america’s militias - 4/18/22

Today's selection -- from The Fires of Philadelphia by Zachary M. Schrag. The history of militias in America:
"American militias were the institutional descendants of the fyrd of Anglo­-Saxon England -- an assemblage of all able-bodied, freeborn men between the ages of sixteen and sixty, who were required to bear arms against invasion or disorder whenever called upon to do so. Britons took care to distinguish their militias from the standing armies of the European continent, which they saw as instruments of despotism. Starting in the 1650s, English radical Whigs warned that a professional army would be more loyal to the king -- who paid its salary and promoted its officers -- than to the people. Moreover, the expense of maintaining an army meant higher taxes. By contrast, these thinkers argued, militias composed of landowning citizens were liberty's guarantors. These locally organized, part-time soldiers, they believed, would remain loyal to their communities rather than to a despotic monarch. A militia composed of the people would not act against the people.

"English colonists brought these ideas with them across the Atlantic. By the early eighteenth century, most of the British North American colonies had organized militias composed of more or less all free white men, regard­less of property, who were required to muster periodically, bringing weapons with them. Because of its Quaker origins, Pennsylvania was something of an exception, but even there men formed armed companies at times of war with France. Then, as tensions with Britain increased in the winter of 1774-1775, the colonies reorganized their militias under locally elected officers, who could be expected to uphold traditional liberties. As the Revo­lutionary War progressed, however, the disappointing performance of state militias led Congress to rely more and more on Continental troops -- often poorer men, lured by large bounties into long enlistments.

Commission for James Hillhouse in the Governor's Foot Guards, June, 1779

"In the aftermath of war, the framers of the Constitution had new concerns about weak or disloyal militias to complement their old fears of standing armies. They resolved these doubts by establishing a hybrid system that divided responsibility for the militia between the federal and state governments. Congress would 'provide for organizing, arming and disciplining the militia,' while the states would be responsible for appointing officers and training the men. Still, this was too much for the Anti-Federalists, who feared that the shift of power from the local to national governments would replace law enforcement based on 'affection to the government' with enforcement by a standing army. The result was the passage of the Constitution's Second Amendment, which guaranteed 'the right of the people to keep and bear Arms,' ambiguously linking that right to the need for a 'well regulated Militia.'

"By the 1820s, with the threat of European invasion diminished, com­pulsory militia muster seemed less a patriotic duty and more an obsolete ritual that deprived working men of a day's wages. Those who could afford them paid fines for delinquency or bought bogus certificates of exemption from unscrupulous surgeons. Poorer men grudgingly attended muster, then did everything they could to express their annoyance. Some reported for duty armed with pitchforks or umbrellas rather than muskets, or threw eggs at their officers. In Philadelphia, a regiment elected a deformed ostler as colonel, then dressed him in an absurd uniform and armed him with a rusty sword. In later years, some companies stopped holding elections entirely, leaving regiments without the required number of officers. 'The fact is undeniable,' a Philadelphia newspaper lamented, 'the trainings of ununiformed militia have gradually sunk the military pride of our citizens to so low an ebb that nothing short of the actual breaking out of a war seems likely to revive it.' Another suggested abolishing the annual musters entirely: 'nothing can be more farcical than to suppose them ever capable of putting the people in a posture for defence.'"



Zachary M. Schrag


The Fires of Philadelphia


Pegasus Books


June 1, 2021


barns and noble booksellers
Support Independent Bookstores - Visit

All delanceyplace profits are donated to charity and support children’s literacy projects.


Sign in or create an account to comment