Teaching Latin and the Second Amendment

By Mark Datema Lipscomb

The afternoon of Tuesday, January 29, guns and violence took the life of Hadiya Pendleton, a high school sophomore here in Chicago. Media coverage of her murder noted that her favorite subject was Latin. This year and last, I had the privilege of having Hadiya among my students. She was a solid citizen in our Latin Republic and committed herself faithfully to our common cause, a promise to seek the greatest good for the greatest number of citizens, maximum bonum pro maximo numero civium.

In the spirit of this search, the observations put forward now build on knowledge and experiences I’ve gained in teaching Latin. The rhetorical and grammatical roots of the Second Amendment suggest a way to approach gun-related violence that is both classically proportioned and politically feasible.

The legal framework of current interpretation of the Second Amendment arises from two Supreme Court cases, District of Columbia v. Heller, 2008 and McDonald v. Chicago, 2010. In the Heller case Justice Antonin Scalia’s majority opinion cast the Second Amendment’s opening phrase (“A well regulated militia being necessary to the security of a free state,”) as a “purposive qualifying phrase.” He goes on to say that such a phrase “that contradicts the word or phrase it modifies (“the right of the people to keep and bear arms shall not be infringed”) is unknown this side of the looking glass (except, apparently, in some courses on Linguistics).”

Justice Scalia’s majority opinion boils down to an appeal to logic. The petitioners use the opening phrase to limit the subsequent clause. Because restricting the right to keep and bear arms to a military capacity is itself an infringement, their argument is, in Justice Scalia’s words, “worthy of the Mad Hatter.”

But Justice Scalia’s assertion that the opening phrase is “purposive” is, grammatically and rhetorically speaking, contrary to fact. Twisting the Amendment’s opening phrase in this way, his gambit is untrue to the intellectual and moral imperatives of his Jesuit education.

Justice Scalia’s scorn notwithstanding, re-engaging the grammatical structure of the Second Amendment is not a mad linguistics-course plunge down a rhetorical rabbit hole. It provides a way to inject reason into our debate about guns and gun ownership. James Madison, Thomas Jefferson, et al. were steeped in Latin rhetoric and grammar; English grammar after all rests on a Latinate foundation. The framers began the Second Amendment as they did in order to address terms and conditions under which a citizen’s right to bear arms must not be infringed. Their opening phrase establishes context for the core right, not purpose.

Here’s why: the Second Amendment opens with a clear rhetorical nod to a common Latin grammatical construction, the ablative absolute. Ablative absolutes, generally, address terms and conditions under which statements in main clauses hold true. Grammatically, they provide context, not purpose. An ablative absolute’s function is purposive only in the sense that any function serves a “purpose”: Being itself, doing what it does.

This grammatical construct establishes a legal basis for addressing infringements on our right to bear arms. Conjuring 23 hundred years of rhetorical nuance, the Amendment’s opening phrase signals two entwined political truths: Well-regulated militias provide the context for the right to keep and bear arms; within this context citizens remain free to use their arms for other and personal purposes.

The grammatical structure of the Second Amendment encourages elected representatives to create rules and procedures providing a legal definition for the term, “well-regulated militias.” It defines the appropriate governmental oversight of a basic civil right. We have rules for food-handling safety. We have regulations about where average citizens can and cannot bear arms — inside the Supreme Court, for example. So too, must government establish rules and procedures for what a militia would be obligated to do in order to operate in a “well-regulated” manner.

The Amendment’s rhetorical structure allows for an ecumenical definition for the term “militia.” To be well regulated, neither the Amendment’s structure nor tradition requires militias to be formed by governmental levy. Rather, the rhetorical structure indicates that government, having established terms and conditions of training and purpose to comprise a “well-regulated militia,” can leave the forming of well-regulated militias to the citizens themselves.

In this way, the Amendment’s grammatical structure signals the legitimate scope of weapons ownership. Whatever your weapon of choice, keeping and bearing it would require participation in the life of a militia whose rules, training and practice enable its well-regulated operation. What you do with the weapon otherwise is your business, and the government should not be able to infringe upon legal, recreational, professional or metaphysical uses you might conceive for it.

As noted at the outset, I approach this issue not as a Constitutional scholar, but as a high-school Latin teacher. I believe that grammar and rhetoric matter. In our Latin Republic, Hadiya chose to be known as Civis Pretiosior, The More Precious Citizen. There is true irony in this. Few things turn out to be more precious in the study of Latin than the ways it enables students to understand and respect nuances in the use of language, in speech and in writing. Calling a phrase intended to provide context “purposive” is a neat rhetorical trick, but it is erudition in the service of illusion. During the ten years that I have been teaching Latin here in Chicago, I have used the Second Amendment to explain the rhetorical significance of the ablative absolute. This semester, grief will lend gravitas to our study.

Mark Datema Lipscomb is a Latin teacher at Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. College Preparatory High School in Chicago. Email MDLipscomb@kingcollegeprep.org.

From The Progressive Populist, March 15, 2013



Blog | Current Issue | Back Issues | Essays | Links

About the Progressive Populist | How to Subscribe | How to Contact Us

Copyright © 2013 The Progressive Populist
PO Box 819, Manchaca TX 78652