March 16, 2008


James Madison and the Ablative Absolute


Tomorrow, when the Supreme Court of the United States hears arguments in Columbia v. Heller, a case that struck down the District of Columbia’s draconian gun control law, a discussion of Latin grammar may play a significant role.



The second amendment confuses many modern readers because it contains a construction increasingly rare today: an absolute phrase.  In English, an absolute phrase is formed from a noun or pronoun and a participle.  It modifies the entire sentence in an unspecified way.  Examples:


·        The claymore being sharpened, Cameron entered the cave.

·        Pipes skirling in the fog, the Cameron men passed through the narrow defile.

·        Our pastimes done, possess a golden slumber (Titus Andronicus, II.3.26)


It should be abundantly clear that in these examples no causal relationship is implied between the absolute phrase and the main clause. 


The absolute phrase is not native to English, having been introduced rather late in imitation of a Latin construction called the ablative absolute.  (see  Matt Rissanen et al., History of Englishes: New Methods and Interpretations in Historical Linguistics [Berlin & New York: Mouton de Gruyter, 1992]) .  As in English, a Latin ablative absolute consists of a noun or pronoun and participle.  But in Latin, word order is largely irrelevant, the function of words being indicated by inflexion.  Thus in Latin “Vir amat feminam” and “Feminam amat vir” mean the same thing – the man loves the woman.  To say “the woman love the man,” it is necessary to put woman in the nominative case, and man in the accusative case: “Virum amat femina” or “Femina amat virum”.    Normal Latin word order is subject, object, verb, e.g. Femina virum amat, but this can be varied to give emphasis as needed, a feature of inflected languages that is largely missing in English.  Inflexion and word order are two of many reasons why non-Latinists who translate English into Latin using a dictionary end up producing total nonsense.


This is not an elementary Latin tutorial so I will cut this short and observe that the ablative case is one that indicates “from”, “with”, “by means of”, “in the time of”, or when used in the absolute form, some kind of relationship, never explicitly stated, to the rest of the sentence.   



Remember that:  the exact relationship between the ablative absolute and the rest of the sentence is NEVER explicitly statedOracles liked to take advantage of quirks like this, and so did James Madison.


A couple examples:


·        Urbe capta, Aeneas fugavit

This one is easy.  “The city captured, Aeneas fled.”  A causal relationship between Aeneas’s flight and the capture of the city can be inferred.


·        Paupere honeste vivente, fur ditatur.

This one is harder.  “The poor man living honestly, the thief prospers.”  There is certainly no implied causal relationship; the poor man’s living honestly does not cause the thief to get rich.  There is an implied temporal relationship, though that of course is not the point.  Irony is the point.  The best English rendition might be “The poor man lives honestly, yet the thief prospers.”  


So now we come to the Second Amendment, written by the accomplished Latinist James Madison, who, I think it could be convincingly argued, thought in Latin when he wrote anything important.


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.


There you have the absolute phrase – “A well regulated Militia, being necessary to the security of a free State” – springing from Madison’s Roman mind. 


Now, there are those who suggest that we should just ignore Madison’s chosen construction.  For one example see Adam Freedman’s op-ed piece in the December 16, 2007 NY Times.


The founders — most of whom were classically educated — would have recognized this rhetorical device as the “ablative absolute” of Latin prose. To take an example from Horace likely to have been familiar to them: “Caesar, being in command of the earth, I fear neither civil war nor death by violence” (ego nec tumultum nec mori per vim metuam, tenente Caesare terras). The main clause flows logically from the absolute clause: “Because Caesar commands the earth, I fear neither civil war nor death by violence.”


Actually Freedman’s translation is rather poor – “While Caesar rules the land” would be better.  The point however is that Freedman is, as we have seen, obviously wrong -- the ablative absolute does not always introduce a main clause that “flows logically from the absolute clause.”   Sometimes it does, sometimes it does not.   It is a construction that delights the mind with its sibylline subtlety.


I suggest that Madison intentionally used an absolute phrase in the Second Amendment because he knew that a causal relationship would NOT be inferred – at least not by any well-educated person of the time.  If he wanted to say “Because a well-regulated militia is necessary to the security of a free state,” he would have just said that.  He did know English, after all.  Instead he chose to use a classical form possessing nuances that are no longer properly understood by the vast majority of lawyers and judges, far less by journalists.  Fortunately the Supreme Court includes a few justices who will understand this subtlety.  And unfortunately several who will not.