exercising this right, the people not only fulfilled Washington’s maxim, but they actually complemented the work the government was doing in preserving the civic integrity of the republic.
In other words, by being armed, free people helped defend “life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness.”
Our Founders understood that every natural right has a corresponding duty. So it wasn’t just that the people were free to keep and bear arms, they were actually expected to do so. Or to put it another way: because free men possessed a right to life, they also possessed a duty to defend their life. Therefore, while the government was handling matters like foreign policy, the armed citizen would defend his own life, the lives of his family members, and his possessions.
When, in history, we come across a people who were disarmed by their respective governments, it’s easier to understand and appreciate the vision and foresight of our Founding Fathers: easier to understand why we “ought … to be armed.”
For example, during the 1930s Mahatma Gandhi bemoaned the fact that Great Britain had forcibly disarmed his people. He saw it as not simply a denial of the right to possess a weapon but as something that cut much deeper: “Spiritually, compulsory disarmament has made us unmanly … has made us think we cannot look after ourselves or put up a defense against foreign aggression, or even defend our homes and families.”
In the end, this is the lesson: disarmed people aren’t free. And rather than handling their own business and protecting their own lives and property, they have to depend on agents of the state to do these things for them.
AWR Hawkins is a conservative columnist who has written extensively on political issues for HumanEvents.com, Pajamas Media, Townhall.com, and Andrew Breitbart’s BigPeace.com, BigHollywood.com, BigGovernment.com, and BigJournalism.com. He holds a Ph.D. in U.S. military history from Texas Tech University, and was a visiting fellow at the Russell Kirk Center for Cultural Renewal in the summer of 2010. Follow him on Twitter and on Facebook.