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Strongest reason for the people to retain the right to keep and bear arms (Quotation)

Quotation: "The strongest reason for the people to retain the right to keep and bear arms is, as a last resort, to protect themselves against tyranny in government."

Variations: None known.

Sources consulted:

  1. Papers of Thomas Jefferson Digital Edition
  2. Thomas Jefferson: Papers and Thomas Jefferson: Biographies collections in Hathi Trust Digital Library
  3. Thomas Jefferson Retirement Papers

Earliest known appearance in print: 19891

Other attributions: None known.

Status: This quotation has not been found in any of the writings of Thomas Jefferson. It is often seen preceded by the sentence, "No freeman shall be debarred the use of arms," which is from Jefferson's draft of the Virginia Constitution. 

- Anna Berkes, 2/26/09; updated 1/9/12

  • 1. Charley Reese, "Founding Fathers Gave Individuals the Right to Bear Arms," Orlando Sentinel, June 22, 1989.  This quotation appeared in a number of publications in quick succession in the mid-1990s, including in The Militia Movement in the United States: Hearing Before the Subcommittee on Terrorism, Technology, and Government Information of the Committee on the Judiciary, United States Senate, One Hundred Fourth Congress, first session ... June 15, 1995 (Washington, D.C.: GPO, 1997), 120.


Billak's picture
Just a thought: The security of a free state is not threatened by foreign invasion and internal insurrection alone. As we have seen in Mexico crime, too, can pose a threat to the security of a free state. In our own history we have examples of governments either being totally corrupt and being in bed with various criminal factions or completely incompetent to handle crime in the communities leading to levels of crime that threatened the security of the communities of the individual states. As we are a nation of individuals the security of the free state goes well below the level of the state alone to each and every person in that state. We don't just have the right to be secure in our homes but also in the public sphere. The authorities are not our masters the work for us and when they cannot do their jobs properly, or at all, it is not incumbent for us to sit idly by and do nothing. The police represent us and do a job that, for whatever reason, we do not do ourselves, but, historically, have done when necessary. I would venture the founders realized this and therefore understood that there are many angles from which a threat to the "security" would come. If I walk down a street and there are criminals lurking do they not pose a threat to my security and that of others? If criminals rule the streets because only they have the weapons and, as is self evident, the police mostly respond after the crime has been committed, then how secure are we without the ability to carry our weapons with us? Are we to only be secure in our homes where a very narrow, and inaccurate, view of the 2nd amendment would allow us to have weapons but be insecure in the public sphere where we spend a very large amount of our time? It is absurd to believe the founders would imagine such a scenario for themselves or for future citizens of the country.
Billak (not verified)
BullshiotRepellant's picture
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. And it is not certain, that with this aid alone they would not be able to shake off their yokes. -Madison None but an armed nation can dispense with a standing army. To keep ours armed and disciplined is therefore at all times important. -Jefferson If circumstances should at any time oblige the government to form an army of any magnitude that army can never be formidable to the liberties of the people while there is a large body of citizens, little, if at all, inferior to them in discipline and the use of arms, who stand ready to defend their own rights and those of their fellow-citizens. This appears to me the only substitute that can be devised for a standing army, and the best possible security against it, if it should exist. -Hamilton Before a standing army can rule, the people must be disarmed; as they are in almost every kingdom of Europe. the supreme power in America cannot enforce unjust laws by the sword; because the whole body of the people are armed, and constitute a force superior to any bands of regular troops that can be, on any pretense, raised in the United States. -Webster This may be considered as the true palladium of liberty. . . . The right of self defence is the first law of nature: in most governments it has been the study of rulers to confine this right within the narrowest limits possible. Wherever standing armies are kept up, and the right of the people to keep and bear arms is, under any colour or pretext whatsoever, prohibited, liberty, if not already annihilated, is on the brink of destruction. -Tucker
Rodney William Niles's picture
"No free man shall ever be debarred the use of arms. The strongest reason for the people to retain the right to keep and bear arms is, as a last resort, to protect themselves against tyranny in government" -- Thomas Jefferson, 1 Thomas Jefferson Papers, 334
Rodney William Niles
aberkes's picture
Hi Rodney, Yes, I saw that reference crop up a number of times when I was researching this quote. It does not pan out, however. I assume it is supposed to be a reference to the Princeton Papers of Thomas Jefferson, volume 1, page 334, but this quote does not appear on that page - it is an editorial note for the Virginia Constitution (viewable here:
Anna Berkes
collette's picture
It's an empty endeavor, indeed; to claim that Jefferson never uttered these words. It certainly sounds like something he would have said, no? Perhaps of paramount importance, is the simple fact that it is a profound statement that bears particular truth and relevance to the current state of affairs in the radical and unconstitutional push for gun control in The United States. History shows that when countries took the guns away from the citizens, mass extermination of the populations occurred soon after. With the recent deployment of armored personnel carriers equipped with gun ports in American cities; along with the government's purchase of an extraordinary amount of ammunition - including excessive hollow-points that the government refuses to comment on - Americans should be very alarmed and very concerned. Regardless of who said this statement about protecting themselves from tyranny in government - the concept could never be more relevant than now; for the American citizens; and they should adhere to The Constitution and they should heed the suggestion. Jefferson doesn't have to have said this to render it full of truth.
Calvinus's picture
So what you're saying is, it doesn't matter if it's a fake quote because you think it sounds like something he would have said? But then, given that you're believing conspiracy theories about "excessive hollow-points" that even the National Rifle Association has dismissed as nonsense, I guess reality just isn't that important to you.
Columbia's picture
What part of; "The Right of the People to Keep and Bear Arms Shall Not be Infringed", is so hard to comprehend? My limited education has came mostly from books. I did not start using the internet until 2004. Since that time I have been appalled at the ease of which the words of Good Men have been tampered with, contaminated, or even completely removed from the internet and it's search engines. I have noticed that there are no longer any links to the sites where one could read for hours on end, the actual letters that were hand-written by Jefferson and many of his Colleagues. People who tamper with American history do the rest of our citizens irreversible and terrible harm. If you wish to consider the intent behind our Second Amendment, maybe some deeper study into the National Archives, and also some study about men like Samuel Adams and Patrick Henry will help you discern facts from fictions on this, and other matters related to our Constitution and it's design. As knowledge is power, at some point one has to conclude to, and realize that this Country of ours never was a true Democracy. That is evident in the issue of slavery. No sooner than it was established that all men were created equal, it was also established that did not apply to slaves. And since Lincoln has been mentioned, the Civil War was not fought, nor did it begin, because of slavery. The Southern Agriculturists seceded because of unfair taxes and tariffs imposed by an ever increasing corrupt government headed up by Northern Industrialist. Lincoln responded in order to preserve the Union. Lincoln was very intent on the issue of war to be about preserving the Union and not waging war because of slavery. Only because of public outcry did he concede to the Emancipation Proclamation of 1863. (The issue of slavery was not addressed until 1863 while the war began in 1861). I might add that the single most harmful event to our people as a whole was the assignation of Lincoln. This event was the,"coming out party",for the age of corrupt lawyers. The corruption in government that followed was to the 100th power of what it had been before. It took only 20 years for people like Paul Warburg to set this Great Country on the path to financial ruin that is so evident today. (read Woodrow Wilson). Now after years of corrupt and ever increasing government, manipulated by and set into place by corrupt lawyers and courts, our form of government is better referred to as a Poly-Archy. You can have all the Justice you want in America as long as you can afford to pay for it. This is not True Democracy. These things are the result of people taking it upon themselves to re-write our National History and change or erase the words of Good Men like Thomas Jefferson. If I do have an agenda, it is to strike some chord in those who will realize the importance of these matters.
jthorne76's picture
You claim to take issue with the words of good men being tampered with but yet here you are on the internet doing it yourself. This has been a Right Wing talking point for some time now but fortunately if you are smart we don't need to take your word for it, or whatever historian you let sucker you into believing this. Because we can just look at historical records, documents and quotes and easily read the South seceded over slavery. You can look at South Carolina's declaration of secession and see it plainly stated several times it was over slavery. This is why you shouldn't learn history from a book alone if you have doubts. Go look at the real documents. Hear the words spoken from the mouths of the Souths leaders and it will save you further embarassment of yourself. Or perhaps you are confusing the war being fought over "Slavery" as opposed to "freeing the slaves". Yes we all know that the war wasn't fought to free the slaves. This isn't groundbreaking news. This has been understood for a long time. And spare us this garbage about the corrupt North bankrupting the poor South. The Southern Plantation owners effectively owned Washington at that time. In fact a law had just been passed to lower Tariffs to 20% which was the lowest in over 50 years. At a time when profits were at an all time high in the South due to the massive exporting of Cotton. With the election of Lincoln and the addition of more free states being added to the Union the South decided it was in their best interest to leave the Union rather than let a gradual shifting opinion of Anti-Slavery decide their fate. Like I said you can look at multiple historical documents of the time to see all of this is true. You dont have to simply take my word for it. So the South seceded because of Slavery. They said so themselves. Who cares what you think you know. Its ironic too, that in leaving the Union to preserve slavery it ultimately forced Lincoln to abolish it. Sad that Southerners would rather die than pay other Southerners with no jobs a small wage for work. Sad that human beings thought it was their God given right to own another human being. And sad all these years later some people in this country still haven't learned or understood the great lesson the Civil War should have tought us.
Calvinus's picture
Your claim that it was taxes and tariffs that motivated the secessionist movement in the South is entirely counter-factual. The public statements of the leaders of the Confederacy made it very clear that the preservation of slavery was their primary or even sole motivation for secession. They (correctly) perceived the North as being increasingly hostile to slavery, so they decided to break away and create their own nation where slavery could be preserved forever.
Terence Duke's picture
you forget the first half of the sentence.
Terence Duke
Maddie1978's picture
As someone has noted, the 2nd Amendment was the counterpart to the powers granted the federal government in the Constitution. When it became apparent that the Articles of Confederation were not sufficient for securing "the security of a free State", the states came together to draft the Constitution. Defense against foreign powers or domestic insurgency was necessary to preserve the liberties that the people had secured for themselves. Though some may have had serious objections to a stronger federal government at the time, it became clear that it was necessary and so the Constitution was born. On one had you have the Constitution that grants certain, enumerated powers to the government; on the other, the Bill of Rights was written ensure that strict limits were imposed on those federal powers. The Bill of Rights didn't so much spell out what powers the people had as it spelled out for the government what powers they did not have over the people. This is summed up in the Bill of Rights by the line "The powers not delegated to the United States by the Constitution, nor prohibited by it to the States, are reserved to the States respectively, or to the people." "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." The 2nd Amendment as it is written only places a restriction on the federal government from infringing on the right of the people to bear arms. It does not state that individual states may not do so. It also addresses the right to bear arms only as it applies to providing for "the security of a free State" and makes no mention of that right extending to self-defense, defense of personal property, or any other reason. (note that 'states' usually refers to individual states within the Union and that 'the State', capitalized, usually refers to the Union.) The powers granted to the federal government by the Constitution as relates to the 2nd Amendment are "To declare War, grant Letters of Marque and Reprisal, and make Rules concerning Captures on Land and Water", "To raise and support Armies", "To provide and maintain a Navy", "To make Rules for the Government and Regulation of the land and naval Forces", "To provide for calling forth the Militia to execute the Laws of the Union, suppress Insurrections and repel Invasions", "To provide for organizing, arming, and disciplining, the Militia, and for governing such Part of them as may be employed in the Service of the United States", and "To exercise exclusive Legislation in all Cases whatsoever, over such District (not exceeding ten Miles square) as may, by Cession of particular States, and the acceptance of Congress, become the Seat of the Government of the United States, and to exercise like Authority over all Places purchased by the Consent of the Legislature of the State in which the Same shall be, for the Erection of Forts, Magazines, Arsenals, dock-Yards, and other needful Buildings." So the question becomes are the states subject to the same restrictions of power placed on the federal government set forth in the Bill of Rights? The 9th Amendment seems to address this, stating that "The enumeration in the Constitution, of certain rights, shall not be construed to deny or disparage others retained by the people." This means that the federal government could not presume to have any powers other than those explicitly enumerated and granted them by the Constitution. This would mean, therefore, that only the federal government was restricted from infringing on the right of the people to bear arms and that the same restriction did not apply to the states. While the states have the right to maintain well-regulated militias(meaning well-trained), the states do not have the right to raise or support armies, to declare war or call forth their militia to execute the "Laws of the Union", nor are they responsible "for organizing, arming, and disciplining, the Militia, and for governing such Part of them as may be employed in the Service of the United States" because these were powers specifically held by the federal government as laid out in the Constitution. The states may maintain militias, at their own expense, and call them forth to enforce the laws of individual states and other for any purposes as long as they do not assume the powers or duties that are reserved for the federal government only. So far, you can see that there is still no right for the people, at the federal level, to keep and bear arms for any reason other than to participate in a militia. Just a side note, this also means that the expense for organizing, arming, and disciplining the state militias is the responsibility of the federal government if it is to be called forth by the government for the reasons allowed. This can be interpreted to mean that, as far as the federal government is concerned, it is the federal government that should is the rightful provider of arms to the people, not the individuals or the militias themselves. Of course, this only applies in the course of waging war or executing the Laws of the Union. It does not determine within states if it is the people or the states who should have the power to provide arms for their militias. 'Provide for' arms can clearly be seen to mean the 'purchasing and distribution of' arms. But it also says nothing about who, within the states, the states or the citizens, has the power to provide arms to their militias for carrying out actions that are within the authority of those states. That is seemingly left up for the states to decide. And nothing says whether or not the people have the right to provide arms for themselves outside of a militia though nothing actually restricts it. The 14th Amendment was passed in order to incorporate the Bill of Rights and make them applicable to the states. Though, even here, it does not specifically grant individuals with the power or responsibility to arm themselves because the the Bill of Rights does not specifically say that this power belongs to individual citizens. But, if the Constitution is to be a model for the states, then it seems that within states that only the states themselves have the power and responsibility to provide arms to the people for the purposes of maintaining a militia. The Constitution does say that any right not explicitly granted to the federal government are reserved to the states or to the people. This suggests to me that states have the right to decide for themselves whether or not to allow the individuals to purchase and provide arms for themselves, or for the individual to determine when he is not within the confines of a state. This might not make sense until you remember that, for a very long time, there was a lot of territory held by the US but which had not yet acquired statehood. The 2nd Amendment as written by Jefferson used the phrase "being necessary to the security of a free state" was ever so slightly modified to read "being necessary to the security of a free State" where 'State' is capitalized. This is probably because Jefferson was strongly opposed to a strong, federal government and believed the states should be more powerful than the federal government. We all speak of the Founders now as if they uniformly held the same opinions and had the same goals but they did not. They disagreed on very many things. So you cannot rely on Jefferson's personal views in order to interpret what the Constitution should mean. He may have written these things but don't forget that they had to be debated and agreed upon by people of disparate opinions. Jefferson was tasked with the writing but he had to submit it to others to be approved and, much to his annoyance, things were changed in order to end up with a document that all could agree upon. You could also look to some of the thinkers and philosophers that influenced the Founders, but even there you find it very hard to locate anything that would suggest that the Founders favored the right of the individual to bear arms as a fundamental, natural, or inalienable right. Thomas Paine detested the idea of war, specifically unjust wars, saying "My own line of reasoning is to myself as straight and clear as a ray of light. Not all the treasures of the world, so far as I believe, could have induced me to support an offensive war, for I think it murder; but if a thief breaks into my house, burns and destroys my property, and kills or threatens to kill me, or those that are in it, and to “bind me in all cases whatsoever” to his absolute will, am I to suffer it? What signifies it to me, whether he who does it is a king or a common man; my countryman or not my countryman; whether it be done by an individual villain, or an army of them?" Now, lest you think this means that individuals should have the right to bear arms, he also said "The supposed quietude of a good man allures the ruffian; while on the other hand, arms, like law, discourage and keep the invader and the plunderer in awe, and preserve order in the world as well as property. The balance of power is the scale of peace. The same balance would be preserved were all the world destitute of arms, for all would be alike; but since some will not, others dare not lay them aside. Horrid mischief would ensue were one-half the world deprived of the use of them; for while avarice and ambition have a place in the heart of man, the weak will become a prey to the strong." Paine wanted peace and freedom from the "mischief" of others. It could be argued that he would not favor the keeping of arms outside of a militia because he was concerned with the 'balance of power'. Unless all citizens were able and willing to arms themselves in exactly the same manner, a balance of power between them could not be maintained. John Locke seemed to be just as concerned with the tyranny of rulers as much as he was a tyranny by those who would overthrow those rules and impose their will which was not one consented to by the people. He was of the mind that those who are governed are only governed by their consent. And rulers had a duty to maintain the commonwealth, neglect the public good, and not to forfeit the power given them by the consent of the governed to any other ruler or authority. "What then, can there no case happen wherein the people may of right, and by their own authority, help themselves, take arms, and set upon their king, imperiously domineering over them? None at all, whilst he remains a king. Honour the king, and he that resists the power, resists the ordinance of God; are divine oracles that will never permit it, The people therefore can never come by a power over him, unless he does something that makes him cease to be a king: for then he divests himself of his crown and dignity, and returns to the state of a private man, and the people become free and superior, the power which they had in the interregnum, before they crowned him king, devolving to them again. But there are but few miscarriages which bring the matter to this state. After considering it well on all sides, I can find but two. Two cases there are, I say, whereby a king, ipso facto, becomes no king, and loses all power and regal authority over his people". Even here, the people are to only take up arms against a ruler (or government) it deviates from the role the people have consented for it to have. Not a contemporary to the Founders but influential on our lawmakers nonetheless was John S. Mill. He stated that "All that makes existence valuable to any one, depends on the enforcement of restraints upon the actions of other people. Some rules of conduct, therefore, must be imposed, by law in the first place, and by opinion on many things which are not fit subjects for the operation of law. What these rules should be, is the principal question in human affairs; but if we except a few of the most obvious cases, it is one of those which least progress has been made in resolving. No two ages, and scarcely any two countries, have decided it alike; and the decision of one age or country is a wonder to another." and "That the only purpose for which power can be rightfully exercised over any member of a civilized community, against his will, is to prevent harm to others." It seems to be that a right to own a weapon for any other reason than to defend one's liberties was not what any of these men advocated for. Life, freedom of thought and conscious, free speech and the marketplace of ideas, pursue happiness, and to have a hand in one's own governance were the core liberties that they were concerned with. Arms were only necessary to defend those rights from foreign or domestic enemies that might take these rights from individuals and not a right in itself. And unless all individuals are armed equally and equally willing and able to use those arms, liberty is threatened. So, no, it's not quite as simple as ""The Right of the People to Keep and Bear Arms Shall Not be Infringed", is so hard to comprehend?"
Maddie1978 (not verified)
Rodney William Niles's picture
"The 2nd Amendment as it is written only places a restriction on the federal government from infringing on the right of the people to bear arms. It does not state that individual states may not do so." You may have forgot that would be in in violation of the Bill of Rights, and if you remember correctly, in the United States Supreme Court case of William Marbury Vs. James Madison, Chief Justice John Marshall clearly stated that ANY law that violates the Constitution of the United States (of which the Bill of Rights is clearly a part of) is repugnant and therefore considered null & void.
Rodney William Niles
Keith Latham's picture
"What part of; "The Right of the People to Keep and Bear Arms Shall Not be Infringed", is so hard to comprehend?" The part that says "A well regulated militia, being necessary to the security of a free state,". So I've answered your question, now could you answer mine? Which part of this: "The Congress shall have power... To provide for organizing, arming, and disciplining, the militia, and for governing such part of them as may be employed in the service of the United States, reserving to the states respectively, the appointment of the officers, and the authority of training the militia according to the discipline prescribed by Congress;" is hard to comprehend?
Andrew Mitchell's picture
Keith, I would reply to you that the Supreme Court has ruled on this issue and concluded that the first clause did not limit the second clause. Please see DC v Heller.
Andrew Mitchell
Maddie1978's picture
DC vs Heller only applied within federal enclaves--such as the District of Columbia.
Maddie1978 (not verified)
Calvinus's picture
But McDonald v. Chicago applies to the entire nation.
Advocatus Diaboli's picture
Keith, Any difficulty in comprehending either the Second Amendment or Article I Section 8, or both, is usually couched in a casual reader's lack of perspective and context. The Founders shared a mutual distrust of standing armies, believing as they did (based on world history and their own experience as a colony of England) that central governments were prone to use their armies to oppress the citizenry. For the same reason, the Founders were reluctant to give the federal government power over state militia, which was the subject of much debate during the Constitutional convention. In the end, the Founders determined that in order to assure the effectivess of militia in the event of foreign invasion, etc, it was necessary to give Congress power over the functions of militia. The counterbalance to that compromise was, and is, the Second Amendment. The Second Amendment begins by acknowledging that the need for a "well regulated militia" made it necessary for the Founders to give Congress power over the militia in Article 1 Section 8, and then balances that shift of power by simultaneously guaranteeing that the government will have no authority to disarm the citizenry.
Advocatus Diaboli
John B's picture
Anti-gun control web sites are promulgating dozens of such quotations from the founding fathers -- most of which make the fathers sound oddly like Wayne LaPierre. The quotations are all of a size that makes them suitable for copying and pasting into the comment streams of online news stories. If sites such as this continue to provide the facts, the nonsense may be contained. As Lincoln said, you can fool some of the people all of the time, all of the people some of the time, but you can't fool all of the people all of the time -- except that Lincoln never said any such thing. (See Fehrenbacher, "The Recollected Words of Abraham Lincoln").
Jesse Fell


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