PolitiFact Texas: “Contrary to Gohmert’s characterization … Washington was not speaking about citizens arming themselves in case of government tyranny. Quite the opposite: The president and former general was calling for disciplined troops to fight on behalf of the government.”
PolitiFact Texas builds a dandy straw man in honor of Rep. Louie Gohmert (R-Texas).
The line from Gohmert came from a Fox News segment hosted by Chris Wallace:
WALLACE: Why does the average person — I can understand a hunting rifle, I can understand (inaudible), why do they need these weapons of mass destruction?
GOHMERT: Well, for the reason George Washington said a free people should be an armed people. It ensures against the tyranny of the government. If they know that the biggest army is the American people, then you don’t have the tyranny that came from King George. That is why it was put in there, that’s why once you start drawing the line, where do you stop?
PolitiFact relates Gohmert’s reference to Washington to the latter’s first annual address:
But a Web search led us to a similar statement that Washington made in the first State of the Union address, Jan. 8, 1790: “A free people ought not only to be armed, but disciplined.”
Washington’s context was the national defense:
Among the many interesting objects which will engage your attention that of providing for the common defense will merit particular regard. To be prepared for war is on e [sic] of the most effectual means of preserving peace.
A free people ought not only to be armed, but disciplined; to which end a uniform and well–digested plan is requisite; and their safety and interest require that they should promote such manufactories as tend to render them independent of others for essential, particularly military, supplies.
PolitiFact interviewed four experts. Ron Chernow wrote a biography of Washington that garnered Chernow a Pulitzer Prize. John Woolley of the University of California-Santa Barbara co-founded the American Presidency Project. Edward Lengel serves as editor-in-chief of the Papers of George Washington at the University of Virginia. Mary Thompson serves as research historian at Washington’s home, Mount Vernon.
Analyzing the Rhetoric
PolitiFact Texas builds its fact check around “Gohmert’s characterization” of Washington’s remarks but takes liberties with what Gohmert actually said. Gohmert did not allege that Washington used his address to Congress to say that an armed citizenry was a bulwark against a tyrannical domestic government. Gohmert referenced one single part of Washington’s statement, implying that portion of the statement reflected Washington’s belief.
To illustrate, consider the statement “These oranges are rotten and smell bad, therefore we should throw them at Mr. Smith.” The statement, in context, is not emphasizing the condition of the oranges but a recommendation for action: throwing them at Mr. Smith. The condition of the oranges provides a foundation for some implicit reasoning behind throwing them at Mr. Smith.
PolitiFact Texas, by analogy, ends up assuming that Washington only mentions the rotten condition of the oranges to emphasize that we should throw the oranges at Mr. Smith. In reality, Washington could have had additional reasons for using the line. PolitiFact’s reasoning fits the pattern of the fallacy of composition: Since the whole of Washington’s statement, in context, refers to measures of national defense therefore each part of the statement refers to such measures.
The almost-missing context
The background of the Second Amendment ends up almost completely invisible in PolitiFact Texas’ telling. The argument that an armed populace served as bulwark against domestic tyranny was ubiquitous if not universally accepted during the Revolutionary period. Americans used the concept in reverse to make it illegal for slaves to bear arms. Historians and legal scholars alike argue that federalists and anti-federalists accepted the basic utility of an armed citizenry for preservation of liberty and national defense but differed on the issue of keeping a standing army in addition.
James Madison serves as a case in point, highlighted in the book “The Militia and the Right to Arms, Or, How the Second Amendment Fell Silent”:
In Federalist 46, Madison addressed head-on the radical anti-federalist fear that the national army might serve a tyrant’s designs of conquest and empire. In doing so, he conceded frankly the checking value of the general militia within the federal system.
Madison, like Washington, favored keeping a standing army.
Alexander Hamilton, another Federalist who favored a strong national government and whose efforts to ensure a standing federal army under the Constitution exceeded Washington’s, likewise acknowledged the role of an armed populace in stopping the standing army from eroding domestic liberty:
The smallness of the army renders the natural strength of the community an overmatch for it; and the citizens, not habituated to look up to the military power for protection, or to submit to its oppressions, neither love nor fear the soldiery; they view them with a spirit of jealous acquiescence in a necessary evil, and stand ready to resist a power which they suppose may be exerted to the prejudice of their rights.
The army under such circumstances may usefully aid the magistrate to suppress a small faction, or an occasional mob, or insurrection; but it will be unable to enforce encroachments against the united efforts of the great body of the people.
On what basis do we conclude that Washington disagreed with Madison and Hamilton that a militia serves as a check on domestic tyranny?
PolitiFact Texas flirts with the issue, leaving a misleading impression with its quotation of Lengel:
Edward Lengel, editor in chief of the Papers of George Washington project at the University of Virginia, told us by email, “Washington never said, to my knowledge, anything about arms providing a safeguard against any so-called ‘tyranny’ of government.’”
It’s hard to find the word “tyranny” at all in Washington’s writings. Yet doubtless Washington was familiar with tyranny conceptually as he railed against wrongs perpetrated by the British against America. Considering the historical context, we would fall prey to the fallacy of argument from silence to take Washington’s supposed silence as evidence he rejected citizens’ possession of arms as a check on the tyrannical turn of an established government.
Before the revolutionary war began, Washington wrote to George Mason:
At a time when our lordly Masters in Great Britain will be satisfied with nothing less than the deprivation of American freedom, it seems highly necessary that something shou’d be done to avert the stroke and maintain the liberty which we have derived from our Ancestors; but the manner of doing it to answer the purpose effectually is the point in question.
That no man shou’d scruple, or hesitate a moment to use a–ms in defence of so valuable a blessing, on which all the good and evil of life depends; is clearly my opinion; Yet A–ms I wou’d beg leave to add, should be the last resource; the de[r]nier resort.
When Washington wrote the letter there was no United States. There were 13 English colonies under the British government and King George III. Washington wrote, in effect, that Americans should use arms to defend their freedom from the existing government, though as a last resort.
The importance of citizens possessing arms to resist tyranny serves as a major subtext of the American Revolution. PolitiFact Texas camouflages that subtext remarkably well.
More from the Experts
We contacted two of the experts PolitiFact Texas used to see if they agreed that important context was missing from the story and whether they felt PolitiFact Texas had erred with its judgment.
Historian Mary Thompson seemed relatively satisfied with PolitiFact’s reporting, though she said the story made gun ownership seem more commonplace than it was in Revolutionary times and under-emphasized Washington’s preference for a standing army and strong central government.
Fellow historian Edward Lengel steered clear of any criticism of PolitiFact’s presentation, instead offering comments generally in line with the character of PolitiFact’s fact check.
Neither historian’s response acknowledged any missing context of gun ownership rights as a guard against government tyranny.
Asking two other scholars who had written about the original context of the Second Amendment and its role in providing citizens protection from tyranny produced a mixed result.
David T. Konig, a law professor and professor of history at Washington University in St. Louis, strongly affirmed PolitiFact’s judgment:
I must say, with no reservation, that Rep. Gohmert’s interpretation of George Washington’s comments do not stand up to even the most basic scrutiny. The remarks he refers to are actually in Washington’s first State of the Union address in 1790, where he said, “A free people ought not only to be armed but disciplined; to which end a uniform and well digested plan is requisite.”
Joyce Lee Malcolm, historian and a professor of law at George Mason University Law School, strongly condemned PolitiFact’s judgment (emphasis in the original):
Even though Washington wanted a stronger government than that provided under the Articles of Confederation and favored maintaining an army as well as a citizen militia he felt, as all the founders did, that an armed people was essential for liberty. Therefore the statement by Rep. Louis Gohmert was in fact correct, it had nothing to do with the immediate context but was part of a long tradition.
The experts disagree. We’ve addressed the problem this poses for fact checking journalists. If the fact check is to avoid the “he said-she said” model, the journalist needs to somehow pick a winner. We have no basis for thinking our limited survey represents an expert consensus on the fact check issue. While we’re not opposed in principle to “he said-she said,” we think the evidence, on balance, provides support for Gohmert. And providing reasoning based on the evidence stands as the only legitimate method for ruling on a disagreement between experts.
We’ll provide the short version of the reasoning below and a longer version in a separate post coming in February. Also read my full interview with Mary Thompson where she makes a case for viewing Washington as an advocate for a strong national government (with Second Amendment implications).
Tracking the Evidence
Consensus exists on one point: Providing for a state militia was seen by the framers, in part, as a bulwark against tyranny. It was also viewed as a bulwark against domestic insurrection and foreign aggression.
For many, this fact would make Rep. Gohmert flatly correct and prompt puzzlement that any experts would insist Gohmert was wrong. We think experts probably object to Gohmert’s underlying argument, which they see as promoting an “insurrection theory” of the Second Amendment associated with an individual right to bear arms.
Under the insurrectionary view, the right to bear arms as well as the right to revolution belong to the individual. Critics charge that the insurrectionary view leads to chaos as individuals may resist the government for all kinds of reasons. Critics also claim the insurrectionary view makes poor sense of the Second Amendment grammatically and historically.
Again, however, expert opinion divides on the issue. We argue the disgreement largely accounts for experts’ differing assessments of Rep. Gohmert’s statement.
If Washington did not share the insurrectionary view of the right to bear arms then Gohmert cannot rightly claim that Washington held to that view. Modern opponents of the “insurrectionist view” claim the notion was foreign to the framers.
But Gohmert did not specifically promote the insurrectionary view. Rather, his statement supporting individual ownership of semi-automatic handguns was consistent with collective gun rights such as we find in the 1780 version of Massachusetts’ state constitution:
Article XVII. The people have a right to keep and to bear arms for the common defence. And as, in time of peace, armies are dangerous to liberty, they ought not to be maintained without the consent of the legislature; and the military power shall always be held in an exact subordination to the civil authority, and be governed by it.
The right to keep and bear arms in Massachusetts was not legally contingent on the existence of any organized state militia. It was a right held by the people. Article XVII specifies the danger to liberty of an army even under the control of the domestic government. Massachusetts’ right to bear arms agrees with Gohmert’s stated conception of gun rights as a right held by the people against the tyranny of government.
As to George Washington, the weight of the evidence better supports the view that he viewed the right to bear arms as a check on tyrannical government in addition to its role in defending against external threats. As discussed above, that view was typical in the Revolutionary era. Washington held the trust of other revolutionary leaders in part because his political views fell firmly in the mainstream. On an issue where federalists and anti-federalists agreed we need firm evidence to place Washington’s views outside the mainstream. We don’t appear to have that evidence.
If Washington viewed an armed population as a check on government tyranny then Gohmert’s reference to Washington was reasonable even if Gohmert did it to implicitly promote an “insurrectionist view” of gun rights since Gohmert’s is claiming a motivation like Washington’s rather than a policy recommendation like Washington’s. We do not find it at all obvious that Gohmert was promoting the “insurrectionist view” with his claim.
It’s worth emphasizing that the framers did not view the federal government as tyrannical under the system they instituted. Second Amendment rights, to the extent they protected against government tyranny, were to protect against a usurpation of power that effectively removed representation from the populace, as might occur in a military coup.
“Contrary to Gohmert’s characterization … Washington was not speaking about citizens arming themselves in case of government tyranny.”
PolitiFact Texas’ apparent interpretation requires we grant maximal charity and creates a straw man.
“Quite the opposite: The president and former general was calling for disciplined troops to fight on behalf of the government.”
While it is true without charitable interpretation that Washington called for militias to fight on behalf of the government, the suggestion that the position is the “opposite” of opposing domestic tyranny doesn’t follow except with maximal charity applied. The militia filled both roles.
The PolitiFact Texas story distorted the issue by totally obscuring the framers’ overwhelmingly well-documented recognition of an armed populace as a check against government tyranny. Washington almost certainly agreed, and his first annual address as president serves as a supporting evidence where he said a free people ought to be armed.
Contrary to the claim from PolitiFact Texas, Washington was recognizing with his statement that an armed populace serves to protect the people from a tyrannical government.
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