Got into a short discussion with WordPress blogger and writer Rawclyde! the other day and as usual the subject of the 2nd Amendment came up. He commented:
“I would like to dig into the history where the making of the famous ‘militia’ phrase occurred ~ because I’m very stuck on that phrase in this ongoing debate.”
Just for reference, here are those well worn words again:
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. –2nd Amendment to the Constitution of the United States
Statue commemorating the Lexington Minutemen, a colonial militia that fired some of the first shots in the American Revolution
A ton of things could be said about the 2nd Amendment (and have been, some here), but let’s talk about that “militia” a bit and what it really meant to the people who wrote the Constitution.
A lot of people seem to get stuck on that phrase about the “well regulated militia” and try to understand it without actually reading what the Founders wrote. But it is actually not that hard to find out if one is willing to spend time with some 18th century writing that often seems a little obtuse to modern readers.
The key to understanding what the authors intended can be found in the Federalist Papers – a series of articles and essays written by Hamilton, Madison, and Jay to explain and defend the ideas of the newly proposed Constitution against critics who preferred the existing order where the Federal government had considerably less power under the Articles of Confederation which had been ratified in 1781 .
One basic concern was that a more powerful central government would become tyrannical. It would have a professional army at its disposal and could then subjugate the states by force of arms. In the the Federalist Papers it was argued that on the contrary the states would have at their disposal armed militias that, although less well trained and equipped than the professional army, would be much larger and therefore could defeat any professional army they could imagine the Federal government could afford to create.
The Founders saw the militia as having a threefold purpose: first as a force that would supplement the small army to defend the nation from external threats such as invasion, secondly against internal rebellions, and lastly as a defense against the central government itself should it become a threat to the rights and prerogatives of the individual states.
The Founders were basically cheapskates when it came to a professional military. They didn’t want to have that much expense, they distrusted professional military, and based on their experience thought a militia, although it has serious military deficiencies, was good enough, and just importantly cheap enough. They wanted peace, business, and scientific advances and not war and conquest.
A really important point to understand is that control of the militias was in the hands of the individual states. It was up to the states to “regulate” their state militia. “Regulate” is in this sense a multi-purpose word in that it implied both a right of the state, and a duty.
As the modern reader may well understand “regulate” meant that the state militia would be under the power of civilian authority in the state. It most definitely did not mean that power of “regulation” would extend to the Federal government.
Another meaning that may not be as obvious to the modern reader is the duty of the state to “regulate” the militia in the sense of keeping it as up to date and useful as possible (given the general disinclination of people then to tax and spend to pay for it, unless a threat was near at hand). A “well regulated” clock in that day was one adjusted to perform its function. In that sense a “well regulated militia” was one that was adjusted to perform its function as well as possible. Hence the real meaning, a largely civilian military organization controlled by civilians to protect the community, state, and ultimately the nation.
The state governments were expected to regulate the militia by first appointing capable officers to lead it, to set standards for equipping it, and require periodic training of the citizens who were in fact the militia. You can imagine that was popular with people who had to leave work and travel to some place for training, and to largely pay for their own rifles and equipment if they could afford it.
Imagine today that by law each able bodied man (and woman?) had to take off two weeks every year, buy an M-16 rifle and hundreds of rounds of ammunition and all the sundry backpacks, boots, etc., to equip an infantryman and travel to some designated spot in the state and practice shooting and military maneuvers. You may imagine this would be a hugely popular way to spend one’s accrued vacation leave from work.
Back in the day the militias were often very democratic. Abraham Lincoln served in the militia in the Black Hawk War in 1832 and was elected as the captain of his company. At one point Lincoln had to wrestle another officer (and lost) for the right to a prime camping spot.
As one can easily imagine the officers were not always regulated so much in terms of military competence but rather by popularity and sometimes wealth and influence. But it seemed to have worked well enough for the needs of the time.
One very obvious virtue of a militia system is that it does not encourage military adventurism. Real people with real lives and jobs may be willing to do minimal duty to maintain a credible system of defense, but not too many would see that “defense” as extending to battlefields in Iraq or Afghanistan, especially without an offically declared state of war.
Today we have the National Guard as a reserve military force but it only vaguely resembles the militia of the Founders. You can read about the Militia Act of 1903, also called the “Dick Act,” for a fuller understanding of how that changed. Probably the most important aspect was the shifting of the power to control and regulate these forces to the Federal government and the professional military.
It may not entirely be a coincidence that not long after America has been involved in numerous global conflicts starting with WWI, WWII, the Korean War, the Vietnam War, Iraq, Afghanistan, and numerouls smaller and less well known interventions. At least in WWII there was a clear justification after Pearl Harbor and popular support was probably as unanimous as it has ever been for use of military force. There was also an official declaration of war, the very last time America has ever offically declared itself at war.
Before the Civil War the professional military remained relatively small as the Founders envisioned. After the Civil War the Republican Party largely supported the extermination of the native Americans in the west to further business interests (and political contributors) such as the Pacific Railroad. Professional military, many veterans of the Civil War, largely led that effort. General George Armstrong Custer was a shining example of that cadre of professional officers much in favor of anything but peacetime service.
Returning to the subject of the militia, simply put the militia of the Founders no longer exists as an officially recognized organization. The National Guard is the closest we have to that, but in fact they hardly resemble the militia of late 18th century America. The basic principle of state “regulation” is largely a memory and the idea of the National Guard fighting the regular Army to protect state’s rights is not very probable.
However the Founders thought primarily in principle and it would not be impossible to reform our military power more along the lines that the Founders intended. That might be possible, but it would certainly be very difficult given the concentration of power the Federal government has amassed since the Constitution was adopted in 1787. This concentration of power is exactly what the Founders feared most.
A possible model of a modern militia system is that of Switzerland where only about 5% of the military are full time professionals. The rest are part time soldiers who are drafted into military service. The Swiss are not well known for starting wars or for military adventurism around the world. During WWII the German Wehrmacht invaded a lot of countries and subjugated many of them but they did not attack Switzerland despite the enormous riches cached in Swiss banks.
Another virtue of a militia like that of Switzerland is that compulsory service in the military does instill some individual virtues and reminds the citizen that they have a moral responsibility to defend themselves and their country. The draft disappeared from America after the Vietnam War but only because a lot of parents objected to the government sending their kids off to fight a war half way around the world for purposes that many could not rationally justify in the name of moral self defense.
(As a Vietnam veteran myself I do understand that there were justifiable purposes to that war, and American soldiers won that war on the ground, only to have Democratic politicians surrender all that was won by a Congress led by Thomas “Tip” O’Neil after the resignation of President Nixon.)
A good militia system and stronger modern controls over its use would go a long way to making military service a more universal common denominator of experience for young people and would greatly discourage use of the military as a “global policeman” for causes that many Americans do not support (which does not preclude the possibility of the use of force for causes that are largely supported, for example, like WWII where the aggression of evil nations was clear for most people to see).
The sort of controls I would imagine would make it much harder to deploy military force around the world. For example, a declaration of war could be required for any significant military expedition where the lives of Americans would be put in harms way. At the very least a significant majority of Congress should have to vote to approve use of the professional military abroad. The power of the President to unilaterally commit American military forces should be very limited and only in the direst emergency to protect American lives. Last but not least I think it should be illegal to deploy the National Guard abroad without a declaration of war.
A modern militia not in the form of the 18th century, but recognizing some of the key principles of the 18th century thinkers who crafted the Constitution could be a very good idea. Some of those key principles are limited government and a universal duty to participate in the common defense. Then again perhaps the meaning of the 2nd Amendment would make sense in exactly the way the Founders intended.
** Some interesting and relevant links **
9 Things You Didn’t Know About the Second Amendment
The Unabridged Second Amendment
Is The Militia Obsolete?
Militia (with links to a lot more information)