Term of Award

Spring 2011

Degree Name

Master of Arts in History (M.A.)

Document Type and Release Option

Thesis (open access)

Copyright Statement / License for Reuse

Creative Commons License
This work is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution 4.0 License.


Department of History

Committee Chair

Johnathan O'Neill

Committee Member 1

Lisa Denmark

Committee Member 2

Solomon Smith


Interpretations of the Second Amendment's original meaning encompass two extremes: an "individual rights" interpretation which argues that it protects each person's right to own and use weapons for any non-criminal purpose; and a "collective rights" interpretation which asserts that it protects only the states' right to maintain a National Guard force. Both positions cater to contemporary political agendas, display excessive presentism, lack lucid historical analysis, and ignore federalism and its bearing on the Second Amendment's original meaning. This thesis uncovers the ideological and historical origins of the right to keep and bear arms and interprets the original meaning of the Second Amendment in the context of the ratification debates and the Bill of Rights. Antifederalists opposed any expansion of national authority over military power, fearing it would create a monster willing and able to destroy the people's rights. Federalists argued that the people's militia and America's federalist structure would uniquely preserve liberty. In the end, the Antifederalists succeeded only in slowing, not stopping, the nationalist juggernaut. The ensuing Bill of Rights codified Federalist assumptions about the limits of constitutional power but failed to scale back national jurisdiction. The Second Amendment preserved national power intact but assuaged Antifederalist fears by codifying the Federalists' public arguments in favor of the universal militia and concurrent state jurisdiction over it. This thesis advances a new interpretation of the meaning and purpose of the Second Amendment. The "federalist" interpretation argues that the right to keep and bear arms was an auxiliary right which guaranteed that America's citizens could control their own constitutional destiny by overthrowing oppressors; that the framers intended the Second Amendment to preserve the states' capacity to check potential national oppression with their militias; that the Second Amendment restricted the jurisdiction of the national government by preventing it from disarming American citizens or creating a select militia; and that the amendment's connection with federalism indicates that it did not- and logically cannot -restrict the jurisdiction of the states. The Second Amendment protected individual rights only by preserving the ability of the states to maintain the balance of power vis-à-vis the national government.

Research Data and Supplementary Material