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Jefferson to Madison: Can we fix that comma?

I suppose this won’t be quite as funny to readers who believe that the famously ambiguous and ungrammatical Second Amendment to the U.S. Constitution pretty much guarantees the fundamental right of every American to “keep and bear” just about any weapon in just about any circumstance. But those who believe otherwise might get a laugh out of this imaginary exchange of letters between “Father of the Constitution” James Madison, writing in his capacity as a key figure in the first Congress and key player in the creation of the Bill of Rights, and Thomas Jefferson, then secretary of state in the George Washington administration, as the proposed amendments were making their way through Congress.

If you need a little help with the discussion of the misplaced comma, the commas after “militia,” and “free state” render the text of the Second Amendment (“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.”) grammatically confuzled on the key question of what participation in state militias may have had to do with the right to “keep and bear arms.”

The satire is by John Quaintance, my new favorite parodist of Constitutional matters, and was published by The New Yorker.

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Comments (25)

  1. Submitted by Larry Copes on 01/08/2016 - 09:01 am.


    I wanted to read this article, but the link sends me to Google calendar.

  2. Submitted by Paul Brandon on 01/08/2016 - 09:35 am.


    It couldof happened 😉

  3. Submitted by Dennis Tester on 01/08/2016 - 09:50 am.

    Of course, some people like me

    believe that we *are* the militia. All of us, as citizens, would be expected to take up arms should we ever be invaded, and indeed, that’s what the Japanese assumed during World War 2 when they discarded the idea of a land invasion.

    Consider the Swiss. All adult men (and maybe women, now) must attend military weapons training and then they take their weapon home to be used in the event of an invasion. Their gun laws are very similar to ours, with the exception of the required weapons training by all adult men.

    That would be the sticking point should the government attempt to impose such a rule on us because many would object to the mandatory training requirement. As it is, most serious gun owners go to the range monthly or even weekly. We would simply resent the government making us do it.

    So the comma argument is moot, as far as I’m concerned.

    • Submitted by Paul Brandon on 01/08/2016 - 10:24 am.


      does not make it so.

    • Submitted by Harris Goldstein on 01/08/2016 - 10:33 am.

      Interesting comparison

      I see, from the article you reference:

      In order to purchase most weapons, the purchaser must obtain a weapon acquisition permit

      For each transfer of a weapon or an essential weapon component without weapons acquisition permit
      (Art. 10 WG), a written contract must be concluded. Each Party shall keep them at least ten years.

      This information must be sent within 30 days to the cantonal weapon registration bureau, where the
      weapon holders are registered (Art. 9 WG).

      In order to purchase ammunition the buyer must follow the same legal rules that apply to buying guns.

    • Submitted by Neal Rovick on 01/08/2016 - 11:55 am.

      If you and your buddies bought caps bats, balls and gloves and played catch every once in a while–would that make you the Yankees?

      Same thing, only more so for a militia.

    • Submitted by Sean Huntley on 01/08/2016 - 11:59 am.

      The vast majority of the Swiss militia do indeed have their weapons at home under lock and key, BUT they are prohibited from having ammunition for these weapons at home. Only a very small percentage of the militia have bot weapons and ammunition in their homes.

      Also worth noting that it is not ALL adult men. Only those aged 20-30 are required to be in the militia.

  4. Submitted by Neal Rovick on 01/08/2016 - 11:01 am.

    …Consider the Swiss….

    Yes, now what is your guess as to how many people would agree to go to a gubmint training camp repeatedly to be indoctrinated into the authority structure of a real military organization and participate in gubmint drills and planning. It is a real organization with ranks and discipline and training. You could say it is a REAL MILITIA–sort of what the founders had in mind. You might want to look a little more into how things actually are.

    They certainly didn’t go to the local gun show, pick up random arms and cartridges and resolve to stand ready for the zombie apocalypse or the UN black helicopters, meanwhile fire off a few thousand rounds at beer cans twice a year or so.

    • Submitted by Dennis Tester on 01/10/2016 - 10:36 am.

      I don’t mean to scare you, Neal

      But most in this organization are combat veterans and/or trained in military weaponry.

      “Oath Keepers is a non-partisan association of current and formerly serving military, police, and first responders, who pledge to fulfill the oath all military and police take to “defend the Constitution against all enemies, foreign and domestic.”

      Take a few minutes to peruse the site.

      • Submitted by Neal Rovick on 01/10/2016 - 05:33 pm.

        I would guess that I am less scared or less paranoid than the Oath Keepers.

        Some items on the list of orders they will not obey…


        6. We will NOT obey any order to blockade American cities, thus turning them into giant concentration camps.

        7. We will NOT obey any order to force American citizens into any form of detention camps under any pretext.

        8. We will NOT obey orders to assist or support the use of any foreign troops on U.S. soil against the American people to “keep the peace” or to “maintain control” during any emergency, or under any other pretext. We will consider such use of foreign troops against our people to be an invasion and an act of war.

        9. We will NOT obey any orders to confiscate the property of the American people, including food and other essential supplies, under any emergency pretext whatsoever.

        (end quote)

        MY, what a vivid and colorful world of internet gossip and rumor you inhabit.

        Now, who REALLY is full of fear ?

        But hey, I guess you were standing in solidarity with BLM at the 4th precinct ….next order to not obey….10. We will NOT obey any orders which infringe on the right of the people to free speech, to peaceably assemble, and to petition their government for a redress of grievances.

      • Submitted by Paul Brandon on 01/10/2016 - 05:47 pm.


        Benedict Arnold?
        And which oath?

      • Submitted by Paul Brandon on 01/10/2016 - 05:56 pm.

        Also note

        that the courts have held that the National Guard is the current legal equivalent of the militia stated in the Constitution. So if the ‘oath keepers’ are serious they should join the National Guard. That might be more well regulated than they want, however.
        Note that they are selective about which lawful orders of their Commander in Chief they will obey.
        They look like vigilantes to me!

      • Submitted by Neal Rovick on 01/10/2016 - 06:17 pm.

        By the way, you DO realize that there is a substantial combination of harm and irony in a group that proposes to overthrow a Constitutionally elected government in support of that very same Constitution. You really think that the new people in power will put back such a dreadfully flawed Constitution that allowed conditions that required its overthrow?

  5. Submitted by Jim Million on 01/08/2016 - 11:30 am.

    Consider this, Eric

    That comma may be a typo resulting from an aberrant ink drop on the original manuscript.

    I am still chuckling over a Friday article that focuses on Early American grammar for consideration in an age where grammar hasn’t been taught well, if at all, for a very long time.

    Besides, are we absolutely sure the authors did not mean “the right to keep and bare arms”?

    Thanks for another smile, Eric.

  6. Submitted by Hiram Foster on 01/09/2016 - 07:28 am.

    Original intent

    Did the founders use commas in the way we do? How do original intent considerations affect our understanding of commas then and now? Do we have access to an 18th century grammar book the founders might have consulted?

    • Submitted by Neal Rovick on 01/09/2016 - 08:12 pm.

      A punctuation analysis of 5th amendment….


      In which it is hypothesized that the punctuation was placed with respect to the spoken flow of words as opposed to strict written grammar rules…..

      • Submitted by Paul Brandon on 01/10/2016 - 06:00 pm.

        Also note

        that the actual wording of the Constitution itself (I’m not sure about the amendments) was done by Gouverneur Morris, not Madison or Jefferson. Morris was assigned the task because of his writing skills.

      • Submitted by Jim Million on 01/11/2016 - 09:28 am.

        So true

        Good composition teachers work diligently to break young writers of this tendency to make their style “commatose,” if you will. We may forgive 18th Century scribes, mainly because they had to frequently dip their quills to continue, perhaps using the comma as a place marker (or to legitimize an errant drip).

        The Great Comma Abusers are mainly attorneys, as I see it. They tend to to write as they speak, with countless phrases separated by commas, as if to represent their spoken tactic of defending against interruption, all the while expecting their readers to maintain their grasp of coherence, even when the writer’s point was lost somewhere after the third or fourth comma, if ever grasped at all. [see what I mean?] Even astute readers quickly become brain-glazed by paragraphs of one continuous 80 word sentence. Some easily fill half a page, or more.

        My writing teachers also taught the (now lost) art of the semi-colon. A lawyer could never use that…too much pause for interjection or objection, of course.

        I also tend to use dashes here and there to give the reader a rest stop along the way—an opportunity to focus on a specific point.

        Facts are basic ingredients of writing/speaking; however, style is the seasoning of communication that individualizes one person’s discourse. If Penzeys would open writing schools…………….

        • Submitted by Rachel Kahler on 01/11/2016 - 01:31 pm.


          You’re in a good mood, Jim.

          Note my use of a comma. I was taught in middle and high school that there are certain commas that are to be included in certain spots in a sentence. Lawyers have been trying to retrain me for nearly 10 years. I’m getting better, but there are some commas I just won’t give up. For example, the one that goes after the second to last item on a list and before the conjunction. Nope, won’t give it up. I like commas, but I admit that the number and location of the commas in the Second Amendment is confusing. It causes a very, very rare occurrence–I agree with Mr. Tester on this one (at least to some level).

          • Submitted by Jim Million on 01/11/2016 - 03:23 pm.


            It is right and proper to agree with Mr. Tester from time to time—-“at least to some level.”

            It’s the pedantic petulance of certain others that often gets to me, as you no doubt notice.

  7. Submitted by John Buckingham on 04/13/2016 - 12:44 pm.

    Regarding the Comma.

    The original comma was redundant. The 2nd amendment is valid with or without the comment, it doesn’t change its true meaning. There are other references to the 2nd amendment where there is only one comma in it. The 2nd amendment cares not for his period of construction, nor its nation of residence. I know exactly why Thomas Jefferson removed that comma. Now who has ever claimed that before with such certainty? The 2nd amendment hasn’t been understood by Americans since the day its ink was still wet. This is not meant as a disparagement to anyone but is simply a point in fact.

    There is a book coming out, in fact 3 books. The first book will explain everything ever asked about the 2nd amendment. There is no conjecture and speculation. The motive of its author is not to be an author, its not to make a political statement , its not to seek fame and fortune, its not to increase his/her standing in learned halls of educational institutions, it is quite simply, to address an issue of lost and found. The book also addresses ANY question you have about this post .

    There is nothing wrong with the 2nd amendment, it is both perfect and it is timeless. I suspect however its original architect was a man named Benjamin Franklin, but that is just my educated guess. His M.O. is all over it. The United States constitution is about to have a profound change, or rather , the understanding of the constitution is about to be changed profoundly. The book is written , with a respect to the wishes of some very important founding fathers. Political parties come and go, but a nations constitution should be chiselled. To attempt to manipulate the constitution of a country, without due process can be no less than a treasonous act. It is the very fabric that clothes a nation and protects it from the elements of mans selfish nature. Stock tip : Invest in lawn chairs.

    To quote any founder regarding the discernment of the 2nd amendment is only quoting a mans opinion, it is not the proof of the thing, it is only the proof of one mans opinion. If something can be debated for so long, if something has be discerned over and over again is it truly understood? I have heard all the arguments, and not a one , was even close to the truth of the 2nd amendment. My proof of it is not my speculation, but of my discovery. I am nothing more than a narrator and if you want to debate my findings, then you will have to learn the art of séance.

    Life, Liberty and Pursuit of Happiness, each word contingent on the other each one an entitlement to each individual. In the ongoing attainment and experience of these entitlements each individuals path must run parallel with all others, where their speed may differ the paths must never cross, hindering, obstructing or extinguishing the same entitlements of another. In that event, the words are meaningless, oppression is back and the king or kings rule once again.

    Happy Pondering.

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