Vital Signs

The Founders' Reading of Ancient History

Why is the Second Amendment under such constant attack? One important reason is the depressing historical ignorance of most Americans, particularly of classical history.

But suppose that modern students were required to read Tacitus, Plutarch, Livy, and other classical historians. The Founders of the American Republic all knew the sad story of the Roman Republic. What the Founders had learned were lessons that illustrate the importance of a virtuous armed populace as an essential check on the inevitable depredations of a central government and its standing army.

Carl Richard's excellent The Founders and the Classics: Greece, Rome, and the American Enlightenment is the first book to examine exactly what the Founders learned from ancient history. Let's look at some of the lessons which illuminate the Second Amendment.

While those who support gun prohibition declare that the Second Amendment is obsolete, the Founders understood that events of many years past could provide useful guidance for the present. John Adams wrote that whenever he read Thucydides and Tacitus, "I seem to be only reading the History of my own Times and my own life."

The Founders did not believe that tyranny should be resisted only passively. Dennis Henigan, lead attorney for anti-gun activist Sarah Brady, claims that anyone who believes that an illegitimate government can be resisted by force under the...

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