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Securing Civil Rights by Stephen P. Halbrook

securing civil rights

Stephen P. Halbrook argues in Securing Civil Rights: Freedmen, the Fourteenth Amendment, and the Right to Bear Arms, Updated Edition that the Fourteenth Amendment was understood to protect the Bill of Rights, especially the Second Amendment right to bear arms, from infringement by the States. Halbrook also argues that the Supreme Court did not fully understand this argument in its decisions from the 1870s until District of Columbia v. Heller.

Halbrook’s sources 

Halbrook proves his thesis on almost every page by citing primary sources and tying the takeaway from each source back to his argument—that the understanding surrounding the Fourteenth Amendment clearly was to incorporate the Bill of Rights, especially the Second Amendment, to include the states. He utilizes mostly political sources but also includes sources outside the political sphere. Halbrook references a myriad of primary sources, including:

  • congressional debates and committee meeting notes from both the Senate and the House
  • eyewitness testimonies from various sources heard and read by Congress
  • newspaper articles
  • debates and discussions of states’ conventions regarding the Fourteenth Amendment
  • the rulings on cases concerning the Second and Fourteenth Amendments

For example, one primary source quoted Securing Civil Rights is Judge Timothy Farrar’s 1867 Manual of the Constitution. Halbrook integrates this source well into the chapter about southern rejection of Fourteenth Amendment and uses it to give deeper insight into the ideas that the legal and political communities were wrestling with at the time.

Halbrook’s range of sources is essential to his argument as he shows that nearly all levels of government and that the intellectual ideas of the day recognized the Fourteenth Amendment as a means to provide freed blacks with the right to bear arms and that several key figures involved in passing these laws agreed that the Fourteenth Amendment effectively incorporated the Bill of Rights to apply to the states as well as the federal government. Halbrook’s depth of primary sources makes his argument compelling and effective.

Structure of Securing Civil Rights

Halbrook arranges his book in chronological order, focusing  on the following events and laws:

  • first on Congress’ attempts to draft and pass The Civil Rights Act
  • the Freedmen’s Bureau Acts
  • and the Fourteenth Amendment
  • the Southern states’ reactions to the amendment
  • Congress’ Civil Rights Act of 1871
  • how these laws played out in the Southern states
  • how the Supreme Court ruled on cases regarding the right to bear arms

Chronological order is a logical choice for the structure of this book since Halbrook aims to detail the development of the Fourteenth Amendment and its relation to the Second Amendment.

However, more transitional material is needed between chapters. A chronological ordering suggests a general narrative for the reader to follow, but it is difficult to keep track of the big picture in the text since Halbrook provides so many details and quotes. Including even a paragraph or two of summary of what each chapter will cover or what the implications of the previous chapter were would make Securing Civil Rights more accessible and easier to follow in light of the structural choices and heavy reliance on citations.

Problems with the preface and context

The updated preface to the book does not provide sufficient context for the book and touches on topics that would be better discussed in the last chapter of the book, “Unfinished Jurisprudence.” The first issue can be easily addressed by adding an introduction that gives a brief historical context to the antebellum United States. Instead of jumping into black codes on page one, Halbrook should set the scene for readers and briefly discuss the Civil War, Emancipation Proclamation, the Thirteenth Amendment, and the political situation in Congress and the presidency as these debates over Reconstruction are beginning.

Although this book’s audience is clearly scholars who are already familiar with this historical context, an introduction that covers these basic topics would make the book more accessible to a wider audience. It would also provide more internal historical context that Halbrook claims is essential to understanding the original intent and ideas behind incorporation of the Bill of Rights by the Fourteenth Amendment.

The second issue with the preface is that the brief discussion of District of Columbia v. Heller and McDonald v. Chicago is not adequate for a book that was important enough to be cited in a Supreme Court case. Halbrook notes that Securing Civil Rights was cited in Heller and that the discussion of the incorporation of the Second Amendment is ongoing in McDonald v. Chicago at the time of publication of the updated edition of Securing Civil Rights in 2010. The editors, publishers, and author of a book that is cited in a Supreme Court case must keep the book relevant by updating it with the latest developments in the incorporation of Second Amendment rights.

Ideally, the book’s updated edition should have been held until the McDonald case was decided. At the very least, Halbrook should have discussed Heller more in-depth in the last chapter of the book, “Unfinished Jurisprudence.” Discussion of Heller belongs in the conclusion of the book, which occurs in the last chapter, and deserves more attention than a five-page preface, especially since the book itself was referenced in Heller’s decision. These new court decisions change the argument that Halbrook makes about the Supreme Court’s handling of Fourteenth and Second Amendment cases and should therefore be addressed in the book.

Gaps in presidential primary evidence

While Halbrook’s depth of primary sources provide ample evidence to support his arguments about the original intentions and understandings of the Fourteenth Amendment and its relation to the Second Amendment, the work as a whole would benefit from more discussion of President Andrew Johnson’s views on the issues. Throughout the first two chapters, Halbrook goes into very detailed breakdowns of what different members of Congress argued and thought about the Fourteenth Amendment and the right to bear arms, but he provides little evidence to explain why Johnson kept vetoing bills other than that it was a surprise.

One reference to Johnson’s actions are particularly confusing and need more explanation. Halbrook says that General Wood’s testimony on Mississippi’s firearms prohibition revealed that Johnson ordered the protection of the right of freedmen to keep and bear arms. An exploration on how the executive branch of the government influenced the ideas discussed in the book would round out the book well.

Benefits of adding an appendix

Halbrook discusses the nuances of the writing of the Fourteenth Amendment, the Freedmen’s Bureau, and various civil rights acts during Reconstruction and quotes extensively from debates and writing about the wording and implications of the wording behind each important law. However, the extensive use of primary sources of drafts of these laws make it difficult for readers to remember what exactly the final wording of each law was. This is problematic since the language of each law and amendment is very specific and important to the overall debates about the issue of civil rights in Reconstruction and later court cases.

It would be beneficial to include an appendix at the back of the book with key sections of the final drafts of the Thirteenth and Fourteenth Amendments as well as the Freedmen’s Bureau Act and the civil rights acts. This would give the reader a reference to flip to when Halbrook discusses the later implications and references to these laws and amendments.


Citation: Halbrook, Stephen P. Securing Civil Rights: Freedmen, the Fourteenth Amendment, and the Right to Bear Arms. Updated edition. Oakland, California: The Independent Institute, 2010.