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Origins of

Origins of "The Origins of the Second Amendment"

An interview with David E. Young, editor and publisher of
"Origins of the Second Amendment: A Documentary History of the Bill of Rights, 1787-1792"

by Michael V. Pelletier

October 22, 2001

David E. Young (left) and Michael Pelletier at the 2001 Gun Rights Policy Conference

On October 16, the Fifth Circuit Court of Appeals delivered a long-awaited and unmistakable victory to firearms freedom advocates, by finally recognizing what we've known all along: that the Second Amendment guarantees and individual, personal right regardless of membership in any form of militia.

Reading through the 80+ page decision, one can't help but see exactly why it took so long to render - the three judge panel engaged in an exhaustive study of the origins and meaning of the Second Amendment, and one of their primary sources for this study, cited over 100 times in the ruling, is "The Origins of the Second Amendment," edited by David E. Young.

I met Mr. Young at the 2001 Gun Rights Policy Conference (hosted by the Second Amendment Foundation and the Citizens Committee for the Right to Keep and Bear Arms in Fort Mitchell, Kentucky) where I bought two copies of his book, and had the pleasure of getting to know him better in the late night gun rights jam sessions that are common at the conference.

He is a mild mannered gentleman, a dedicated husband and father to four. He lives in Ontonagon, Michigan, and works as a ranger for the Michigan Department of Parks and Recreation in the vast, scenic forests of that state's Upper Peninsula. He graduated from Michigan State University with High Honors, and even a brief conversation with him reveals that this was a well deserved distinction.

It was at MSU where the seeds of this book were first planted. "I happened to take a course in 'Colonial and Early American History through the Constitutional Period' with Professor Robert E. Brown," Young recalls, "and one of the most important things that he taught me is the difference between actually studying history as opposed to reading a history book. A history book is a story by someone who (hopefully) has studied all the original documents. When you read a history book, you're reading the author's story. When you read the original documents, that's when you're actually studying history."

Fresh out of college in the early 1970's, and strapped for cash, he began his collection of original sources on the Second Amendment by browsing used bookstores. If it was cheap, and on the topic of English and Colonial history or a collection of original sources, he bought it. And as his financial means grew, so did the quality and size of his library. A self described "skinflint," he nevertheless decided that it was sometimes necessary to spend $50-$100 on a single book in order to reach his goal of a comprehensive collection. After years of reading, his familiarity with these sources and the connections between them flourished. Origins represents some 800 pages that were originally scattered among over 40,000 pages in nearly 100 different volumes.

Through his reading and research, the meaning and intent of the Second Amendment became utterly plain to him, such that he was, and continues to be, completely astounded that there's any debate over the issue. "Some of the things in there by the Federal Farmer and Tenche Coxe are simply amazing," he notes, "and it's amazing that nobody's discussing them."

He penned a few published articles during the mid-80's on specific points about the Second Amendment he had learned through his study of the material, but he eventually became dissatisfied with that approach. "I decided to stop writing these little articles, and instead go through absolutely everything and only then decide what to print."

So, after a a few years of fits and starts, he sat down and started typing in earnest. "There were about two or two and a half years worth of late nights in front of the computer," he recalls. "I was staying up until two or three in the morning, then getting up the next day to go to work."

He typeset the book himself, using a CP/M computer (a predecessor to DOS based PCs) with 64 kilobytes of memory, and the venerable WordStar word processor. Unlike many computer users, he saved two copies of everything on dozens and dozens of 300kb floppy disks. And finally, he published the book himself. "I could have submitted it to a publishing house, but then I would have had to fight with an editor who'd want to trim 300 pages," Young said. "There's a lot of information in there that can be found in existing work in the field, but I didn't want to cut it. I wanted to make sure that the full context of the Second Amendment was in there, so there could be no mistaking its meaning. Having a little more than is absolutely necessary doesn't hurt."

Since printing houses want cash up front, publication of the book meant taking out a sizable loan. But as a result of all his effort and personal financial risk, the first hardcover edition was released in 1991. This edition lasted about four or five years, and in 1995 he came out with a second edition, with some spelling corrections and minor fixes. Instead of a costly hardcover, he printed it as an 838 page trade paperback to make it more accessible and affordable to the general public. Last fall, there was a flurry of orders for the book, which he speculates as having been related to the Emerson case, and he nearly ran out. In May of this year, he purchased the second printing of the second edition, available both in hardcover and paperback.

Responding to my inquiry about his costs and profit, he said, "I make just enough money to satisfy the IRS that this it's a legitimate Schedule C business, instead of a hobby," he replied. "It was a labor of love, and I'm not in it for the money. By making this information available to everyone, I'm protecting my own rights as well."

"We've lost our heritage," he observed, "and our understanding of history. In the public schools, our kids don't learn so many of the basic things they were taught in the 1930's. Understanding our government is not something that we can just forget about now, in the modern world. Citizens of a republic must know this stuff, and we're not teaching and learning it. Even the news media refers to our nation as a 'democracy.' This lack of knowledge and understanding endangers the future of our Constitutional Republic.

"The Second Amendment is the cornerstone," he emphasized. "How can you maintain a free government of a free people without individuals having the right to own firearms and to defend themselves? That's what I hope this book can provide, a clear and unmistakable understanding of this principle to the American public and the legal community."

He continued, "one of the fundamental reasons for the Revolutionary War was that the English government claimed the prerogative to 'bind in all cases whatsoever,' through the Declaratory Act. They could pass any law they pleased without limit, and have it binding on the citizens of the colonies. Our Constitution was a square rejection of that concept, setting forth a government of limited, specified powers. It's unfortunate that our citizens and politicians aren't better versed in this."

Book cover

He was pleased and amazed at how extensively his work was cited in the Emerson case. "All of the original sources are available through other avenues, but some of them were extremely hard to find, and some of them were so faded that they were nearly impossible to read." The 102 citations of his book were no accident - the Second Amendment Foundation donated five copies to the Fifth Circuit Court of Appeals, one for each of the judges. But his admirable humility shone through in our conversation - I know that if the fruits of 20 years of my own labor and personal sacrifice had played a pivotal role in one of the most important court decisions on American freedom in recent history, I'd be doing an end zone dance on the tables of the local law library.

Is the book showing up in law libraries, I asked? "It's in a lot of libraries," he replied, "but not nearly enough of them. Librarians tend to make the decisions about which books to buy, and the Second Amendment is, as you know, still the orphan of the Bill of Rights." He wasn't sufficiently mercenary to suggest that firearms-rights organizations buy hardcover copies to donate to their local libraries, so I suggested it instead. "I wouldn't object to that," he chuckled.

So now that the Emerson decision is in, what did he see on the road ahead? "I don't really know," he admitted. "I'll be interested in this case for reasons other than just the Second Amendment issues, particularly the issue of a boilerplate divorce restraining order being sufficient to strip your Second Amendment rights and make you a federal felon. How are you supposed to comply, I wonder?" Regarding the overall import of Emerson, he noted, "this case is entirely related to the states' autonomy. I'm not a legal expert, but I feel that federal law has absolutely no place here. In the book, I made sure to include every time someone noted that the general purpose of the proposed federal government was not to bind in all cases whatsoever. But this is just what Congress appears to be claiming under the umbrella of 'in or affecting interstate commerce.'"

He's committed to keeping the book in print for as long as he possibly can, and naturally, the Emerson case has generated a lot of interest. The most recent printing was a large order - in the thousands - and so he has a plentiful supply to fill the incoming orders.

Mr. Young, in his gentlemanly humility, may be reluctant to admit it, but sometimes the course of history can be swayed by the dedicated, diligent, and quiet toil of one person. And that person may sometimes turn out to be a scholarly park ranger from a small town in northern Michigan.

The book can be purchased through Mr. Young's publishing company, Golden Oak Books, at 605 Michigan Street, Ontonagon, Michigan, 49953, phone (906)884-2961, e-mail: The paperback edition is $30, and the hardcover is $60.

Related Reading on U.S. v Emerson:

Exposing Lies & Distortions from the Gun Prohibitionists


Printer Version

One man with courage is a majority. Thomas Jefferson

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