Over the last several weeks Republican presidential candidate Dr. Ben Carson has offered several statements rooted in his peculiar understanding of history. In so doing he follows in a long line of presidential candidates (coming from both major parties) who make references to historical examples in support of whatever point they wish to make.
Most recently Dr. Carson has been talking a lot about his opposition to gun control measures. He cites history in support of such statements, and most recently has taken to claiming to quote (or paraphrase) Daniel Webster (not to be confused with a current Republican congressman) as saying in effect that what makes tyranny impossible in the United States is that the citizenry is armed.
Understandably, people have wondered what Webster actually said and when and where he said it.
suspect first thought that Dr. Carson is was drawing upon his understanding of Webster’s June 17, 1843 address marking the completion of the Bunker Hill Monument located on the site of the famous battlefield. Webster had spoken at the laying of the cornerstone some eighteen years before, and so this completed the process. One can find the speech here. Or here.
Among other things, Webster declared:
Standing armies are the oppressive instruments for governing the people, in the hands of hereditary and arbitrary monarchs. A military republic, a government founded on mock elections and supported only by the sword, is a movement indeed, but a retrograde and disastrous movement, from the regular and old-fashioned monarchical systems. If men would enjoy the blessings of republican government, they must govern themselves by reason, by mutual counsel and consultation, by a sense and feeling of general interest, and by the acquiescence of the minority in the will of the majority, properly expressed; and, above all, the military must be kept, according to the language of our Bill of Rights, in strict subordination to the civil authority.
You now have the text before you, and so here’s an opportunity to fact-check a presidential candidate. What did Webster say? Does Carson represent his sentiments accurately?
UPDATE: It now appears that Dr. Carson meant Noah Webster, not Daniel Webster, although he credited the former’s sentiments, shared during the ratification debate (and thus before the framing of the Second Amendment) as coming from the Massachusetts senator.
As for what Noah Webster said, go here, then make your way to page 373. Then go to section 6. This is what you will find:
6. It is said there is no provision made in the new constitution against a standing army in time of peace. Why do not people object that no provision is made against the introduction of a body of Turkish Janizaries; or against making the Alcoran the rule of faith and practice, instead of the Bible? The answer to such objections is simply this—no such provision is necessary. The people in this country cannot forget their apprehensions from a British standing army, quartered in America; and they turn their fears and jealousies against themselves. Why do not the people of most of the states apprehend danger from standing armies from their own legislatures? Pennsylvania and North Carolina, I believe, are the only states that have provided against this danger at all events. Other states have declared that “no standing armies shall be kept up without the consent of the legislature.” But this leaves the power entirely in the hands of the legislature. Many of the states however have made no provision against this evil. What hazards these states suffer! Why does not a man pass a law in his family, that no armed soldier shall be quartered in his house by his consent? The reason is very plain: no man will suffer his liberty to be abridged, or endangered—his disposition and his power are uniformly opposed to any infringement of his rights. In the same manner, the principles and habits, as well as the power of the Americans are directly opposed to standing armies; and there is as little necessity to guard against them by positive constitutions, as to prohibit the establishment of the Mahometan religion. But the constitution provides for our safety; and while it gives Congress power to raise armies, it declares that no appropriation of money to their support shall be for a longer term than two years.
Congress likewise are to have power to provide for organizing, arming and disciplining the militia, but have no other command of them, except when in actual service. Nor are they at liberty to call out the militia at pleasure—but only, to execute the laws of the union, suppress insurrections, and repel invasions. For these purposes, government must always be armed with a military force, if the occasion should require it; otherwise laws are nugatory, and life and property insecure.
This sets the context for the remark in question, made in section 9, and to be found on pages 397 and 398 of this document:
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 force 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 pretence, 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. In spite of all the nominal powers, vested in Congress by the constitution, were the system once adopted in its fullest latitude, still the actual exercise of them would be frequently interrupted by popular jealousy. I am bold to say, that ten just and constitutional measures would be resisted, where one unjust or oppressive law would be enforced. The powers vested in Congress are little more than nominal; nay real power cannot be vested in them, nor in any body, but in the people. The source of power is in the people of this country, and cannot for ages, and probably never will, be removed.
And there you have it. It’s a case of the wrong Webster … and you can still try to find fault with Noah Webster’s reasoning or with Dr. Carson’s use of this Webster’s argument. I’ll leave that to you.