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Illinois state legislator says he stands by bogus Thomas Jefferson quotation about guns

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Debunking phony quotations, especially those attributed to any of our Founding Fathers, is among my favorite pastimes.

And now an uncommonly delicious opportunity to indulge this hobby has arisen in the form of a challenge from a politician who actually welcomes efforts to disprove a quotation he attributes to Thomas Jefferson.

But first, a little background is in order.

As I’ve noted here on several previous occasions, there’s a notion among some firearms enthusiasts these days that the Second Amendment is intended mainly as a safeguard against an oppressive government.

I’m not talking about ordinary gun-owners or sportsmen or ladies with cute little pistols in their purses.  I’m talking about the beady-eyed, armed-to-the-teeth zealots who have claimed for  years that their personal arsenals are a hedge against a tyrannical government. Some of these guys have sounded almost hopeful in declaring themselves  latter-day Minutemen dedicated to warding off Barack Obama and his gun-grabbing, jackbooted government thugs.

Some of these folks love to pretend that the Founding Fathers themselves viewed the Second Amendment as a safeguard against excesses on the part of the government they had created.

Accordingly, today’s would-be militiamen frequently trot out quotations falsely attributed to the likes of George Washington, James Madison and Thomas Jefferson.

Which brings us to the case of Illinois State Rep. Jim Sacia (above), a Republican from Pecatonica. Sacia’s no militia nut himself, but he seems to subscribe to the nutty theory about the Second Amendment as a hedge against a tyrannical American government.

To wit, Sacia wrote THIS on his Web site the other day:

As your State Representative I have a responsibility to work hard for you which I take very seriously, and if I write or speak, to be very factual.

I do find it humorous that when people resent the fact I’m sucking up good air, they will go to great lengths to discredit me. So be it. When individuals challenge my facts, it would seem only fair that their correction of my facts be correct. Recently my facts were challenged. It is no secret that I strongly support the 2nd Amendment and I’ve written often about it. I’ve given credit to honorable, notable individuals who are like minded.

I quoted from one of our founding fathers and third President of the United States, Thomas Jefferson, who stated, “The strongest reason for the people to retain the rights to keep and bear arms is as a last resort, to protect themselves against tyranny in government.” I stand by it and I challenge you, my readers, to debunk it. Searching far and wide I found far more sources supporting it than denying that he said it. He also said it in many different ways at different times.

You see, the anti-gun folks will go to great lengths to challenge that quote. Jefferson’s comment really gnaws at them.

Well, I’m not a gun-grabber. Nor do I have to rely on any gun-grabbers to refute Sacia’s bogus Jefferson quotations.

Rather, I will link to a pro-gun — repeat: pro-gun — Web site (HERE) that warns against using bogus quotations.

The site has a whole section devoted to bogus quotes attributed to the nation’s Founding Fathers. One example is this passage alleged to have been written by George Washington:

Firearms stand next in importance to the Constitution itself. They are the American people’s liberty teeth and keystone under independence. The church, the plow, the prairie wagon, and citizen’s firearms are indelibly related.

From the moment the Pilgrims landed, to the present day, events, occurrences, and tendencies prove that to ensure peace, security and happiness, the rifle and pistol are equally indispensable.
Every corner of this land knows firearms, and more than 99 99/100 percent of them by their silence indicate they are in safe and sane hands.

The very atmosphere of firearms anywhere and everywhere restrains evil interference; they deserve a place of honor with all that’s good.

When firearms go, all goes; we need them every hour.

And then there’s this one attributed to James Madison:

The right of the citizens to bear arms in defense of themselves and the state shall not be questioned.

And, of course, there’s the one Jim Sacia attributes to  Thomas Jefferson:

The strongest reason for people to retain the right to keep and bear arms is, as a last resort, to protect themselves against tyranny in government.

As we see HERE, a truly authoritative source on Jefferson quotations says the one touted by Sacia appeared in print for the first time just 24 years ago in a newspaper piece written by some guy name Charley Reese. Soon therafter, gun nuts all over the place were attributing the quotation to Jefferson.

If this blog post comes to Sacia’s attention, I eagerly await his response to my acceptance of his challenge.

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14 Comments

  1. Steverino

    I’m surprised Rep Sacia didn’t quote Patrick Henry “Give me liberty or give me an assault rifle.”

  2. Craig Knauss

    Yep, Steverino. We all know the correct quote is “Give me liberty or give me tactical nuclear weapons.”

  3. Pat Cunningham wrote:

    “Some of these folks love to pretend that the Founding Fathers themselves viewed the Second Amendment as a safeguard against excesses on the part of the government they had created.”

    They’re not pretending. They’re correct that the framers of the Constitution included the Second Amendment acknowledging its role in protecting against domestic tyranny. Think about it, Pat. Why does our government have separation of powers? It’s a hedge against tyranny. Why did the Constitution limit the powers of the (federal) government against that of the states and the people? As a hedge against tyranny.

    Certainly the framers were hopeful that the government they designed would not easily veer toward tyranny. On the other hand, the new nation had self-defense to consider. Many of the states had provisions in their constitutions preventing the raising of a standing army (like, say, an Army of Pennsylvania). Those provisions were designed primarily to forestall the threat of a takeover by that standing army (it had happened in England as well as in Europe). The British right to bear arms was a conscious strategy to avoid the necessity of a standing army and use the general population as the primary mode of defense. And it doesn’t work if the general population is unarmed.

    Madison and Hamilton partially justified their arguments for a strong central government (the Federalist Papers) by appealing to the ability of the general population to overpower the federal government if it overstepped its bounds.

    The right to bear arms is the natural extension of the concept of a right to self-government. And if the federalists admitted to the concept the antifederalists loved it.

    All that said, you’re right that the Jefferson quotation doesn’t stand up to scrutiny. But the “last resort” line does recall something George Washington said during the lead-up to the war:

    ” At a time when our lordly Masters in Great Britain will be satisfied with nothing less than the deprivation of American freedom, it seems highly necessary that something shou’d be done to avert the stroke and maintain the liberty which we have derived from our Ancestors; but the manner of doing it to answer the purpose effectually is the point in question.

    That no man shou’d scruple, or hesitate a moment to use a–ms in defence of so valuable a blessing, on which all the good and evil of life depends; is clearly my opinion; Yet A–ms I wou’d beg leave to add, should be the last resource; the de[r]nier resort.”

  4. Bryan White: In rebuttal to your comment, allow me to quote journalist Andrew Reinbach:

    If somebody brings up the first phrase–” A well regulated Militia, being necessary to the security of a free State…” they [the National Rifle Association, et al] insist the militia meant the people at large, and that the idea was to create a counterweight to the central government, so it wouldn’t dare infringe on the people’s rights.

    I’m sorry to have to burst their bubble–well, not really–but the legislative history following the Second Amendment’s passage very clearly supports the opposite of what they say. In 1789, the militia was intended to substitute for a standing Army, and to defend the government from insurrection.

    Congress passed two Militia Acts in 1792. The first created state militias, each under control of that state’s governor, specifically created to resist invasion, and suppress insurrection. The second directed all able-bodied white men between the ages of 18 and 45 to belong to their state militia, own a gun and related equipment for that purpose, and report for duty twice a year. The law even laid out how many bullets each militia member had to bring with him–25 if he owned a musket, 20 if he owned a rifle. After the Civil War the Acts were modified to allow black militia members to belong. In 1903, the state militias were merged with the National Guard.

    Aside from frontier fights with the Indian Nations, the militia was used only twice between 1792 and 1814: Once against the Whiskey Rebellion in western Pa. (led in person by George Washington); and then at Bladensburg, Md., to defend Washington DC against the British (the militia ran at the first volley and the day has been called the Bladensburg Races ever since). There was one use of a militia under the Articles of Confederation; in 1787, Shay’s Rebellion in western Massachusetts was put down by a private militia after Shay’s men attacked the Springfield armory.

    There is no record of any legally-constituted militia “defending the people against a tyrannical government” under the Constitution–acts it would construe as treason, under Article 3, Section 3 (“Treason against the United States, shall consist only in levying War against them, or in adhering to their Enemies, giving them Aid and Comfort.”) The only way to claim otherwise is to use the Civil War as an example. Even then, using state armies that way fit the Constitution’s definition of treason; it was simply expedient after the war to let the matter go.

    Given that, anyone can see that the militia under the Constitution was an instrument of the state from the first, and never meant to safeguard the people from the state. What the NRA is doing is trying to confuse colonial militias–when there was no United States–with militias under the Constitution.

    The record likewise makes clear that personal gun ownership was protected by the Second Amendment as a way to arm the militia. Of course, lots of people owned muskets or rifles then anyway. And in general, most people didn’t care. But a glance at the historical and legislative record explains why the Second Amendment has three clauses in one sentence and can’t be understood without considering all of it–screams from the right notwithstanding.

  5. Pat Cunningham wrote: “In rebuttal to your comment, allow me to quote …”

    The quotation misses the mark. It does not rebut my comment.

    The Second Amendment has its foundation in law in English law and in the state constitutions, as I mentioned above, not in measures drafted subsequent to the Constitution, as your borrowed rebuttal might suggest. Reinbach’s actually arguing against an individual right to bear arms. While that concept is completely compatible with my comment, it isn’t necessary to it. Whiff.

  6. Craig Knauss

    Bryan,

    Most state constitutions are patterned after the U.S. Constitution, not the other way around. Look up their signing dates. And it was the U.S. Constitution that had its foundation as English Common Law. Rights of the individual colonies was the important part of the Articles of Confederation, which was a dismal failure. That’s why the Articles were superseded by the Constitution which has the “Supremacy Clause”.

  7. Bryan: You’ve been drinking too much NRA Kool-Aid.

    Whether you like it or not, the truth is that the Constitution and the Second Amendment were adopted with the goal of creating a strong central government with a citizens-based military force capable of putting down insurrections. The goal was not to enable or encourage uprisings.

    The Second Amendment was intended to allow for the establishment of trained militias to ensure what the Constitution called “domestic Tranquility.” These militias were seen as a practical alternative to a large standing army, which many of the framers opposed on grounds of costs and inherent risks.

    That intention is made clear in the first words of the Second Amendment: “A well-regulated Militia, being necessary to the security of a free State….”

    Today’s right-wingers who see the Second Amendment as a hedge against excesses of the federal government are themselves potential insurrectionists — the kind of people the Second Amendment was intended to guard against.

  8. Craig Knauss

    Pat,

    I think we had the Second Amendment because our founders didn’t trust the British after the Revolutionary War. That distrust was justified, because we ended up fighting the Brits again in 1812.

  9. Craig Knauss wrote: “Most state constitutions are patterned after the U.S. Constitution, not the other way around.”

    Well, yeah, that kind of follows from the fact that most of the states didn’t exist until after the Constitution was ratified. But of the original 13, 11 had post-Declaration of Independence constitutions prior to the drafting of the U.S. Constitution. That would have made it difficult to use the Constitution as a model, I hope you’ll agree.

    http://avalon.law.yale.edu/subject_menus/statech.asp
    http://avalon.law.yale.edu/subject_menus/18th.asp

    Pennsylvania and Vermont even specified that the right to bear arms extended to the purpose of self defense. You can confirm this by exploring the above links.

  10. Pat Cunningham wrote:

    “Bryan: You’ve been drinking too much NRA Kool-Aid.”

    One can’t help but stand in awe of your strict reliance on facts and logic.

    Pat continued:

    “Whether you like it or not, the truth is that the Constitution and the Second Amendment were adopted with the goal of creating a strong central government with a citizens-based military force capable of putting down insurrections.”

    You’re half right.

    The Federalists had their strong government with the initial draft of the Constitution. The anti-Federalists got concessions in the Bill of Rights (the Second Amendment is part of the Bill of Rights) sufficient to enable ratification. That’s part of the importance of the Federalist Papers I mentioned up above.

    “The Second Amendment was intended to allow for the establishment of trained militias to ensure what the Constitution called “domestic Tranquility.””

    The states already had militias dating from before the Revolution. They had them because of British law, as I already pointed out.

    **That the subjects which are Protestants may have arms for their defence suitable to their conditions and as allowed by law**

    http://avalon.law.yale.edu/17th_century/england.asp

    So the purpose of the Second Amendment was to preserve a right Americans had come to take for granted over their entire lives as British subjects. Having it explicitly enumerated assisted with the ratification of the Constitution.

  11. Craig Knauss

    Bryan,
    You’re correct that some colonies had their own constitutions before the U.S. Constitution was writen. That was because there was no strong federal government back then. The first attempt at a federal charter was The Articles of Confederation which created many problems by giving too much power to the individual colonies. That’s why the U.S. Constitution was written complete with the “Supremacy Clause”. Regardless of the sequence, the U.S. Constitution takes precedence over state constitutions.

  12. Craig,
    I agree with what you’ve written in your last response, not least of all because it doesn’t disagree with anything I’ve written.

    Yes, the Constitution holds legal supremacy over state law. But the point I’m making is that the legal genesis for the Second Amendment grew out of British law and the state constitutions. The supremacy of the Constitution has little to do with that, unless you argue that the meaning of the Second Amendment is substantially different from its legal forbears. The semantic justification for that view is thin, particularly in light of the writings of Hamilton and Madison that I pointed out from the Federalist Papers. They were advocates of a strong national government, and the explicitly acknowledged the role of the common people in keeping the national government in check if it overstepped its bounds (that is, engaged in tyranny).

    Hamilton:

    “The smallness of the army renders the natural strength of the community an overmatch for it; and the citizens, not habituated to look up to the military power for protection, or to submit to its oppressions, neither love nor fear the soldiery; they view them with a spirit of jealous acquiescence in a necessary evil, and stand ready to resist a power which they suppose may be exerted to the prejudice of their rights.”

    So, if a general or even the commander in chief of the armed forces decided to use its force of arms to take away the rights of the citizens, Hamilton anticipated that the armed might of the community was sufficient to resist a *small* standing army.

    Hamilton was among those most in favor of a strong central government and a standing army.

    But maybe he was just drinking the NRA Kool-Aid. ;-)

  13. Craig Knauss

    Don’t forget that the Revolutionary War was fought from 1775, just before the Declaration was signed, until 1783 when the Treaty of Paris was signed. During those years, America had no standing army and relied on militias to fight the War. We were trying to protect our new country from the tyranny of the British Crown. Tyranny of our federal government wasn’t much of a concern since it didn’t even exist yet.

  14. Craig, George Washington was the commander of the Continental Army. It was not a “standing army” since it was disbanded once peace was achieved. Keeping the Continental Army assembled after the peace agreement would have made it a standing army.

    The Revolutionary War was fought both by the army supported (weakly!) by the Continental Congress and various state militias. It was Washington’s experience in trying to use militia troops as an adjunct to the Continental Army that made him especially partial to Hamilton’s proposal to establish a standing army. Washington thought militias, by themselves, incapable of providing effective defense against a well-trained foreign army.

    http://www.history.com/this-day-in-history/george-washington-assigned-to-lead-the-continental-army

    States had prohibitions against standing armies because of their awareness of the dangers of standing armies–even an “army of Massachusetts” or an “army of Pennsylvania.” It was not the Revolutionary War that explains the states’ rights to bear arms or their prohibitions against forming a standing army. It was their understanding of their rights under the British legal tradition and their understanding of British and European history that influenced their lawmaking.

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