FALMOUTH — In an earlier time, which would include the 18th and 19th centuries, the study of Latin was considered an integral part of the American high school curriculum. This requirement involved not only the ability to read the language but also a familiarity with Latin authors in general.

Indeed, so strong was the influence of the latter that their rhetorical devices were absorbed effortlessly into the writing of all educated Americans. Among these devices stands one that, though long popular, has today fallen into oblivion: the ablative absolute. 

This Latin ablative, rarely, if ever, used in other ancient tongues, is an alternate way of introducing a remark, normally expressed in a subordinate clause, by means of a noun (or pronoun) plus a participial verb with whatever other linguistic baggage is necessary to convey the intended idea of the ablative statement. For example, instead of  “When all things are considered, it would be best to adjourn now” write “All things considered, it would be best to adjourn now.” 

Ablative absolutes tend to express considerations of time (“when” or “while”); contrast (an idea that suggests the opposite of the main part of the sentence); or cause.

Time: “The sun having risen, a majestic panorama appeared before me” instead of “When the sun had risen, a majestic panorama appeared before me.”

Contrast: “The ice being visibly thin, he tried nonetheless to cross at the narrows” instead of  “Although the ice was visibly thin, he tried nonetheless to cross at the narrows.” 

Cause: “The snowfall having been heavy last night, all classes were canceled this morning” instead of “Because the snowfall had been heavy last night, all classes were canceled this morning.”

Of all ablative absolutes, perhaps the most famous (and contested) is the 13-word beginning of the one-sentence Second Amendment to the Constitution, which reads as follows: “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.” 

Clearly, this ablative is causative in intent: “Because a well regulated Militia is necessary to the security of a free State, the right of the people to keep and bear Arms shall not be infringed.” But what is the logical relation between the “well regulated (i.e., smoothly operating) Militia” and the ensuing “right,” a relation that has provoked endless debate? 

Would it not be useful, therefore, to begin with an inquiry into the status of the American military shortly after the birth of our nation? The answer is well known. We did have an Army and a Navy (and soon a Marine Corps), but, used primarily for ceremonial occasions, the national forces were few in number, so few that, in time of conflict (e.g., the War of 1812, the Civil War), it was necessary to turn primarily to the states for reinforcements. 

The states responded, of course, but where did they get their contingents? From their own militias (whose name was to become the National Guard, at the beginning of the 20th century). 

Actually, these later-renamed militias had a long, important role to play, as well, in the history of the pre-Revolutionary British Colonies. In the absence of a strong military presence to protect the newly arrived colonists, the latter were authorized to form (as early as 1636 in Massachusetts) their own defensive brigades, or militias, that were modeled on the militias they had known in England. 

All able-bodied men were considered citizen-soldier volunteers who were expected to appear at regular training exercises with their own firearms. This was the long-standing tradition of the colonists, this was the principle motivating the Minutemen at Lexington and Concord, this was the intent of the Second Amendment to the Constitution. 

The right to keep and bear arms thus implies a commitment to answer, at any time, the call to duty and to bring your musket: no more, no less. No mention of a right to buy guns of all kinds as a hobby, to protect yourself from burglars, and, certainly, no right to belong to modern “militias” whose self-appointed purpose seemingly is to pass judgment on the state and keep it in check rather than contributing to its security. 

Indeed, since today’s true militia (i.e., the National Guard) is not only provided with government-issue weaponry but also no longer expects all able-bodied citizens to join the ranks, does the right “to keep and bear Arms” have any purpose, any meaning in the 21st century? 

In short, the Second Amendment was written at and for a time that is long gone. It is, one might say, as outdated as the ablative absolute in which that right is couched.

— Special to the Press Herald