Most people are aware that the mechanics and nuances of the English language have changed over the centuries. However, this does lead to some confusion when looking at texts from centuries ago and applying modern definitions of words and syntax to these documents. The Constitution of The United States is a prime example of this. Specifically, the Second Amendment is a prime example in the Constitution of how the meaning of phrases and mechanics has changed in the 224 years since it was written. The Second Amendment reads,” 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.”
To some people, the way that the above Second Amendment is written may seem a bit strange to a modern English speaker with the addition of commas in places that today they would not be. In most cases, punctuation in the 18th century was absolute chaos as this was a time of transition from middle English (think Chaucer and Shakespeare) to that of modern English. In this sense, one must understand that while the commas may be confusing, they should not detract from the document at hand. Furthermore, the variations that can be seen in different editions of the Bill of Rights can be attributed to the fact that at the time, these documents were hand written. If one looks at the original Constitution that Congress ratified, the only comma in the document is in “state, the right”. Thus, it should be noted that the militia was not the one given the un-infringed upon right to use arms (including muskets, rifles, swords, bayonets, etc), but rather the people of the United States.
Another issue that comes up with the Second Amendment is the definition of well regulated. In the 18th century this did not mean some organization was regulating the Militia’s. It meant that they were working properly. This would mean that each man had training and was familiar with his particular musket or rifle, yes there were indeed rifles in the 18th century.
I hope that this has helped to clarify some of the confusion that has arisen around the Constitution and given insight into how documents of the 18th century have to be understood by using the definitions that were in place at the time they were written, rather than modern definitions, if one wants to truly understand them.Published in