The Right to Bear Arms.No act of the National government during the late civil war was fraught with more important consequences than the enlistment of negro troops. Nearly two hundred thousand of these were actually in service, and did well for their country, a country which by that act, for the first time in her history, acknowledged them us her people. Most of them were raised in the South, in the very worst of all the rebellious States, where their masters were in the field doing their utmost to destroy the republic, and they were liberated from their fetters to go out like the Greek bondmen in Persian war, and fight the battles of freedom. It was a bold step to make soldiers of such men in a region where they had been so long held to belong to an inferior race, and against their own oppressors. But it was a successful one. The stubborn prejudices of northern whites gave way, and recognized these black soldiers as brethren in a good cause, while even southern contempt was overcome, and the negro raised himself immeasurably in the eyes of the southern whites by fighting against them, and fighting well, too.
The real importance of the act, however, lay in the recognition thus afforded of the right of the blacks to bear arms, always disputed previously, notwithstanding the guarantees of the national Constitution. Not only were they conceded the right to bear arms, but arms were placed in their hands, the national uniform on their bodies, the national colors confided to their care, and they were ranked and paid as soldiers of the republic. This service performed and the need of their aid no longer existing, it now seems that the government chooses to ignore both them and their rights. The very men who were deemed fit to be soldiers of the Union are now disarmed by rebel State officials all over the South, acting by the connivance of Andrew Johnson and his reactionary cabal. This is no guess work. The statements rest upon military authority, and prove conclusively that those who fought for the Union when it was in peril are now allowed to be disarmed by disbanded rebel troops who have seized possession of the State powers, elected each other to office, and are now engaged in endeavoring to crush out all unionism both of blacks and whites.
The second articles of the amendment made to the Constitution in 1789 says explicitly that "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 infringed." Now what is here meant by "the people?"--Webster defines it as "the body of persons who compose a community, town, city or nation; the vulgar, the mass of illiterate persons; the commonalty as distinct from men of rank; persons in general," and so on. Whichever one of these definitions we take, not a black person in the South, or anywhere else in the country, can be excluded under it from the right to bear arms, though the rebel oligarchs who are now engaged in
disarming them could be.
Recurring, however to the language of the Constitution, we find that it couples this great right with the necessity for a militia, showing obviously enough that the people to be allowed to keep and bear arms are those of whom a militia can be composed. Of course, we shall here be answered that the militia is a State institution, regulated by State laws, and as no blacks are included in it by the laws of the Southern States, none of them are designed by this article of the Constitution. Why, then, does the Constitution deem it necessary to throw this safeguard around it? If the militia be wholly a State institution, why should national Constitution look after it thus? Moreover, if the militia belong wholly to the State, where is the republic to look for soldiers when the State orders the militia to rebel?
This is exactly what led so many southern Union men to sustain their States in rebellion. They hold the theory that the militia belonged of right to the State, and were bound to obey the orders of the State authorities even against those of the national government. When the conscription act was passed, the national authority took complete possession of all the arms-bearing population of the country. Where, then, was the State authority over the militia? If that authority had been superior the conscription act never could have been enforced, and the war must have been arrested for the want of men. To recognize the rebel theory now as valid would render us liable to this difficulty hereafter.
But if the negroes be not included in the militia, they are peculiarly the "people" of the nation, and under the words of the Constitution are entitled to bear arms. This is clear from the fact that they have so borne arms as soldiers of the republic. We find, then, that while the rebel State officials cling to their theories and demand and enforce the constitutional right of the white people of the South to bear arms, the national government abandons entirely the protection of those who are acknowledged to be peculiarly its charge, and who were its best friends at the South during the War. This Andrew Johnson does, we presume, on the principle that his duty is to protect the rebels and not the freedmen, for on no other theory can we account for his conduct.
But if these freedmen are not 'people' within the view of this article of the Constitution, they cannot be held to be 'persons' within the view of the article which prescribes ho[w] representatives in Congress shall be apportioned. If they are 'persons' at all, they clearly belong to the 'militia,' no matter what any one may say to the contrary. Whenever called upon to defend the State against invasion their refusal would avail them nothing, they would be obliged to serve. It is worthy of notice here that Gen. Lee strenuously urged the rebel government to arm the negroes and the question, of doing so was undecided when the confederacy fell. Gen Butler proved by rebel records that in Louisiana, the very State where the negroes are now being disarmed by rebels, they were during the war armed, enlisted and regularly trained as rebel troops.
Thus, however we regard this question we see but one conclusion--that the negroes of the South have the constitutional right to keep and bear arms. If they have not, then they cannot constitutionally be counted all in apportioning representatives to the South. If they have not, then no one south but a rebel has the right to bear arms, and the men whom we used for our own purposes in the war must be abandoned. In guaranteeing this inestimable popular right, the Constitution intended that men should use the arms to defend their homes and then families against oppression.
No class in the country stands more in need of such protection than the freedmen of the south, and it is exactly because the rebels know this that they deprive them of arms. We hold that in permitting this to be done Andrew Johnson has been grossly derelict to his duty, and in this respect, as in so many others, he has shown that while perpetually prating about the Constitution he totally disregards its most invaluable provisions. He has allowed the southern negroes to be disarmed, knowing as he did that if so disarmed the scheme to reduce them to a state of abject peonage could not be resisted by them. Whether this was accidental or not on his part may be seen by the fact that at the same time he did this he resisted to the uttermost the extension of civil rights to the freedmen, whereby they could peaceably defend their interests with some chance of success in courts of law and justice. The disarmament of the blacks is manifestly part of the general reactionary scheme.[American Citizen, Butler, Butler County, PA., Wednesday, November 7, 1866. Volume 3. Number 47 Pg. 4]