Monday, December 17, 2007

From Ancient to Modern: the Meaning of a Clause

The heart of the Second Amendment is to be found the the Latin Ablative Absolute.

As Adam Freedman writes in today's New York Times, forget about the commas and focus on the words: "A well regulated Militia, being necessary to the security of a free State, the right of the people to keep and bear Arms, shall not be infringed."

Freedman points out that "the founders — most of whom were classically educated — would have recognized the first two clauses as stating the foundation for the conclusion. Thus the introductory clause "is [a] rhetorical device [known] as the “ablative absolute” of Latin prose. To take an example from Horace likely to have been familiar to them: “Caesar, being in command of the earth, I fear neither civil war nor death by violence” (ego nec tumultum nec mori per vim metuam, tenente Caesare terras)" The main clause flows logically from the absolute clause: “Because Caesar commands the earth, I fear neither civil war nor death by violence.”"

Freedman argues that "when the justices finish diagramming the Second Amendment, they should end up with something that expresses a causal link, like: “Because a well regulated militia is necessary to the security of a free state, the right of the people to keep and bear Arms shall not be infringed.” In other words, the amendment is really about protecting militias, notwithstanding the originalist arguments to the contrary."

We can look forward to a lot of hand wringing as we await the Supreme Court's decision on the DC hand gun ban that was struck down the by Court of Appeals of the DC Circuit. Freedman's view seem by far the most logical. I can't imaging the Founders arguing over the placement of commas. But more likely worrying about the right of the people to protect themselves through local, well regulated, militias and their need for arms.

(My only question about Freedman's argument is that the Latin places the premise after the conclusion. It really reads, in Latin, "I fear neither civil war nor death by violence, because Ceasar commands the earth." It is the English translation the places the causal premise first. So, I would translate the Second Amendment into modern English as: "People need to be able to own guns in order to protect themselves through well regulated militias.")