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March 9, 2009

The Duty of Every Individual

The U.S. Senate has always embraced tradition and precedent, and one of the chamber’s great traditions is to read George Washington’s Farewell Address every year on the birthday of our extraordinary first president. This year, the honor of reciting this wonderful speech went to newly-elected Senator Mike Johanns of Nebraska.

Washington’s Address is a remarkable commentary on the virtues of our Constitutional Government which seems as relevant today as it was 212 years ago. In the speech, Washington makes clear our duties and responsibilities as American citizens:

“This Government, the offspring of our own choice, uninfluenced and unawed, adopted upon full investigation and mature deliberation, completely free in its principles, in the distribution of its powers, uniting security with energy, and containing within itself a provision for its own amendment, has a just claim to your confidence and your support. Respect for its authority, compliance with its laws, acquiescence in its measures, are duties enjoined by the fundamental maxims of true Liberty. The basis of our political systems is the right of the people to make and to alter their Constitutions of Government. But the Constitution which at any time exists, till changed by an explicit and authentic act of the whole people, is sacredly obligatory upon all. The very idea of the power and the right of the people to establish Government presupposes the duty of every individual to obey the established Government.”

Indeed, Washington advised American citizens that “your Union ought to be considered as a main prop of your liberty, and that the love of the one ought to endear to you the preservation of the other.”

Listening to the Address again, I couldn’t help but think of the current debate over gun control in America. One of the ideas that has gained great currency among right-wing commentators in our country is that the Second Amendment grants individuals the right to stockpile firearms against our Government and take violent action should it become “tyrannical.” This disturbing argument was advanced by the National Rifle Association (NRA) in its amicus brief in D.C. v. Heller (“The Framers sought to effectuate their purpose of guarding against federal overreaching by guaranteeing the right of the people to keep and bear arms … Arms dispersed among the people would prove far more difficult to confiscate”) and even gained currency with Justice Antonin Scalia, who wrote the majority opinion in the case (“When the able-bodied men of a nation are trained in arms and organized, they are better able to resist tyranny”).

I wonder if Justice Scalia has ever surfed the Internet. If he had, he might have seen comments like this one left on my blog by a pro-gun activist last week:

“The 2nd Amendment was written so that ‘the People’ will NOT be ‘outgunned’ by ANY military/police force, foreign or domestic … Military and police have access to weapons civilians are ‘forbidden’ to own i.e. machine guns etc. How is a civilian with a bolt action rifle or revolver or semi-auto handgun with a magazine restriction supposed to combat against someone else with better weapons and a larger magazine capacity?????”

What would Washington have thought of this insurrectionist chest-beating? Well, his reaction to the Whiskey Rebellion of 1794 provides us with clear answers to that question. The rebellion involved a series of violent attacks on excise agents that were launched by farmers in the western counties of Pennsylvania. The rebels were angered by a new federal tax that had been imposed on whiskey in 1791.

In a proclamation, President Washington described the rebels as “insurgents” and condemned their “overt acts of levying war against the United States.” Nearly 13,000 state militiamen were called up by the president, and they marched into Pennsylvania and quickly quelled the rebellion. The incident, however, was still on President Washington’s mind two years later in his Farewell Address:

“The basis of our political systems is the right of the people to make and to alter their Constitutions of Government ... All obstructions to the execution of the Laws, all combinations and associations, under whatever plausible character, with the real design to direct, control, counteract, or awe the regular deliberation and action of the constituted authorities, are destructive of this fundamental principle, and of fatal tendency. They serve to organize faction, to give it an artificial and extraordinary force; to put, in the place of the delegated will of the nation, the will of a party, often a small but artful and enterprising minority of the community; and, according to the alternate triumphs of different parties, to make the public administration the mirror of the ill-concerted and incongruous projects of faction, rather than the organ of consistent and wholesome plans digested by common counsels, and modified by mutual interests. However combinations or associations of the above description may now and then answer popular ends, they are likely, in the course of time and things, to become potent engines, by which cunning, ambitious, and unprincipled men will be enabled to subvert the power of the people, and to usurp for themselves the reins of government; destroying afterwards the very engines, which have lifted them to unjust dominion.”

Washington’s warning still rings in our ears today as the gun lobby continues to encourage Americans to arm themselves against our Government. Let us hope that our Members of Congress, who pay tribute to our great Founding Father annually, take his words to heart and explore the publicly-stated rationale for opposition to sensible gun laws in this country.


  1. Too bad we disregarded that whole part about avoiding "entangling alliances"...

  2. Extremes whether of thoughts or actions tend to cloud rational considerations or just plain common sense. "Acting in haste, repent at leisure" generally is the end result. Thanks for this opportunity to comment as a 84 yr. senior citizen.

  3. I am currently doing a research project on the second amendment, and after reviewing several books on both sides of the issue, reading several magazine and newspaper articles, and also going to both this and the NRA site i can only conclude that guns are simply tools just like a drill or a car. A tool with a specific purpose perhaps, but still a tool that can be used for violence, defense, or even as a means to provide sport entertainment and food. What i cannot decide (and also what i feel the real issue should be) is can people be trusted with such a tool. Is man as a whole too stupid to handle the responsibility of such powerful machines, or does the population of the world have more people who are responsible thinking people who are able to act with discretion? I think I'll probably finish my paper on a different topic because this one is thoroughly confusing and brings up much more philosophically than just guns or no guns

  4. This person has firearms? I'm even more frightened now by these "extremeists". Why aren't the police doing anything about these people? Clearly after the Alabama incident assault weapons and handguns NEED to removed from the streets for the safety of the people.