During colonial America, all able-bodied men of certain ages were members of the militia, depending on the respective states rule. Individual towns formed local independent militias for their own defense. The year before the US Constitution was ratified, The Federalist Papers detailed the founders' paramount vision of the militia in 1787. The new Constitution empowered Congress to "organize, arm, and discipline" this national military force, leaving significant control in the hands of each state government.
Congress has organized the National Guard under its power to "raise and support armies" and not its power to "Provide for organizing, arming and disciplining the Militia". This Congress chose to do in the interests of organizing reserve military units which were not limited in deployment by the strictures of our power over the constitutional militia, which can be called forth only "to execute the laws of the Union, suppress insurrections and repel invasions." The modern National Guard was specifically intended to avoid status as the constitutional militia, a distinction recognized by 10 U.S.C. Sec 311(a).
The term "militia" derives from Old English milite meaning soldiers (plural), militisc meaning military and also classical Latin milit-, miles meaning soldier.
The Modern English term militia dates to the year 1590, with the original meaning now obsolete: "the body of soldiers in the service of a sovereign or a state". Subsequently, since approximately 1665, militia has taken the meaning "a military force raised from the civilian population of a country or region, especially to supplement a regular army in an emergency, frequently as distinguished from mercenaries or professional soldiers". The U.S. Supreme Court adopted the following definition for "active militia" from an Illinois Supreme Court case of 1879: " 'a body of citizens trained to military duty, who may be called out in certain cases, but may not be kept on service like standing armies, in times of peace'. . . when not engaged at stated periods . . . they return to their usual avocations . . . and are subject to call when public exigencies demand it."
See article: Colonial American military history
The early colonists of America considered the militia an important social institution, necessary to provide defense and public safety.
See article: Provincial troops in the French and Indian Wars
During the French and Indian Wars, town militia formed a recruiting pool for the Provincial Forces. The legislature of the colony would authorize a certain force level for the season's campaign and set recruitment quotas for each local militia. In theory, militia members could be drafted by lot if there were inadequate forces for the Provincial Regulars; however, the draft was rarely resorted to because provincial regulars were highly paid (more highly paid than their regular British Army counterparts) and rarely engaged in combat.
... he experienced all the evils of insubordination among the troups, perverseness in the militia, inactivity in the officers, disregard of orders, and reluctance in the civil authorities to render a proper support. And what added to his mortification was, that the laws gave him no power to correct these evils, either by enforcing discipline, or compelling the indolent and refractory to their duty ... The militia system was suited for only to times of peace. It provided for calling out men to repel invasion; but the powers granted for effecting it were so limited, as to be almost inoperative.
See New Hampshire Provincial Regiment for a history of a Provincial unit during the French and Indian War.
Just prior to the American Revolutionary War, on October 26, 1774, the Massachusetts Provincial Congress, observing the British military buildup, deemed their militia resources to be insufficient: the troop strength, "including the sick and absent, amounted to about seventeen thousand men ... this was far short of the number wanted, that the council recommended an immediate application to the New England governments to make up the deficiency":
... they recommended to the militia to form themselves into companies of minute-men, who should be equipped and prepared to march at the shortest notice. These minute-men were to consist of one quarter of the whole militia, to be enlisted under the direction of the field-officers, and divide into companies, consisting of at least fifty men each. The privates were to choose their captains and subalterns, and these officers were to form the companies into battalions, and chose the field-officers to command the same. Hence the minute-men became a body distinct from the rest of the militia, and, by being more devoted to military exercises, they acquired skill in the use of arms. More attention than formerly was likewise bestowed on the training and drilling of militia.
The American Revolutionary War began near Boston, Massachusetts with the Battles of Lexington and Concord, in which a group of local militias constituted the American side (the "Patriots"). On April 19, 1775, a British force 800 strong marched out of Boston to Concord intending to destroy patriot arms and ammunition. At 5:00 in the morning at Lexington, they met about 70 armed militiamen whom they ordered to disperse, but the militiamen refused. Firing ensued; it is not clear which side opened fire. This became known as "the shot heard round the world". Eight militiamen were killed and ten wounded, whereupon the remainder took flight. The British continued on to Concord and were unable to find most of the arms and ammunition of the patriots. As the British marched back toward Boston, patriot militiamen assembled along the route, taking cover behind stone walls, and sniped at the British. At Meriam's Corner in Concord, the British columns had to close in to cross a narrow bridge, exposing themselves to concentrated, deadly fire. The British retreat became a rout. It was only with the help of an additional detachment of 900 troops that the British force managed to return to Boston. This marked the beginning of the war. It was "three days after the affair of Lexington and Concord that any movement was made towards embodying a regular army".
In 1777, the Second Continental Congress adopted the Articles of Confederation, which contained a provision for raising a confederal militia that consent would be required from nine of the 13 States. Article VI of the Articles of Confederation states,
... every State shall always keep up a well-regulated and disciplined militia, sufficiently armed and accoutered, and shall provide and constantly have ready for use, in public stores, a due number of field pieces and tents, and a proper quantity of arms, ammunition and camp equipage.
Some militia units appeared without adequate arms, as evidenced in this letter from John Adams to his wife, dated August 26, 1777:
The militia are turning out with great alacrity both in Maryland and Pennsylvania. They are distressed for want of arms. Many have none, we shall rake and scrape enough to do Howe's business, by favor of the Heaven.
The initial enthusiasm of Patriot militiamen in the beginning days of the war soon waned. The historian Garry Wills explains,
The fervor of the early days in the reorganized militias wore off in the long grind of an eight-year war. Now the right to elect their own officers was used to demand that the men not serve away from their state. Men evaded service, bought substitutes to go for them as in the old days, and had to be bribed with higher and higher bounties to join the effort – which is why Jefferson and Samuel Adams called them so expensive. As wartime inflation devalued the currency, other pledges had to be offered, including land grants and the promise of "a healthy slave" at the end of the war. Some men would take a bounty and not show up. Or they would show up for a while, desert, and then, when they felt the need for another bounty, sign up again in a different place. ... This practice was common enough to have its own technical term – "bounty jumping".
The burden of waging war passed to a large extent to the standing army, the Continental Army. The stay-at-home militia tended then to perform the important role of the internal police to keep order. British forces sought to disrupt American communities by instigating slave rebellions and Indian raids. The militia fended off these threats. Militias also spied on Loyalists in the American communities. In Albany County, New York, the militia established a Committee for Detecting and Defeating Conspiracies to look out for and investigate people with suspicious allegiances.
Politically, the militia was highly popular during the postwar period, though to some extent, based more on pride of victory in the recent war than on the realities. This skepticism of the actual value of relying upon the militia for national defense, versus a trained regular army was expressed by Gouverneur Morris:
An overweening vanity leads the fond many, each man against the conviction of his own heart, to believe or affect to believe, that militia can beat veteran troops in the open field and even play of battle. This idle notion, fed by vaunting demagogues, alarmed us for our country, when in the course of that time and chance, which happen to all, she should be at war with a great power.
Robert Spitzer, citing Daniel Boorstin, describes this political dichotomy of the public popularity of the militia versus the military value:
While the reliance upon militias was politically satisfying, it proved to be an administrative and military nightmare. State detachments could not be easily combined into larger fighting units; soldiers could not be relied on to serve for extended periods, and desertions were common; officers were elected, based on popularity rather than experience or training; discipline and uniformity were almost nonexistent.
General George Washington defended the militia in public, but in correspondence with Congress expressed his opinion of the militia quite to the contrary:
To place any dependence on the Militia, is, assuredly, resting upon a broken staff. Men just dragged from the tender Scenes of domestic life; unaccustomed to the din of Arms; totally unacquainted with every kind of military skill, which being followed by a want of confidence in themselves, when opposed to Troops regularly trained, disciplined, and appointed, superior in knowledge and superior in Arms, makes them timid, and ready to fly from their own shadows ... if I was called upon to declare upon Oath, whether the Militia have been most serviceable or hurtful upon the whole, I should subscribe to the latter.
In Shays' Rebellion, a Massachusetts militia that had been raised as a private army defeated the main Shays site force on February 3, 1787. There was a lack of an institutional response to the uprising, which energized calls to reevaluate the Articles of Confederation and gave strong impetus to the Constitutional Convention which began in May 1787.
At the end of the Revolutionary War, a political atmosphere developed at the local level where the militia was seen with fondness, despite their spotty record on the battlefield. Typically, when the militia did act well was when the battle came into the locale of the militia, and local inhabitants tended to exaggerate the performance of the local militia versus the performance of the Continental Army. The Continental Army was seen as the protector of the States, though it also was viewed as a dominating force over the local communities. Joseph Reed, president of Pennsylvania viewed this jealousy between the militia forces and the standing army as similar to the prior frictions between the militia and the British Regular Army a generation before during the French and Indian War. Tensions came to a head at the end of the war when the Continental Army officers demanded pensions and set up the Society of the Cincinnati to honor their own wartime deeds. The local communities did not want to pay national taxes to cover the Army pensions, when the local militiamen received none.
The delegates of the Constitutional Convention (the founding fathers/framers of the United States Constitution) under Article 1; section 8, clauses 15 and 16 of the federal constitution, granted Congress the power to "provide for organizing, arming, and disciplining the Militia", as well as, and in distinction to, the power to raise an army and a navy. The US Congress is granted the power to use the militia of the United States for three specific missions, as described in Article 1, section 8, clause 15: "To provide for the calling of the militia to execute the laws of the Union, suppress insurrections, and repel invasions." The Militia Act of 1792 clarified whom the militia consists of:
Be it enacted by the Senate and House of Representatives of the United States of America, in Congress assembled, That each and every free able-bodied white male citizen of the respective States, resident therein, who is or shall be of age of eighteen years, and under the age of forty-five years (except as is herein after excepted) shall severally and respectively be enrolled in the militia, by the Captain or Commanding Officer of the company, within whose bounds such citizen shall reside, and that within twelve months after the passing of this Act.
At the time of the drafting of the Constitution, and the Bill of Rights, a political sentiment existed in the newly formed United States involving suspicion of peacetime armies not under civilian control. This political belief has been identified as stemming from the memory of the abuses of the standing army of Oliver Cromwell and King James II, in Great Britain in the prior century, which led to the Glorious Revolution and resulted in placing the standing army under the control of Parliament. During the Congressional debates, James Madison discussed how a militia could help defend liberty against tyranny and oppression. (Source I Annals of Congress 434, June 8, 1789) Though during his presidency, after enduring the failures of the militia in the War of 1812, Madison came to favor the maintenance of a strong standing army.
A major concern of the various delegates during the constitutional debates over the Constitution and the Second Amendment to the Constitution revolved around the issue of transferring militia power held by the States (under the existing Articles of Confederation) to Federal control.
Congress shall have the power ... to provide for organizing, arming, and disciplining, the Militia, and for governing such Part of them as may be employed in the Service of the United States, reserving to the States respectively, the Appointment of the Officers, and the Authority of training the Militia according to the discipline prescribed by Congress— US Constitution, article 1, section 8, clause 15
The President shall be Commander in Chief of the Army and Navy of the United States, and of the Militia of the several States, when called into the actual Service of the United States; he may require the Opinion, in writing, of the principal Officer in each of the executive Departments, upon any Subject relating to the Duties of their respective Offices, and he shall have Power to grant Reprieves and Pardons for Offences against the United States, except in Cases of Impeachment.— US Constitution, article II, section 2, clause 1
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Records of the constitutional debate over the early drafts of the language of the Second Amendment included significant discussion of whether service in the militia should be compulsory for all able bodied men, or should there be an exemption for the "religiously scrupulous" conscientious objector.
The concern about risks of a "religiously scrupulous" exemption clause within the second amendment to the Federal Constitution was expressed by Elbridge Gerry of Massachusetts (from 1 Annals of Congress at 750, 17 August 1789):
The "religiously scrupulous" clause was ultimately stricken from the final draft of second amendment to the Federal Constitution though the militia clause was retained. The Supreme Court of the United States has upheld a right to conscientious objection to military service.
Concern over select militias
William S. Fields & David T. Hardy write:
Note: In Federalist Paper 29 Hamilton argued the inability to train the whole Militia made select corps inevitable and, like Madison, paid it no concern.
Federalist period (1789–1801)
In 1794, a militia numbering approximately 13,000 was raised and personally led by President George Washington to quell the Whiskey Rebellion in Pennsylvania. From this experience, a major weakness of a States-based citizen militia system was found to be the lack of systematic army organization, and a lack of training for engineers and officers. George Washington repeatedly warned of these shortcomings up until his death in 1799. Two days before his death, in a letter to General Alexander Hamilton, George Washington wrote: "The establishment of a Military Academy upon a respectable and extensive basis has ever been considered by me as an object of primary importance to this country; and while I was in the chair of government, I omitted no proper opportunity of recommending it in my public speeches, and otherwise to the attention of the legislature."
Early republic (1801–1812)
War of 1812 (1812–1815)
In the War of 1812, the United States militia, because of a lack of discipline and poor training, were often routed in battle on open ground by British regulars. They fared better and proved more reliable when protected behind defensive entrenchments and fixed fortifications, as was effectively shown at Plattsburgh, Baltimore, and New Orleans. Because of their overall ineffectiveness and failure during the war, militias were not adequate for the national defense. Military budgets were greatly increased at this time and a smaller, standing federal army, rather than States' militias, was deemed better for the national defense.
Antebellum era (1815–1861)
By the 1830s the American frontier expanded Westwards with Indian wars in the Eastern United States ending. Many states let their unorganised militia lapse in favour of volunteer militia units such as city guards who carried on in functions such as assisting local law enforcement, providing troops for ceremonies and parades or as a social club. The groups of company size were usually uniformed and armed through their own contributions. Volunteer units of sufficient size could elect their own officers and apply for a state charter under names that they themselves chose.
The states' militia continued service, notably, in the slave-holding states, to maintain public order by performing slave patrols to round up fugitive slaves.
Responding to criticisms of failures of the militia, Adjutant General William Sumner wrote an analysis and rebuttal in a letter to John Adams, May 3, 1823:
During this inter-war period of the nineteenth century, the states' militia tended towards being disorderly and unprepared.
Joseph Story laments in 1842 how the militia has fallen into serious decline:
Due to rising tensions between Latter-day Saints and their Missourian neighbors, in 1838, General David R. Atchison, the commander of the state militia of Northwestern Missouri, ordered Samuel Bogart to "prevent, if possible, any invasion of Ray County by persons in arms whatever". Bogart, who had participated in former anti-Mormon vigilante groups, proceeded to disarm resident Latter-day Saints and forced them to leave the county. In response David W. Patten led the Caldwell County militia to rescue Latter-day Saint residents from what they believed was a "mob". The confrontation between these two county militias (Ray and Caldwell) became known as the Battle of Crooked River and is a primary cause for Governor Lilburn Boggs issuing Missouri Executive Order 44. This order, often called the "Extermination Order", told the commander of the Missouri State Militia, General John B. Clark, that, "The Mormons must be treated as enemies, and must be exterminated or driven from the state if necessary for the public pease—their outrages are beyond description." In the following days Missouri militia killed 17 Latter-day Saints at Haun's Mill, laid siege to Far West, Missouri and jailed Latter-day Saint church leaders, including Joseph Smith.
During the violent political confrontations in the Kansas Territory involving anti-slavery Free-Staters and pro-slavery "Border Ruffians" elements, the militia was called out to enforce order on several occasions, notably during the incidents referred to as the Wakarusa War.
American Civil War
At the beginning of the American Civil War, neither the North or the South was nearly well enough prepared for war, and few people imagined the demands and hardships the war would bring. Just prior to the war the total peacetime army consisted of a paltry 16,000 men. Both sides issued an immediate call to forces from the militia, followed by the immediate awareness of an acute shortage of weapons, uniforms, and trained officers. State militia regiments were of uneven quality, and none had anything resembling combat training. The typical militia drilling at the time amounted to, at best, parade-ground marching. The militia units, from local communities, had never drilled together as a larger regiment, and thus lacked the extremely important skill, critically necessary for the war style of the time, of maneuvering from a marching line into a fighting line. Yet both sides were equally unready, and rushed to prepare.