Wednesday, May 25, 2016
"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 Constitution of the United States of America, amendment 2
I believe that it was the young Lord Acton who remarked that “ablatives confuse me, and ablatives absolute confuse me absolutely”. It must have been around 1844. He would have been about ten years old, and having a hell of a time with his Latin course at Oscott College. He had a point. I thought of this while watching a video of Mr. Trump’s loyal speech to convened members of the National Rifle Association, whose endorsement he had just received. He promised his audience that he would not let them down in supporting their gun rights, but that the same could not be said about his Democratic rival, Hillary Clinton. “Hillary wants to disarm vulnerable Americans in high-crime neighborhoods….Whether it’s a young single mom in Florida or a grandmother in Ohio, Hillary wants them to be defenseless, wants to take away any chance they have of survival. . . . And that’s why we’re going to call her ‘Heartless Hillary.’ ”
A person who would willfully take away any chance for the survival of Ohio grandmothers would be heartless indeed. I suppose that single moms in Florida fall more into the category of the judgment call. Ms. Clinton did not take this lying down, however. “You're wrong,” she tweeted in Trump’s direction. “We can uphold Second Amendment rights while preventing senseless gun violence.”
The dramatic “evolution” of positions taken by American politicians is a feature of our political life. I seem to remember that Mr. Trump, not all that long ago, was favoring a prudential approach to the gun issue. And as an Arkansan I can guarantee you that Hillary Clinton was not espousing any form of gun control when she was the first lady of my state. Au contraire, as the great W. C. Fields always used to say. But the wind bloweth where it listeth, and political candidates get blown about rather more than others.
I myself am less interested in the rights of the second amendment than in its wrongs, beginning with its syntactical solecism but including also the chaos of its punctuation. Getting to the bottom of this necessitates a brief chapter in the history of education. European pedagogues of the Enlightenment period stressed the classics. To be considered moderately educated one had to be able to read Latin easily. To be well educated meant you could write it flawlessly as well. Young men spent a great deal of time studying Latin. Many pedants, unfortunately, considered Latin vastly superior to the vulgar tongues and tried to impose its rules on the local native language. In England that was English.
There is in Latin a common construction called the ablative absolute. Eighteenth-century writers of formal prose seem to have thought it ought to be common in English as well—despite the fact that modern English shed its system of noun declensions centuries earlier, and thus didn’t have ablatives. According to the latest edition of Gildersleeve’s Latin Grammar, “The so-called Ablative Absolute is an Ablative combined with a participle, and serves to modify the verbal predicate of a sentence.” That’s perfectly clear, I’m sure. But of course the reason the nominal form is absolute (i.e., “standing apart from a normal or usual syntactical relation with other words or sentence elements”) is that it stands apart from a normal or usual syntactical relation with other words or sentence elements. Therefore though we can through a strenuous act of imagination conclude that the noun of a well regulated Militia is or in a parallel linguistic universe might be in the ablative case and that it combines with the participle being, there is absolutely no living Nobelist in literature, Harvard law professor, or other clairvoyant who can tell you for sure what it has to do with the right of the people to keep and bear Arms.
Then there is the problem of the rampaging constitutional comma. There is a current English ablative absolute respectable enough to have been adopted as the name of a program on NPR: the phrase all things considered. Under no circumstance would you say “all things comma considered” any more than you would say “all things comma bright and beautiful”. But note that the infallible Founders have “A well regulated Militia comma being…” Did they lose confidence in the absolutism of their ablative or did they, as I suspect, throw in a comma every now and then just for the hell of it? What other explanation can you offer for the third and final, comma, in, the, second, amendment? The subject of the principal clause of the second amendment is the right to bear arms. Its predicate is “shall not be infringed”. Why, o tell me why, is there a comma between them?
In an earlier blog post I already expressed the opinion that the second amendment should be repealed (as was the eighteenth, concerning the prohibition of alcoholic drink) employing the constitutional process most of the Founders thought would be frequently used, but which has been seldom invoked since the Constitution mysteriously changed its status from that of an excellent utilitarian handbook for that of a sacred text in a revealed religion. I realize that my suggestion is a non-starter. My fallback position is this: would somebody, please, parse the second amendment.