Sharron Angle and the Second Amendment

Via the Las Vegas SunArmed revolt part of Sharron Angle’s rhetoric.

From the piece:

U.S. Senate candidate Sharron Angle seemed to raise that specter in three interviews in the past six months, suggesting that some would seek “Second Amendment remedies” if Congress isn’t reined in.

She said the purpose of the right to bear arms is to check the federal government. But she stopped short of saying that she would support an armed uprising.

“Our Founding Fathers, they put that Second Amendment in there for a good reason, and that was for the people to protect themselves against a tyrannical government,” Angle told conservative talk show host Lars Larson in January. “In fact, Thomas Jefferson said it’s good for a country to have a revolution every 20 years. I hope that’s not where we’re going, but you know, if this Congress keeps going the way it is, people are really looking toward those Second Amendment remedies.”

Now, I am not going to operate from the perspective that she is actually advocating armed rebellion—although I will say that one could take the plain meaning of her words as such.  At a minimum, these are fairly extreme views.

However, I will take serious issue with the notion that the Second Amendment was written to empower the people against the power of the federal government.   As I wrote in a similar context recently:  “Considering everything that the political class of the day did to unify the states, this claim is absurd on its face and demonstrates a gross misunderstanding of our history and our constitution.”  It really makes no sense and while I know a lot of people accept the mythology that the Second Amendment exists primarily to ward off tyranny, the notion that  the  Founders wanted an armed citizenry for the express purpose of protecting those citizens from their own government, which they had just founded with much blood, seat and tears, makes no sense.  Why create the thing in the first place if one of the first acts of that government is to prepare the population for armed armed insurrection?

To square that circle one has to explain, amongst other things, the Whiskey Rebellion (i.e., the fact that locals reacted against a federal tax and Washington himself rode out to put it down), not to mention the whole Civil War.  If the purpose of the Second Amendment is to allow localities the right to put up armed resistance to perceived injustices from the federal government, then why did Washington put down the Whiskey Rebellion and why did Lincoln go to war with the CSA?

Other posts on this subject/related thereto:

FILED UNDER: 2010 Election, US Politics, , , , , , , ,
Steven L. Taylor
About Steven L. Taylor
Steven L. Taylor is a Professor of Political Science and a College of Arts and Sciences Dean. His main areas of expertise include parties, elections, and the institutional design of democracies. His most recent book is the co-authored A Different Democracy: American Government in a 31-Country Perspective. He earned his Ph.D. from the University of Texas and his BA from the University of California, Irvine. He has been blogging since 2003 (originally at the now defunct Poliblog). Follow Steven on Twitter


  1. JKB says:

    Way to strawman an argument. While many speak of it that way, the RTKBA never meant that you could roll out the firearms for every government decision you disagreed with. But if the courts were not open, if president and/or congress were endangering the people, yes, the right of rebellion exists. Of course, it is a natural right, a part of self defense. Self defense at least within your own lands is the real purpose of RTKBA. The Founding Fathers remembered all to well the British disarming the populace in order to render it subservient. It should be remembered for all their idealism at the nation’s birth, there were some revolutionary growth pangs as some of the leaders sought to put down dissent with laws such as the Sedition Acts. For all their good, it must be remember that the Founders were men who like all men, wish to retain power.

    As to the Whiskey rebellion, well, there was recourse either through congress or through the courts.

    The Civil War was a bit different since it wasn’t just the federal government running roughshod over the populace but a new definition that once voluntarily joined the States could not voluntarily leave. Basically the United States is like the Mafia, once your in, your in till death.

    Interestingly, the EU is about to go through the same bloodletting, hopefully without the blood. After spending so much time on who can join, they now have to consider how a state can leave, if they can leave and if they can be forced out.

  2. Zelsdorf Ragshaft III says:

    Doug, what part of the Free State and armed militia do you not understand. What do you think keeps this government from imposing its will upon us? It sure as hell is not lawyers like you. People have always had the right to throw of the burdens of government when and if they find that government unresponsive or oppressive. This will tell who you are. What, exactly, in your opinion was the Second Amendment included in the bill of rights for? Why was the last part of that amendment the right of the people to keep and bear arms SHALL NOT BE INFRINGED? If you think that was for personal protection, go back to school.

  3. An Interested Party says:

    “The Civil War was a bit different since it wasn’t just the federal government running roughshod over the populace but a new definition that once voluntarily joined the States could not voluntarily leave. Basically the United States is like the Mafia, once your in, your in till death.”

    Awww…such a shame that the leaders of the southern states weren’t allowed to get away with their treason and take said states out of the union…and for such a lofty goal as holding other human beings as property….what a sad injustice that was perpetrated on the Confederacy…

  4. Alex Knapp says:

    Nice post, Steven, but you neglected to mention that one of the fundamental reasons why the people had the right to bear arms was so that they could be pressed into the militia. Why a citizen militia? Because the Founding Fathers–even across the Federalist/Democratic-Republican divide–were adamantly opposed to standing armies. I wonder what they would make of the absolute veneration of the military that we have today.

  5. zenpundit says:


    This Angle woman sounds like an extremist. However you really need to take a closer look at the subject:.

    “If the representatives of the people betray their constituents, there is then no recourse left but in the exertion of that original right of self-defense which is paramount to all positive forms of government, and which against the usurpations of the national rulers may be exerted with infinitely better prospect of success than against those of the rulers of an individual State. In a single State, if the persons entrusted with supreme power become usurpers, the different parcels, subdivisions, or districts of which it consists, having no distinct government in each, can take no regular measures for defense. The citizens must rush tumultuously to arms, without concert, without system, without resource; except in their courage and despair.

    — Alexander Hamilton, Federalist No. 28”

    “”The advantage of being armed . . . the Americans possess over the people of all other nations . . . Notwithstanding the military establishments in the several Kingdoms of Europe, which are carried as far as the public resources will bear, the governments are afraid to trust the people with arms.”
    – James Madison, Federalist Paper No. 46.

    Hamilton was the Founding Father friendliest to a stronger, centralized government, a powerful executive branch and the existence of standing armies. Madison, of course, is the primary author of the US Constitution as well as the 2nd Amendment.

    The Whiskey Rebellion was put down because the rebels had forced the suspension of operation of courts and local agents like sheriffs. It was a rebellion against both state and Federal authority. It was also put down by negotiation, political persuasion and spectacle rather than force of arms.

    In the case of the Civil War, secessionist rebels seized Federal installations and fired on Fort Sumter. In neither instance, did Washington or Lincoln subsequently consider repealing the 2nd Amendment to get rid of state militias or view armed citizenry as an inherent threat to society. In fact, after the Civil War, we continued to rely on a state militia and national guard structure to fill Army ranks until WWI and attempting to make a larger, more professional Army based on volunteers or conscription met with strong Congressional resistance.

  6. sookie says:

    You’re way off base. The reason the 2nd amendment is in the BOR is because it is expressly a protection to the individual to stave off oppressive government. It wasn’t put there so people could hunt for food, or kill wild and dangerous animals, though that was certainly a side benefit/

    Yes the founders tried to keep the states soveirgn and not under the thumb of the federal government as much as possible while in the process of forming an alliance that would afford us all protection from foreign intrustion.

    In striking that bargain, in order to bring people on board, were a number of specifically individual protections ranging from freedom of speech to unwarranted search, by the federal government. And yes the states didn’t have to comply with these initially. And yes there were a number of founders who feared ‘the people’, just as we have politicians today who fear ‘the people’.

    Then came along 14th amendment and increasingly ruling by ruling, state governments then mostly had to play by the same rules as the fed… well except for the 2nd. But we’re hoping for a SCOTUS ruling soon that takes care of that.

    But clearly there was no small or insignificant number of founders who worried about the tyranny of government. Government at all levels and tried to take steps to protect individuals from government oppression.

    As they say the 2nd protects the 1st.

  7. G.A.Phillips says:

    Every citizen should be a soldier. This was the case with the Greeks and Romans, and must be that of every free state.
    Thomas Jefferson

    hmm, in spirit only?

  8. Alex Knapp says:


    Lest you forget, Alexander Hamilton (a) opposed the Bill of Rights and (b) brought a proposal to the Constitutional Convention that would have abolished state governments…

  9. @Zenpundit:

    There is a difference, however, between asserting the philosophical right to rebel in the face of tyranny–which is Lockean at its core and the predicate for the Declaration of Independence–and saying that the purpose of the Second Amendment is to allow the states to use force to resist policies from the federal government that a state/group of local, don’t like.

  10. Max Lybbert says:

    My problem with Angle’s view is simply that it’s a very good argument for populism run amok (“if we don’t do it, we’ll all die”).

    However, the whole thing is irrelevant. It doesn’t matter what Angle does, because the election is more about Reid than about her. He simply can’t crack 40% approval, and I don’t think there are any more rabbits in his hat. People who have followed politics for years tell me Reid was much more moderate before he became Senate Majority Leader. His recent political shift and the fact that he hasn’t yet stood up to President Obama on any legislation that is unpopular in Nevada (like health care) mean that Angle could make any crackpot statement, have felony charges pending against her, be homeless and still have a pretty good chance of winning in November.

  11. Max Lybbert says:

    As for the purpose behind the Second Amendment: I’ve recently been reading lots British history from the Dark Ages through Age of Enlightenment (and a little French history of the same time period). I can’t help but be surprised at the number of times Jews, Protestants, foreigners and others had their right to keep and bear arms revoked by the Crown. I suspect that the resulting violence against these unarmed groups and the fact that these groups often responded to such violence by getting illegal arms and waging war probably led to the Founding Fathers believing that revoking the right to keep and bear arms was bad policy. Similar to how the Founding Fathers determined that expansive definitions of treason, or heavy handed punishments for treason (corruption of blood), or bills of attainder, or ex post facto laws, etc. were bad policy.

  12. zenpundit says:

    @alex knapp – Uh, yeah, that would make my point *more* forceful and persuasive, not less. If Hamilton was untroubled by “the rabble” being armed, the more radical Founders certainly were. Hamilton is the strong centralized state outlier here.


    There is a difference between resisting tyranny and engaging in armed rebellion, I agree. Governments, to paraphrase Madison, were not composed of angels and the Founders understood this. The second Amendment was another one of there many acts of balancing interests and powers.

    It was conceivable to them that illegal insurrection could arise from an armed populace but they judged tyranny the greater threat over the long term, which is why there were so many Antifederalists and why the Bill of Rights was added, to peel away the opposition to the Constitution from more moderate antifederalists.

    There was also, aside from study of Montesquieu, Locke, Polybius, Livy etc. the practical demonstration during the Revolutionary War of how much more dangerous a well-drilled and disciplined standing army was in an open battle than a volunteer, amateur militia. There were roughly 230,000 colonial militiamen during the Revolutionary War supporting the tiny Continental Army. You needed a large number of militiamen because they were usually poorly armed, liable to flee and unwilling to campaign far from their localities or for more than a brief period of time. Militiamen were better suited to skirmishing and guerrilla tactics than trying to march head on toward the British line. This very lack of discipline and parochial orientation made militia “safer” in political terms than a large standing army.

    This plays out in early Federalist vs. Democratic-Republican debates over defense expenditure and how we conducted military operations during the quasi-war and the War of 1812.

  13. Max Lybbert says:

    As a thought experiment, consider what would likely happen if Congress (or, more likely, some other country) were to revoke the right to keep and bear arms for Muslims — especially Muslim men. The message given to the Muslims would be that they are being disarmed to prevent them from defending themselves. What would their reaction be? What would the most obvious response to that reaction be?

    Given that nearly identical facts dot European history, especially British and French history, I think we have a clear enough reason for the Second Amendment.