The usual insurrectionist narrative on the Second Amendment goes somewhat like this: Anti-Federalists feared that the federal government (especially its standing army) would become a tyranny. Federalists reassured them that this would not happen because the citizens were armed and would be able to resist such usurpation. Anti-Federalists expressed the fear that the federal government would take their guns away so the citizens would not be able to resist. Federalists therefore agreed on the Second Amendment, that would forbid such a measure.
To address the extent to which this was so, it is necessary to look beyond the more usual sources such as Madison's notes from the Constitutional Convention and the Federalist Papers. I therefore turn to Bernard Bailyn's The Debate on the Constitution: Federalist and Antifederalist Speeches, Articles and Letters During the Struggle Over Ratification. This is a two-volume compilation of just what it says, running to nearly 2000 pages. It is nowhere close to everything out there. The largest compilation of debate on the ratification of the Constitution runs to about 50,000 pages, so Bailyn's book is at most about 4% of the debate. However, even taking just 4% of the debate, a lots of the authors on both sides are saying the same things. Then as now, certain talking points got circulated over and over by the same team. It seems reasonable to assume, then, that Bailyn presents a fair overview of the mainstream views on ratification, pro and con, with a few weird or fringy views thrown in for good measure.*
Looking over Bailyn's compilation, then, there is no doubt that Anti-Federalists greatly dreaded a standing army as a threat to liberty. It is also true that it was a common Federalist talking point to argue that the armed citizens could resist any usurpations by such an army. So how did Anti-Federalist reply to that? For the most part, they didn't. Throughout the entire volume, I saw a grand total of two answers to the argument that the citizens and the states would prevail in an armed showdown with the federal government.
One was by "Brutus," the leading Anti-Federalist pamphleteer in New York. Indeed, the Federalist Papers can fairly be seen as an ongoing dialogue between "Publius" and "Brutus," albeit a very uneven one, with Publius writing a whopping 85 letters, as opposed to Brutus' mere 16. "Brutus" somewhat obliquely addressed the issue of armed rebellion in No. 10. This letter expresses Brutus' fear of a standing army in time of peace. He fears either that the army may be used by people in power to impose their will, or that it may overthrow the constitutional government altogether and establish a military dictator. Brutus concedes that unilateral disarmament is not a good policy, and therefore that armies cannot be safely banned altogether. He proposes, instead, to allow only the minimum force necessary to guard the borders, with additional troops permitted only in an emergency and only by a 2/3 vote. Brutus then makes clear that he does condone raising temporary forces to deal with invasions and rebellions, such as the recent rebellions in Massachusetts and Pennsylvania. Speaking specifically of Pennsylvania, Brutus says, "[A] number of armed men had levied war against the authority of the state, and openly avowed their intention of withdrawing their allegiance from it." In other words, the Anti-Federalist Brutus no more condones rebellion than the Federalists Hamilton and Madison. As for what amounts to the right of revolution, Brutus says:
It is farther said, that no danger can arise from this power being lodged in the hands of the general government, because the legislatures will be a check upon them, to prevent their abusing it.
This is offered, as what force there is in it will hereafter receive a more particular examination. At present, I shall only remark, that it is difficult to conceive how the state legislatures can, in any case, hold a check over the general legislature, in a constitutional way. The latter has, in every instance to which their powers extend, complete controul over the former. The state legislatures can, in no case, by law, resolution, or otherwise, of right, prevent or impede the general government, from enacting any law, or executing it, which this constitution authorizes them to enact or execute. If then the state legislatures check the general legislatures [sic], it must be by exciting the people to resist constitutional laws. In this way every individual, or every body of men, may check any government, in proportion to the influence they may have over the body of the people. But such kinds of checks as these, though they sometimes correct the abuses of government, oftner destroy all government.Brutus, in other words, wants some sort of state veto on federal laws. He does not want states to counter federal power by fomenting rebellion because he believes it carries the danger of anarchy. And he generally seems to think the same of private citizens formenting rebellion.
The other source is in a speech by Melancton Smith, the leader of the Anti-Federalists at the New York ratification convention. As part of a general argument that the federal government would be more powerful than the states, Smith said:
But the whole reasoning of the gentlemen [Hamilton] rests upon the principle that the states will be able to check the general government, by exciting the people to opposition: it only goes to prove that the state officers will have such influence over the people as to impel them to hostility and rebellion. This kind of check, I contend, would be a pernicious one, and certainly ought to be prevented. Checks in government ought to act silently, and without public commotion. I think that the harmony of the two powers should by all means be maintained: if it be not, the operation of government will be baneful; one or the other of the parties must finally be destroyed in the conflict. The constitutional line between the authority of each should be so obvious, as to leave no room for jealous apprehensions or violent contests.In other words, Smith does not want to prevail in an armed confrontation with the federal government. He wants to avoid such a confrontation in the first place. He recognizes that keeping government in line by the threat of violence leads to civil war and quite probably a ruinous outcome. If only our insurrectionists of today had equally good sense!
Since "Brutus" and Melancton Smith make the same point about the undesirability of states checking the federal government by inciting rebellion against it, and since both are New Yorkers, the obvious question is whether Melancton Smith was, in fact, Brutus. Most scholars apparently believe not, and think instead that "Brutus" was Robert Yates, a New York judge and delegate to the Constitutional Convention.
These, it should be noted, are the only responses at all within a 2000 page volume by any Anti-Federalist to the common Federalist argument that the people and the states would prevail in an armed confrontation with the federal government, and both give essentially the same answer -- they want to prevent, not win, such a confrontation. Other Anti-Federalist writings discuss the topic of rebellion, but all agree with the Federalists -- that rebellion is an even to be suppressed.
And ultimately, actions speak louder than words. I will next get to actual armed rebellions throughout our history.