The story begins in June of 1788. Virginia was holding a convention in Richmond to decide whether to ratify the Constitution the founders had drafted in Independence Hall the previous year. Eight states out of the nine necessary to adopt the Constitution had already ratified, but Rhode Island, North Carolina, New Hampshire and New York looked unlikely to ratify. All hope for the ninth hung on Virginia.
The Virginia convention featured a dramatic debate between federalists, who favored ratification, and antifederalists, who opposed it. The debate pitted James Madison, a federalist and the principal drafter of the Constitution, against George Mason, the intellectual leader of the antifederalists, and Patrick Henry, Virginia’s governor and a renowned orator.
Mason and Henry raised many arguments against ratification. One concerned the militia. To appreciate their arguments, we must bear three things in mind about the time and place of the debate.
First, the majority population in eastern Virginia were enslaved blacks. Whites lived in constant fear of slave insurrection. Everyone knew about the 1739 slave rebellion in Stono, S.C., when blacks broke into a store, decapitated the shopkeepers, seized guns and powder, and marched with flying banners, beating drums and cries of “Liberty!” Up to 100 joined the rebellion before being engaged by a contingent of armed, mounted militiamen. Scores died in the ensuing battle.
Second, the principal instrument for slave control was the militia. In the main, the South had refused to commit her militias to the war against the British during the American Revolution out of fear that, if the militias departed, slaves would revolt. But while the militias were effective at slave control, they had proved themselves unequal to the task of fighting a professional army. Bunker Hill was the last militia victory during the Revolution. The Continental Army (aided by the French Navy) won the war.
Third, previously the militias were creatures of state governments. The new Constitution changed that. It divided authority over militias between the national and state governments, but gave the lion’s share of authority — including the power to organize, arm and discipline the militias — to Congress.
During the debate in Richmond, Mason and Henry suggested that the new Constitution gave Congress the power to subvert the slave system by disarming the militias. “Slavery is detested,” Henry reminded the audience. “The majority of Congress is to the North, and the slaves are to the South,” he said.