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Madison and the Advantage of Being Armed

Posted by sbh on Tuesday, 25 January 2011

Did James Madison write

Americans have the right and advantage of being armed—unlike the citizens of other countries whose governments are afraid to trust the people with arms

in the Federalist Papers #46?

No. Two phrases are his, but the words linking them are not.

In 1787 the Constitutional Convention produced a plan for a new federal government for the former British colonies in America. Before it could go into effect, however, the various states had to ratify it, and proponents and opponents produced pamphlets and newspaper columns arguing its merits. One question involved the proposed federal army—might it not become an instrument of tyranny? Madison argued that the existence of state militias should prevent that possibility. In that context he wrote

It may well be doubted, whether a militia thus circumstanced could ever be conquered by such a proportion of regular troops. Those who are best acquainted with the last successful resistance of this country against the British arms, will be most inclined to deny the possibility of it. Besides the advantage of being armed, which the Americans possess over the people of almost every other nation, the existence of subordinate governments, to which the people are attached, and by which the militia officers are appointed, forms a barrier against the enterprises of ambition, more insurmountable than any which a simple government of any form can admit of. Notwithstanding the military establishments in the several kingdoms of Europe, which are carried as far as the public resources will bear, the governments are afraid to trust the people with arms.

(As usual the passages in bold are the nucleus of the fake quotation.) The fake quotation as given is not an unreasonable summary of one of Madison’s points, and had it been phrased

Americans have the right and “advantage of being armed”—unlike the citizens of other countries whose “governments are afraid to trust the people with arms”

it would probably be acceptable.

And that’s very likely how this passage was in fact created. A good guess would be that somebody originally quoted it like this, and that somebody else accidentally omitted (or deliberately ignored) the original quotation marks.

And there is some evidence for this conjecture. As Phid comments here:

Phyllis Schlafly used it in her “Schlafly Report” of 2000: “James Madison: Americans have ‘the advantage of being armed’—unlike the citizens of other countries where ‘the governments are afraid to trust the people with arms.’” You can see that quotations are around Madisons words, and not around the modern-day paraphrasing of the rest of what he said. Thus, it seems that the misquote began after people started omitting the necessary quotation marks.

This can’t be the entire story, however, as the fake form appeared in James Gazori’s 1987 book, Firearms in America (again as Phid noted), thus preceding Schlafly’s correct version. Possibly Schlafly was repeating herself, or copying somebody else. Or maybe she repaired the quotation as I did above, by comparing it to the original.

In any case, the quotation as given above is a modern paraphrase with two phrases of Madison’s embedded in it, not an actual quotation.

(And many thanks to J. L. Bell’s Boston 1775 weblog, which is a wonderful compendium of accurate information about the American Revolution with a focus on Boston. His piece cited below both informed me of the existence of this particular misquotation, as well as of the source of the original.)

Further Information

Another Fake Founders Quotation (J. L. Bell)

The Federalist #46 (James Madison)

Sites Employing the Fake Quotation

Hide Your Weapons Now (RegularJoeNews)

Could a Search Warrant Be Your Death Warrant (Robert G. Heinritz, Jr.)

Quotes on the Right to Bear Arms (Eric S. Raymond)

Brainy Quote (unknown)

Spirit of America Liberty Quotes (Michael G. Leventhal)

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