The United States militia is enshrined in the Second Amendment of the Constitution. And while the militia movement of today is widely known, its history – and the history of independent Constitutional militias stretching back to the dawn of the republic – is far less well known.
Why does this matter nowadays? Because understanding the historical roots of America’s militias helps modern-day members appreciate the role they play in our federal system of government. Because since inception, militias have been tasked with stopping those who hold public office from exceeding their authority or those seeking to enact legislation outside of their operating charter – a crucial check against incremental encroachment by the state, as James Madison wrote in the Federalist Papers on January 29, 1788:
“Besides the advantage of being armed, which the Americans possess over the people of almost every other nation, the existence of subordinate governments, to which the people are attached, and by which the militia officers are appointed, forms a barrier against the enterprises of ambition, more insurmountable than any which a simple government of any form can admit of.”
The militia is the final means of recourse in this cycle of self-government – and arguably the most important. Thus this is the first in a two-part historical series on America’s militias. The second part, American Militias after the Civil War: From Black Codes to the Black Panthers and Beyond, looks at additional changes this American institution underwent from Reconstruction onwards.
The vision of an American militia goes back even before the United States Constitution or the founding of the United States. In most states in colonial America, all able-bodied men were considered to be part of the militia – through which the individual towns and cities would provide for the common defense.
A militia is explicitly mentioned in the United States Constitution, prior to the Bill of Rights. Article I, Section 8, drafted around the same time as the founding of the Springfield Armory (ground zero for American ammunition manufacturing), mentions it three times alone:
Article II, Section 2 designates the President of the United States as the “Commander in Chief of the Army and Navy of the United States, and of the Militia of the several States.”
While the 1903 Militia Act is a relatively recent innovation to the world of the American militia, it is worth referencing, even if briefly, as we dive into our long history. The Militia Act of 1903 separates the militia into two groups:
In the pre-1903 Militia Act era, the line between the two is not so clearly defined. Many of the militias discussed below are organized and subject to statute, but not “organized” in the sense that they have official membership rolls, uniforms, or even significant involvement from their respective state and territorial governments. Much like the later independent or “Constitutional militia” movement, there is a rank, structure and a chain of command, but the organization is not necessarily subject to government oversight – other than having to comply with all relevant statutes. In the case of the militias of the Revolutionary War period, this is very fuzzy.
The militia is an outgrowth of an English common law institution. The word itself dates back to 1590. Originally, the word simply meant soldiers in the service of the state. By the mid-17th Century, however, it had taken on connotations of a civilian military force. It carried additional connotations in terms of a military raised in temporary service to respond to some kind of an emergency.
The early militias, on both sides of the Atlantic, served the purpose of both security and defense. These were particularly important in the New World, where attacks from hostile Indian tribes were a constant threat. Indeed, these militias played a key role in the French and Indian Wars, including the primary one taking place concurrently with the Seven Years War between the years 1754 and 1763.
During these periods, militias organized by towns were also the pool from which the Provincial Forces were drafted. This was, in fact, a rare occurrence. The Provincial Forces were one of the best-paying wage labor opportunities available to American colonists, so their ranks were rarely short.
While the Provincial Forces were very professional and disciplined, the militias were not. Indeed, no less an authority than George Washington (at that time the adjutant-general of the Virginia militia) noted that the militia was largely disorganized. He considered the militia fit for times of peace, but ill-equipped for times of war. Even during peace, the bulk of the colonial military were what are today Army Rangers – well paid, professional, highly disciplined, and accomplished.
The militias, however, played a central role in the American Revolution. The famous “Minutemen” – figures as iconic as the cowboy in American mythology – are, in fact, personifications and embodiments of the militia as it existed during the time of the American Revolution.
The history of the American militia cannot be discussed without talking about the Minutemen. These were effectively partisans in the war against the British, for which there is a subtle irony: The Minutemen harked back to the earliest traditions of the English countryside militia – ready on a moment’s notice.
Indeed, the militia is perhaps the British institution that most shaped the United States and its culture.
The British did not represent the entire militia, but the most disciplined and committed elements of it. They were, as the name implies, ready to go at a minute’s notice. They represented approximately a quarter of the entire force, and skewed toward the younger and more radical members of the revolutionary movement.
The roots of the Minutemen (and of the militia in general) lie in the old British colonial militia. In the Massachusetts Bay Colony, all able-bodied men between the ages of 16 and 60 were obligated to serve in the militia. By 1645, possibly earlier, there were men selected specially for rapid deployment segments of the militia, known as “training bands.” The term “Minutemen” was even used during this period. These were organized on a town-by-town basis, with some towns, notably Lexington, not having special rapid response units.