The Militia – History

Since I wrote my article on the Militia Acts of 1792 (and since the new elected representatives of Virginia lost their collective minds), I’ve gotten a lot of questions on what I thought about what a modern militia would look like. What sort of structure would it have? What sort of missions would it perform? Who would be the head of the militia? How would it be standardized?

I’ve written a previous article on the purpose of the Second Amendment, and this first article will tie into that a little bit, hopefully without repeating it too much. I think it’s important to explore the history of a concept a little bit so that we can understand how we got where we are.

The militia had existed for many years prior to the founding of the United States under the British. When the Colonies broke away from England, many of the political thinkers of the day were adamantly opposed to the idea of a standing army. They saw what standing armies were frequently used for in Europe – suppression of the populace. Standing armies are also very expensive, and the United States was deeply in debt. A compromise was struck – there would be a small standing army, with the bulk of troops provided by the militia. The control of the militia was delegated to the governor of the state, unless called out by the President. The authority was granted to the President in the First Militia Act of 1792. The Second Militia Act of 1792 provided a layout for the organization of the militia within the states and attempted to do some small amount of standardization with arms and equipage.

The governance of the militia was updated throughout the years, with the “Dick Act” – the Militia Act of 1903 – finally stating that the militia had two components, the organized militia and the unorganized militia. You can still see these distinctions in US Code today. The organized militia is the National Guard. The unorganized militia is everyone else that fit the criteria. It should also be noted that some states have a wider definition of the militia than the national government does (such as Virginia).

To be honest, there were a lot of issues with the militia system, most of them related to funding, politics, and laziness. Many states didn’t fund their militia properly, or ensure that they were properly trained. Governors also liked to play politics with their militias, going so far as to say that the militia was for the defense of only their state and could not be moved outside the state. Multiple governors even refused to allow their militia to support the army when the United States was attacked during the War of 1812. Issues were also found in standardization or equipment and training between states. In fact, during several wars, the United States created a special corps called the United States Volunteers that weren’t militia or regular Army just to avoid these issues (and the political ones). One such group, the “Rough Riders” propelled a future President to fame.

Many of these Volunteer groups were members of military clubs in their respective localities prior to volunteering. These units paid for their own weapons and equipment and trained on their own, outside the established governmental militia and army system. Some of them were made up of wealthy individuals who viewed their membership as a status symbol and others were centered around a trade group, such as firefighters in New York. Similar groups can still be found today in Switzerland. These groups train on weapons and tactics in between their mandated drill weekends because they feel that the allotted training time is insufficient for proficiency.

Hopefully this has provided a tiny bit of background on the militia concept. Entire books could be written about the issues with the militia system as it was executed early in the history of the United States. Most of them boil down to standard human responses. We put money and time where we see value. If people don’t see value in militia service, they won’t put in the effort to be good at it. State governments are the same way. Given a restricted level of funding, money goes where either it is most needed or where the politician authorizing it benefits most. One final note – as evidenced by the Volunteer concept, it was the formal militia system that failed, not the idea of the citizen soldier. This will be an important distinction to remember as we continue in this series.

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