Saturday, October 10, 2015

Ben Carson (Mis)Quoting Daniel Webster

Ben Carson was on Charlie Rose last night. Rose tried to press him on some of his statements and Carson wasn't very forthcoming in details. I liked Rose pressing him on the unconstitutionality of Obamacare since it was passed by Congress, signed by the President, and ruled constitutional by the Supreme Court.

Their conversation on gun control (at the 44 minute mark) got me curious. They say:

Rose: When you talk about gun control, you're basically saying as I understand the conversation we had this morning, that the reason the second amendment is so important to you, is because you think people need to have guns in their homes because if the government gets out of control, they will have the opportunity to rebel. Is that a correct understanding of what you said?

Carson: That is one of the reasons for the second amendment. I talk extensively about it starting on page 60 in the new book. It is very clear because Daniel Webster said America will never experience tyranny because the people are armed.

This was obviously recorded on Wed after Carson's appearance on CBS This Morning where he said the same thing.

So I wondered a few things. First, why are we listening to Daniel Webster on the constitution? He wasn't a founding father. He was born in 1782 and was a senator and secretary of state in the mid 1800s. Clearly a constitutional scholar but not a primary source for the constitution.

Then I wondered in what context Webster said this? Google for Daniel Webster and this quote and the first few pages you get are Ben Carson saying this. Go a little deeper and it's hard to find where Webster said this at all. You do find quite a few lists of quotes on gun control. My favorite was the bottom of the wikiquote page on the second amendment, titled Misattributed. Looking for gun control quotes you see the Jefferson ones all over the place. has a page on gun control. Number 73 is interesting:

73 - Before a standing army can rule, the people must be disarmed; as they are in almost every kingdom of Europe. The supreme power in America cannot enforce unjust laws by the sword; because the whole body of the people are armed, and constitute a force superior to any bands of regular troops that can be, on any pretense, raised in the United States.

                                                       Noah Webster, 1888
                    "An Examination into...the Federal Constitution" 1787

Ok, well that's interesting. Apparently on Thursday, Carson was on Wolf Blitzer and attributed it to Noah Webster. So it looks like he's confusing his Websters. Google fight suggests he's been using Daniel more often.

And Noah Webster died in 1843 so I don't know why that page is saying 1888 (I guess you can't always believe what you find on the Internet). It is true that in his 1787 book An Examination into the Leading Principles of the Federal Constitution he did say this. Here's page 43 of it in Google Books.

Another source of power in government is a military force. But this, to be efficient, must be superior to any force that exists among the people, or which they can command; for otherwise this for would be annihilated, on the first exercise of acts of oppression. Before a standing army can rule, the people must be disarmed; as they are in almost every kingdom in Europe. The supreme power in America cannot enforce unjust laws by the sword; because the whole body of the people are armed, and constitute a force superior to any band of regular troops that can be, on any pretense, raised in the United States. A military force, at the command of Congress, can execute no laws, but such as the people perceive to be just and constitutional; for they will possess the power, and jealousy will instantly inspire the inclination, to resist the execution of a law which appears to them unjust and oppressive.

But Noah Webster was arguing that a US standing army couldn't be stronger than a citizen militia. Does anyone still believe this to be the case? And Article I Section 8 gives Congress the power "To provide for calling forth the Militia to execute the Laws of the Union, suppress Insurrections and repel Invasions". So armed insurrections aren't allowed and before we get too far ahead of ourselves the civil war established that succession is illegal too.

Back to Webster, the page before he was arguing that

In some nations, legislators have derived much of their power from the influence of religion, or from that implicit belief which an ignorant and superstitious people entertain of the gods, and their interposition in every transaction of life. The Roman senate sometimes availed themselves of this engine to carry their decrees and maintain their authority. This was particularly the case under the aristocracy which succeeded the abolition of the monarchy. The augurs and priests were taken wholly from patrician families. They constituted a distinct order of men -- had power to negative any law of the people, by declaring that it was passed during the taking of the auspices. This influence derived from the authority of opinion, was less perceptible, but as tyrannical as a military force. The same influence constitutes, at this day, a principal support of several governments on the Eastern continent, and perhaps in South America. But in North America, by a singular concurrence of circumstances, the possibility of establishing this influence, as a pillar of government, is totally precluded.

I wish that were still true. And if I'm supposed to just take Noah's (or Daniel) Webster's word on gun control, should I just take it as well on religion? On the following pages he states as truth that "property is the basis of power", do we still believe this? Do we still argue whether we should have standing armies? Should we still pretend that a citizen militia could combat an armed state? And lets be clear, Noah Webster was no founding father. He edited the Federalist party newspaper. And the Jeffersonians that the Tea Partiers love so much, thought he was loon.

So I'm not going to believe Carson's argument because some Webster said so. I'm going to look at the statement and figure out if it's true. Does arming citizens prevent tyranny in America? I don't think so. I think the strongest military in the world will be successful in putting down any insurrection of citizens armed with handguns, rifles and semi-automatic assault-style weapons. I think a freely elected and representative government keeps us free and I think peaceful demonstrations are far more effective in our system of government.

I think gun control is a difficult issue. I'm fine with most people owning guns for self-protection and sport. I also think guns are too prevalent in our society and some laws to regulate them could reduce our gun violence rate which is an outlier among advanced nations. I'm not sure what those laws are and if they'd do much to avoid many of the recent mass shootings, but it's worth trying something. I do think we have to stop talking about outdated arguments about armed rebellion no matter which Webster or Carson bring them up.

1 comment:

Unknown said...

I enjoyed your blog entry about Websters' (either) arguments about the people needing to be armed in case of military (our own) take-over of our government. I think it is a big factor in the thinking of many gun-rights types. I mentioned it to a European who asked me "why do Americans have so many guns?". She was so surprised when I said, "We don't trust our government."

That aside, I think we'd have many fewer incidents of gun violence if mental health services were really a part of basic health care and if there were far fewer people who felt that seeking out mental health care was a matter of character flaw and more a matter of health care. I think most people don't even know when they need mental health care.

People also need to confront those who really seem to be "on the edge" but I know how difficult that can be. My mother's partner was an angry man who had Alzheimer's Disease. All he wanted was a gun with which to shoot the neighbor's dog. Fortunately, my mother was able to talk him into putting off the purchase for long enough that he forgot he was angry with the dog!