Today, it is common to hear people arguing that the militia is the army or National Guard, not the People, themselves. But this is not the understanding the Founders held. To them, the militia was the People. This is not that difficult to prove, either. All one has to do is go back to the time of the founding and read what the Founders wrote.
The first thing we have to understand is that the Founders were much more precise in their use of language than we are today. They used it much the same way as a surgeon uses a scalpel. Furthermore, the Founders valued honor and integrity and the rule of law. They were proud of saying what they meant and meaning what they said. This means they did not play games with their words like we do today. Finally, the Founders wrote in a time when the average person was much more informed and engaged than we are today. Much of what they wrote about lacks specific details because — in their time — the concepts were widely understood. Therefore, the Founders saw no need to explain the definition of every word they used. So, with all of this in mind, let us take a look at the 2nd Amendment.
The 2nd Amendment states:
“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.”
First thing to note is the use of the word, ‘militia.’ The founders did not say ‘army.’ So we can safely assume they are talking about something different from the army. Nor did they provide a definition of ‘militia,’ so we can assume that the Founders assumed the average person would understand what they meant.
Next, they said the right to keep and bear arms is in ‘the people,’ not the Congress or the several States. Here again, the Founders did not provide a specific definition for ‘the people,’ but, this time, it should be clear that they were not talking about government as the representative of the people.
Still, in our modern times, we have an irrational need to hear people say exactly what they meant, and to say it in unambiguous words: words that cannot be misunderstood. Is there anything in the historic record that might help us understand in clear and unmistakable language what the Founders meant by ‘militia’ and ‘the people?’ Yes, there is, and it comes from none other than the co-author of the 2nd Amendment:
“I ask, Sir, what is the militia? It is the whole people. To disarm the people is the best and most effectual way to enslave them.”
— George Mason, Co-author of the Second Amendment during Virginia’s Convention to Ratify the Constitution, 1788
“A militia when properly formed are in fact the people themselves . . . and include all men capable of bearing arms. . . To preserve liberty it is essential that the whole body of people always possess arms… The mind that aims at a select militia, must be influenced by a truly anti-republican principle.”
— Richard Henry Lee, Signer of the Declaration, Additional Letters From The Federal Farmer, 1788
As co-author of the 2nd Amendment, George Mason is the preeminent authority as to its intended meaning, and he is clear and forceful in stating that the militia is ‘the whole of the people.’ As a signer of both The Declaration of Independence and The Articles of Confederation, Lee is equally authoritative on this issue. Their comments are clear: they understood the militia to be the whole of the People, not an agency of the government, and definitely not the army. The Founders means what they said: the militia is the whole of the people — period. So what is ‘the whole of the people?’ If it does not mean every man, woman and child in society, then we’re at a loss as to what it could possibly mean. To interpret it any other way would be to destroy the plain meaning of the words the Founders used — especially when taken in context of the times in which they were written.