So this post has generated a lot of commentary for me—a lot more than most of my posts do.
Much of the commentary has been supportive: many people seem aware of the complex history of the militia in the United States, and to know how it was limited in its battle effectiveness … not to mention its long association with putting down slave rebellions in the American colonies. A few commentators suggested I was too dismissive of the role of the militia in the Revolution, noting it was a significant force in the Southern colonies during the war. This, as it happens, is true, and I tried to dodge some of those comments by sticking the phrase, “the militia had their uses in the Revolution” into my post. That was a bit too subtle for some, it seems.
Then there were the haters. For them, I was vile, hateful, stupid, ridiculous, moronic, and in at least one case, “full of shit.” For them, no facts matter, only the myth of the militia does. Their passion for the myth is only intensified by their sense that they, today, are reenacting their forefathers’ fateful stand against British tyranny.
One thing that’s striking about the myth of the militia is just how ancient it is. As it happens, the Framers started it … but not at all for the reasons you might think. Rather, they invented the myth of the militia for contemporary political reasons: to assuage popular fears that a new United States would build a standing army.See, the Framers hated the notion of a standing army. Such armies were both expensive and could be used as tools of state repression. They were anathema to republican ideology. On the other hand, militias had proved largely useless in the Revolution—useless enough in any case that George Washington, who ought to have known, really wanted the US to build a standing army. How to square this circle? Lie. Promise that the militia is the answer … even though you knew it wasn’t. Then hold on and hope for the best.As I put it in my book, Rage on the Right: The American Militia Movement from Ruby Ridge to Homeland Security:
Intellectually, the militia’s inadequacy during the Revolution presented the designers of the new nation’s government with a challenge: their practical experience emphasized the importance of permanent, professional military institutions even as their ideology insisted that such forces were dangerous. In response, even Federalist supporters of a strong central government and professional military forces came to assert the significance of the militia—particularly the right of private citizens to own guns that could be used in defense of liberty—in their Constitutional theory. Two quotes from the Federalist Papers can illustrate this move. Writing in defense of the establishment of a standing army in Federalist , for example, Alexander Hamilton, as strong an advocate of centralized government power as could be found among the Constitution’s creators, nonetheless insisted that militia power could be used to check the power of a professional military by using tactics that mimicked those allegedly used effectively by the militia during the war:
“If the representatives of the people betray their constituents, there is then no resource left but in the exertion of that original right of self-defense which is paramount to all positive forms of government…. If the federal army should be able to quell the resistance of one State, the distant States would be able to make head with fresh forces. The advantages obtained in one place must be abandoned to subdue the opposition in others; and the moment the part which had been reduced to submission was left to itself, its efforts would be renewed, and its resistance revive.”
James Madison made similar arguments in Federalist , even going so far as to claim, against all immediate experience, that the Revolution was won by the armed militia:
“Let a regular army, fully equal to the resources of the country, be formed; and let it be entirely at the devotion of the federal government: still it would not be going too far to say that the State governments with the people on their side would be able to repel the danger… . To [this army] would be opposed a militia amounting to near half a million citizens with arms in their hands, officered by men chosen from among themselves, fighting for their common liberties and united and conducted by governments possessing their affections and confidence. It may well be doubted whether a militia thus circumstanced could ever be conquered by such a proportion of regular troops. Those who are best acquainted with the late successful resistance of this country against the British will be most inclined to deny the possibility of it.”
This is virtually guaranteed, Madison continues, because U.S. citizens have “the advantage of being armed, which the Americans possess over the people of almost every other nation.” The myth of the militia thus became a tool with which early political leaders, even those advocating relatively centralized political power and having experienced the inadequacy of the militia during the Revolution, could resolve the needs of modern political systems for organized militaries while answering the demands of republican ideology.The Framers’ legacy lingers today in the echoes of quotes in which the Framers are seen to have wanted the militia to protect us against an evil state. In fact, what they were doing was reassuring their fellow citizens that the US wouldn’t need to build a standing army. But such nuance has been lost to the mythologizers. Instead, the Framers’ words magically foretold life in the contemporary United States, where only heavily armed citizens can save America from “government.” Made up of Americans. Elected by Americans.Because, you know. Because.