We the People on the Fourth of July

As I write this article, we are once again at the anniversary of the conception of the United States, the Fourth of July.  I say conception, since the birth itself occurred later when the Constitution was adopted or ratified.  That being a messy set of dates, we generally celebrate in July.  But while we enjoy the parties and fireworks, let’s remember a key word at the heart of our national character:  People.

This word is something new in human history, both in attitude and in effect.  Consider, for example, the following statement in the Magna Carta, the document that sought to secure the liberties of the English people:

TO ALL FREE MEN OF OUR KINGDOM we have also granted, for us and our heirs for ever, all the liberties written out below, to have and to keep for them and their heirs, of us and our heirs.

The king grants a specific list of things he will allow his people to enjoy.  He was forced into this position by the barons—other members of the aristocracy—but the language insists that he is giving concessions that it is his power and choice to give.

By contrast, our two founding documents, the Declaration of Independence and the U.S. Constitution, asserts our nation as an action and a right of the people.

So who are “the people”?  The word itself comes from Latin, populus:  a people, nation; body of citizens; a multitude, crowd, throng.  Its sense as “the masses” first appears in English around the year 1300.  In the 1920s, communist nations began adding “People’s Republic,” which itself is a redundancy, since “republic” is in Latin “a thing of the people.”

I mention the communist usage because that notion—the sense of the word as all of us together, rather than each one of us individually—is the favored meaning among gun control advocates.  In my arguments with them, I often ask, please remind us who is identified in the Second Amendment as having the right to keep and bear arms.  This seems to embarrass them.  Even with the collectivist definition, the sense of individuals in the plural but not submerged into the Whole is still present.

The Constitution uses the word, people, nine times.  The first names us as the founders of our own nation:

We the People of the United States, in Order to form a more perfect Union, establish Justice, insure domestic Tranquility, provide for the common defense, promote the general Welfare, and secure the Blessings of Liberty to ourselves and our Posterity, do ordain and establish this Constitution for the United States of America.

We secure the blessings of liberty, implying that liberty is something that exists prior to the document, rather than being something we grant or create.  The people select members of the House of Representatives who will stand for their states by voting, something participants do individually.  In the Fourth Amendment, the people have the right to be secure in their persons, not merely secure as a group.

We who support gun rights often get accused of placing too much emphasis on this particular exercise of individual choice in our talking about America, but firearms are one part of a total concept that is essential to preserve.  We didn’t declare a new nation with the intention of replacing one absolute power with another.  We started this grand experiment to test the idea that we each are born with rights.  We’ve done this imperfectly, but we are getting better and better at the project, illustrated by the end of slavery and the recognitions that we all have the right to determine our leaders through the vote and to express our love through marriage.  When we celebrate all rights, we defend each one—each right and each one of us.