Gun rights advocates argue that the founders included the amendment to protect the people from a tyrannical government. To an extent, they are correct. But the founders were concerned about a specific kind of tyranny. They were worried about the same thing that the Parisians were worried about on the eve of the storming of the Bastille: that a despot would order his soldiers to attack the citizens. A citizens’ militia, by replacing the army, could prevent that scenario from happening.
In recent years, the idea of the Second Amendment as a justification for standing up to the government has become more popular. Today’s visions of armed resistance, though, have become unhinged from the Amendment’s 18th-century moorings, in ways that make appeals to “what the founders thought” ring hollow. The story of the storming of the Bastille can help, by showing how an 18th-century “Second Amendment solution” was meant to work and how ideas of military service have changed since the Early Republic.
In early July 1789, France’s National Assembly was less than a month old. It represented a new beginning for a nation accustomed to absolutist rule. When the troops arrived in the region, Parisians believed that the king or someone close to him had ordered them to destroy the Assembly and put an end to France’s Revolution. This, in a nutshell, was the kind of action that the Second Amendment was meant to prevent.
Parisians were unwilling to wait and see what would happen. On July 12, on the initiative of the city’s government, Parisian men began arming and organizing themselves into a militia. “In a well-constituted state,” one city leader told a town meeting, “every citizen is obliged to bear arms in defense of the fatherland.”
By the morning of July 14, 1789, tens of thousands of Parisian men had joined the new militia. They seized guns from a Paris arsenal. Lacking gunpowder and ammunition, they attacked the Bastille prison, which had a large supply inside its walls. The storming of the Bastille had begun.
It had begun, moreover, so that the Parisian citizens, organized into a militia and under local government leadership, could fight against France’s professional army. This, in a nutshell, was the Second Amendment solution, tested two months before the Bill of Rights — and with it, the Second Amendment — would be written, and two years before it would be added to the Constitution.
To be clear, there was no causal link between the storming of the Bastille and the writing of the U.S. Bill of Rights. Both, though, borrowed from the same groups of ideas. Americans were even more fearful than the French of a “standing army” of professional career soldiers. For the founders, such an army was incompatible with a free society, because salaried career soldiers were loyal to their leaders, not to the society they served. Kings or generals could order their soldiers to do anything, including marching on the citizens themselves. That France’s king could order his troops into the Paris region seemed to confirm such fears.
How could a society defend itself, though, without relying on professional soldiers? The 18th-century answer to standing armies was the citizens’ militia, in which all citizens were part-time militiamen. In any other society, freedom existed at the whim of the military leaders, but an armed, trained, and organized society depended only on itself. Hence the militia’s necessity to a free state.
The Second Amendment said all of this in its first 13 words — “A well regulated militia, being necessary to the security of a free state” — without spelling it out as explicitly as it might have. Virginia’s 1776 Bill of Rights made the links clearer: “That a well regulated militia, composed of the body of the people, trained to arms, is the proper, natural, and safe defense of a free state; that standing armies, in time of peace, should be avoided as dangerous to liberty; and that, in all cases, the military should be under strict subordination to, and be governed by, the civil power.” The phrasing was different but the ideas were the same: for a society to be free, there could be no professional army. Citizens had to be soldiers, and soldiers citizens.
At the Bastille, French citizens were putting those ideas into action. Storming the prison began as a means to an end, a way to better prepare Parisians to face off against the army. Once the attackers took over the prison, though, the gunpowder became an afterthought. A multiday celebration began.
Still, the militia formed during the preceding days remained in place. Thomas Jefferson, in France at the time, wrote of “50, or 60,000 men in arms” in Paris. The king ordered his soldiers back to the border.
The people, armed, organized and under the leadership of the local government, had stood up to France’s Royal Army, and the king had backed down. This was the kind of “resistance” to the government that the founders had in mind, and it was a far cry from the kinds of resistance seen — or even proposed — in the United States today.
Over the past two centuries, changes in public perception of the military have made the original vision of the Second Amendment unrecognizable. The nation has moved away from the mandatory militia service that the founders took from granted. As part-time militia service became unpopular among citizens, Americans came to embrace their professional army, and being a career soldier became the highest form of patriotism.
As a result, it has become harder to understand what these “well regulated militias” were and why they were “necessary for the security of the free state.” But the storming of the Bastille serves as a reminder that those who would haul out the founders to defend the modern Second Amendment would do well to remember how much American society has changed since the 1790s.