Saul Cornell, Ph.D.
Saul Cornell, Ph.D., is the Paul and Diane Guenther Chair in American History at Fordham.
When the District of Columbia’s ban on handgun possession was challenged in a 2008 U.S. Supreme Court case, journalists turned to historian Saul Cornell to explain what the Founding Fathers meant when writing the much-debated Second Amendment.
Cornell’s interpretation—that the amendment was conceived in the 18th century to allow Americans to fulfill their civic obligation to assemble for local militias—resonated with those who backed the city’s tough regulations. But the court, in a landmark 5-4 ruling, found that the Second Amendment gives citizens the right to have guns in their home for self-defense.
Since then, not one other gun-control measure across the nation has been struck down. Cornell says the ruling provided a moral victory for the gun lobby, but has yet to affect other gun-control measures in place. In his 2006 book, A Well Regulated Militia: The Founding Fathers and the Origins of Gun Control (Oxford University Press), Cornell explored the contentious history of gun policy in America.
“What I discovered was that both sides in the modern debate had it wrong,” he says. “When the amendment was written in the 18th century, there were mostly muskets and long guns in use. A gentleman might have a dueling set and a merchant might travel with a pistol, but the farmer needed a long gun and the soldier needed muskets.”
Cornell, who grew up in Brooklyn, returned to New York City after 18 years at Ohio State University. He came to Fordham as the University's first Paul and Diane Guenther Chair in American History, which was established through a gift from Paul B. Guenther, FCRH '62, former chairman of the Fordham University Board of Trustees, and his wife, Diane.
Cornell’s arrival coincided with the publication of Visions of America: A History of the United States, a college textbook he'd been working on for several years. The book incorporates images—paintings, photographs, line drawings and advertising— to make important points in the historical debate.
In the book, Cornell, who wrote the first 11 chapters, explores the conflicts and competing visions that have driven U.S. history, be it the meaning of resistance during Shay’s Rebellion or the role of Western powers during their colonial expansion in the 19th century.
Cornell’s fascination with the Second Amendment grew out of earlier research about figures like Patrick Henry and George Mason, who felt that the Founding Fathers were putting too much power in the hands of the federal government. If the men who wrote the Constitution were alive today, Cornell says they would neither subscribe to the beliefs of the National Rifle Association nor to those looking to ban handguns.
“People want history to answer our questions, but history answers its own questions,” he says. “There’s a great metaphor from James Madison—that history is really more like a lighthouse to warn you from dangers that have been. It doesn’t tell you where you will go.”