Citizen Soldier and the American Militia

Background

Lucius Quintus Cincinnatus

The story of Lucius Quintus Cincinnatus, as with most of what we know about the ancient world, is wrapped in both fact and myth.  Historians believe this because ancient record-keepers were more storytellers than historians. It is also likely that what they didn’t know as an absolute fact, they made up.  That’s what storytellers do — and it usually does make for a good story. 

In any case, according to the story, Cincinnatus saved Rome on two occasions.  In 458 BC and 439 BC, the Senate of Rome summoned Cincinnatus, a modest farmer, and gave him dictatorial powers to raise an army to defend Rome — which he accomplished.  Then, when the fighting was over, Cincinnatus promptly relinquished his power and returned to his beets.

If the story is true, then the account of Cincinnatus could provide us with the earliest example of a citizen-soldier (also known as militia).  A militia is a military force raised from the civilian population during an emergency to serve in defense of the state (or community) or enforce the laws thereof.

Four hundred years later, during the Gallic Wars (a series of conflicts between 58-50 BC), Julius Caesar invaded Britannia because the Celts aided and assisted the enemies of Rome.[1]  Once Caesar had completed his punitive campaign, he returned to the continent — mission accomplished.

Rome’s formal occupation of Britain occurred between 43-410 AD.[2]  Roman government in Britain started well enough, but bribery, fraud, and treasonous behavior soon followed — presumably because corruption was part of Rome’s political landscape.  Apparently, this is something the United States inherited from the ancients, as well.  But life in Roman-Britain was further complicated by a more-or-less constant stream of invasions and assaults on Roman settlements by those who objected to Rome’s presence: the Picts, Irish/Scots, and later, the Anglo-Saxon hordes.  By the beginning of the fifth century, Rome’s military resources were stretched to the limit. A more pressing need for military manpower at home forced the Romans to withdraw their legions.[3]

During Britain’s Anglo-Saxon period (410-660), also known as the Migration Period, massive numbers of Germanic people escaped the chaos of their homeland and made their way to the Albion shore.  Upon arrival, they quickly learned that they were no safer in Britain because of the constant presence of marauders from northern Europe.  At best, these invaders helped create a sense of insecurity among the British people — at worst, the seeds of national paranoia.  Of course, when people are trying to kill you, then you aren’t paranoid.

During this period of great peril, Anglo-Saxons established a tradition called “the common burden.”  It was an obligation of community service toward the collective defense of towns and villages, and it was particularly noteworthy in the ancient settlements of Kent, Mercia, and Wessex.  It would be safe to say that thousands of able-bodied men were called upon to defend their boroughs from evil-doers over several hundred years.  By the 10th century, the common burden tradition had evolved, and it became the duty of landowners to assume the responsibility for organizing and maintaining armed militias.

Following the Norman invasion of England in 1066, William I saw the wisdom and prudence of local militias, and he incorporated the Anglo-Saxon tradition of the common burden.  William’s grandson, Henry I of England, mandated the following: “He will possess these arms and will bear allegiance to the Lord King Henry, namely the son of Empress Maud, and he will bear these arms in His service according to His order and in allegiance to the Lord King and his realm.” — The Assize of Arms, 1181.[4]

The Common Burden

The Assize of Arms established armed militias (on-call) by dividing the free populations into socio-economic categories.  Those who were wealthiest had the greater obligation to acquire and maintain various prescribed weapons.  In 1285, the Statute of Winchester expanded the Assize to include every able-bodied male person regardless of their status (free men or those bonded to the land), who were between 15 and 60.  Local gentry made the decision which of them served and under what circumstances.  The Statute stated, “Every man shall have in his house arms for keeping peace according to the ancient Assize.”[5]  When called upon, the duty of these men might include expeditions away from their shire, local guard duty, local defense, and occasionally escort duties.  Feudal military service ended during the reign of Edward III (1327-1377) — replaced by indentured service.[6]

Indentured soldiers incurred an obligation to serve their lord for a specified length of time.  It was the beginning of the profession of arms.  When the lord no longer needed professional soldiers or could no longer afford them, he might sell the contract to another, or the lord might have permitted the soldier to serve another as a mercenary.  In this way, soldiers began migrating from one conflict to another — mainly because the profession of arms is all they knew how to do.

A problem arose when there were no conflicts.  In these instances, it was common to find that soldiers turned to outlawry — marauders who preyed on defenseless hamlets, villages, or towns.  Circumstances like these caused town officials to return to the idea of local militias, and once more, locals served “on-call” of their community’s needs.

In 1581, British law stipulated, “If any [highborn] man being a Queen’s subject, and not having a reasonable cause or impediment, and being within the age of sixty years (except spiritual men, justices of the bench, or other justices of Assize, or barons of the Exchequer) have not a longbow and arrows ready in his house, or have not for every man child in his house between seven years and seventeen of age, a bow and two shafts, and every such being above seventeen years a bow and four shafts, or have not brought them up in shooting, if any man under the age of four and twenty years have not shot at standing targets (being above that age) have shot at any marks under eleven score yards with any pick shaft or flight,” shall be punished.

Colonial Militias

Translated, the Latin term Posse Comitatus means “force of the county.”  It refers to a citizens group assembled by officials to deal with an emergency.  The term also applied to any force or band called forth to confront hostiles. 

By the time the English fixed their sights on North America, France and Spain already claimed much of it, and neither kingdom was well-disposed to share it with Englishmen.  There was no regular English soldiery in the early formation of British colonies, so to protect themselves from assaults by Spanish coastal raiders and from hostile Indians sicced upon them by French colonial officials, English settlers created local militias modeled on those of the mother country.  These early American militias were crucial to the survival of the British colonies.

Colonial Militia

Naturally, the Englishmen who migrated to North America took with them their long-held British values and traditions.  Among these traditions was a general loathing for standing armies and the profession of arms.[7]  The reason for their profound contempt for the military was simple enough: British soldiers were instruments of government tyranny.  Even after more than 100 years, British-American colonists viewed the Redcoat as a clear and present danger to colonial autonomy and liberty.

Beyond the preceding, British-American settlements were bastions of Puritan values.  Outside instruments of a tyrannical parliament and king, American settlers were deeply offended by the uncouth Redcoat.  He was profane, bawdy, and addicted to Satan’s beverages.  Besides, the professional soldier was an outsider.  Militia, on the other hand, was part of the community.  They were family by blood or marriage, they were neighbors, and they were people who everyone could count on when needed — and so it was understandable that organized militia also viewed the Redcoats with suspicion.

The issue of suspicion and contempt was a two-way street because British regulars also had little regard for local militias.  In the view of professional soldiers, militias were undisciplined and unreliable mobs who tended to bolt once the sound of that first shot reverberated through their ranks.  This claim was, of course, valid.  Colonial militia were not soldiers; they were farmers.  They were undisciplined because they followed their own hook.  They decided for themselves whether they liked the odds on the battlefield.  More often than not, they made these decisions at the spur of the moment, prompted by others with similar fears, and usually, at the worst possible time.

The American militia was not an ideal defense mechanism, although some militias were more reliable than others.  Some militia refused to fight outside their county/colony — but there were also great successes, such as demonstrated at the Battle of Louisbourg in Nova Scotia.  But the militia was generally useful to colonial governments because once they activated the militia, officials could reposition the Redcoats elsewhere — where the need was greater.

Each British colony had a unique system for creating and maintaining its militia force.  In most cases, regulations specified “able-bodied white males between the ages of 18 to 45.”  Militias were formed under the auspices of the colonial charter, which required militia members to furnish their own armaments.

The first colonial militia was formed in Massachusetts in 1636.  Historians tell us that the early organization of the Massachusetts militia explains how the New England militias became part of the political framework.  More than one hundred years later, New England militia, having been thoroughly infiltrated by the Sons of Liberty, became the fuse that lit the American Revolution.[8]

From Colonial to American Militia

American militia became the foundation of the Continental Army and played an important role in General Washington’s strategies throughout the war of independence.  Militia carried out the siege of Boston, which gave Washington the time to organize his army and decide how best to prosecute the war.  It was the militia that later became part of Washington’s sophisticated spy network.

On April 19, 1775, American rebels and British regulars traded volleys at Concord Bridge. (North Wind Picture Archives/Alamy Stock Photo)

After the war, the colonist’s distrust of standing armies carried over to the new United States, and Congress disbanded the Army, Navy, and Marine Corps.  A small American Legion was restored, but the only seaborne force remaining was the Revenue Cutter Service.  Issues involving a state militia (and who should control it/pay for it) became hotly debated.

Despite the traditional distrust of standing armies, President Washington realized that the United States could not remain sovereign if it did not have the capacity of protecting its communities, ports, coastal regions, or its commerce — and so began the process of reconstituting the armed forces.  The timing of Washington’s initiatives could not have been better; the Quasi-War (with France) and the War of 1812 (in which the American militia played an important role) were just around the corner.

The militia is a long-held American tradition — part of our British heritage — and, one might argue, one that has maintained faith with its original purpose.  If modern Americans understood this history, they would realize that the strength of a community is that everyone belongs to it; everyone carries the burden of community obligation.  Community watch programs are one manifestation of this.  Community militias do not force membership — they are volunteer organizations.  Such militias offer no monetary benefit; there is only a sense of accomplishment by serving the community’s interests.  What are those interests?  Common cause, mutual security, and survival.

In early America, militia organizations combined military defense with community policing.  Militiamen served because their community needed them.  But as we all know, time changes all things.  In the past, American militia played a key role in the common burden even if it was not always professionally competent or efficient — but this is because they weren’t regular soldiers.  They were homeboys who did the best they could with what they had and, much like another militia unit that we’ve all learned to respect — the Texas Rangers — militiamen were often shoddy looking characters, undisciplined, and would only follow the orders of the officers they themselves respected and elected.  American militiaman decided whether and when to fight — and they chose when they’d had enough of it.

13th NY State Militia 1861

The American Civil War was a crossover period.  There were militia organizations back then, but they became fewer once the regular army assumed responsibility for protecting settlers from Indian hostilities.   They also became fewer in number when the law took hold.  County sheriffs could hire deputies and raise (volunteer) posses.  The United States had an army in 1861, but it wasn’t large enough to complete the task of preserving the Union.  It fell upon the states to raise a force of volunteers to augment the regular armies on both sides of the issue.  The people who volunteered to serve their state were the same kinds of people from an earlier period, albeit identifying more with their respective states than with their counties.  Even so, recruitment for state regiments came from one or more counties.  There were exceptions, of course.  The Kansas Red Legs and Missouri Bushwhackers are two — but it is difficult to say whether these were truly area militias or simply armed thugs with a mean streak.

Today there are state guard units and national guard organizations.  As one example, the Military Department of Texas includes the Texas State Guard and the Texas National Guard.  Together, these two organizations are regarded as the Texas State Militia.  The commander-in-chief of all state military forces is the governor, directed by the Adjutant General of Texas.  The governor of Texas commands the Texas Department of Public Safety similarly, including the Texas Rangers and other state troopers.  Unrelated to state government, there are also numerous volunteer militia groups throughout the United States.

Good vs. Bad, Right vs. Left

Texas State Militia on the border

Lately, almost every discussion about the Second Amendment to the Constitution of the United States — the right to bear arms, has become a political narrative.  There is nothing ambiguous about the Second Amendment, which states, “A well-regulated Militia, being necessary to the security of a free State, the right of the people to keep and bear arms, shall not be infringed.”  Nevertheless, some continue to argue against this Constitutional right and regularly seek ways to limit or deny that right to citizens of the United States.  Nearly every state addresses “the right of the people to keep and bear arms,” which is every state’s right under our system of constitutional federalism.  Still, the debate continues.   Pro-gun groups (including almost every private militia group) insist that the Second Amendment means what it says.   Anti-gun groups insist that guns in the hands of private citizens pose a danger to public safety.  Still, to make that argument, they must also ignore the history of the American militia.  Criminals in Chicago have managed to elevate their city to a murder capital in the United States; yet, not one of these murdering thugs has ever belonged to a militia organization.

By claiming that anyone who supports the Second Amendment is a racist or a domestic terrorist, anti-gun arguments have become particularly nasty.  In response, pro-gun enthusiasts echo the Gonzalez Flag of 1835: Come and take it.

Today, in making word associations between “militia” and “white supremacy” and “Bible-thumping Christians,” anti-gun criminals (those acting in contravention of the law) have increased the intensity of the debate, even claiming that gun-carrying citizens are un-American.  It is an interesting argument given the entire history of militias and the people’s right and responsibility to bear arms dating back to 500 AD.

The English Bill of Rights of 1689 allowed citizens to “have Arms for their Defence suitable to their Conditions and as allowed by the Law.”  In modern arguments, particularly among those with a pro-gun point of view, and given Sir William Blackstone’s ageless opinion,[9] we may argue that U.S. gun rights indeed are a primary example of American exceptionalism.  Moreover, gun-rights advocates strenuously argue that the Second Amendment is an American’s only protection from federal totalitarianism.[10]  When one considers the numerous instances where the federal government has violated the constitutional rights of the American people, it is impossible to find fault with that reasoning.

Among those who argue that militias of an earlier time were ‘white supremacists,’ it is only accurate in the sense that many American communities (north, south, southwest, midwest, and northwest) were mired in the filth of Democratic Party politics and remained in that morass through the early 1970s.  In the post-Civil War period, when radical Republicans placed the Freedman’s Bureau in charge of state governments, racial hatred increased — which serves as another example that too much government benefits no one.

Modern militias see themselves as a check against the totalitarian government — and while this would not have been possible in 1776, it certainly was the case a few years later during Shay’s Rebellion (Massachusetts) and the Whiskey Rebellion (western Pennsylvania).  Oddly, some militias supported the rebellion, and other militias joining President Washington’s ranks.  But returning to today, modern militias (generally) are not part of state mechanisms; they are privately organized, loosely connected groups of men and women who, for some reason, scare the hell out of the Democratic/Progressive Party apparatus.

Less than a year ago, federal authorities charged thirteen so-called Wolverine Watchmen (a Michigan-based militia) with terrorism, conspiracy, and weapons charges.  Six men faced additional charges, which included conspiracy to commit the kidnapping of Governor Gretchen Whitmer.  Lately, however, there is information that the entire episode was an FBI entrapment operation.  Among those who have no trust or confidence in the federal government, they will argue that this isn’t the first time the FBI has created a crime in order to make an arrest.  The ploy, so the argument goes, is first to outline a criminal act, plan it, participate in it, arrest the “perpetrators,” lay on them every possible criminal charge, and then let the event play out for years until no one even remembers what happened.  Meanwhile, if none of these fellows are convicted, the federal government has destroyed them financially.  There must be a lesson in all this, somewhere.

We should know that there are “bad actors” everywhere in our society, but if we hope to restore civil society, then we have to let the facts lead us to proper conclusions.  There may be some off-center militias in America today, but they are few in number, and we serve no good purpose by applying a too-broad brush stroke to militias that see themselves as serving their communities.

Sources:

  1. AL Schuler, A.  Sir William Blackstone and the Shaping of American Law.  New Law Journal, 1994.
  2. Beckett, I. F. W.  Britain’s Part-Time Soldiers: The Amateur Military Tradition, 1558-1945.  Barnsley: Pen & Sword Publishing, 2011.
  3. Barnett, R. E., and Heather Gerken.  Article I, Section 8: Federalism and the Overall Scope of Federal Power.  National Constitution Center online.
  4. Chermak, S. M.  Searching for a Demon: The Media Construction of the Militia Movement.  Dartmouth, 2002.
  5. Tucker, S. G.  Blackstone’s Commentaries: With Notes of Reference to the Constitution and Laws of the Federal Government of the United States and of the Commonwealth of Virginia, Volumes 5.  Philadelphia, 1803; Reprint 1969.
  6. United States Constitution, Amendment II, 1792.

Endnotes:

[1] Britannia is a personification of the ancient Roman Province, of the isles Britain and the British people; she is a helmeted female warrior, armed with a trident and a shield.  In earlier times, the Roman name for Britain was Albion.

[2] Occupation rather than conquest because it is doubtful that any historian can make the argument that the Romans ever conquered the British people. 

[3] By this time, of course, there was already a substantial Roman civilian presence in Britain.  It was a Roman custom to award large land grants to legionnaires once they had served 25-30 years under Rome’s standard.  These people and their descendants, became British farmers, blacksmiths, shopkeepers, and teamsters.

[4] Henry II of England, (also Henry Plantagenet) (1133-1189) (Reign 1150-1189) laid the foundation of English Common Law and influenced the development of societies in Brittany, Wales, and Scotland.  Henry’s creation of armed militia to serve on call of the lord king was a reaction no to the so-called Great Revolt (1173-75). 

[5] A court that convened at various intervals in each county of England and Wales to administer civil and criminal law.  These courts existed until 1972 when the civil jurisdiction of Assizes was transferred to the High Court, and criminal jurisdiction was assigned to the Crown Court.

[6] Military indenture was a legal contract between a soldier and the man he served.  The contract was written out twice on one sheet of paper and then cut into two in such a way that the jagged edges would fit together (hence the name indenture).  The soldier retained one part, his captain the other.  Any subsequent dispute would require that both parties fit the copies together to resolve the problem.

[7] Later reflected in the US Constitution: Article I, Section 8, Clause 12: [The Congress shall have the power …] “To raise and support armies, but no Appropriation of Money to that Use shall be for a longer term than two years.”

[8] Initially formed as a secret society/separatist group to advance the rights of citizens and oppose the arbitrary imposition of taxes.  The group disbanded after repeal of the Stamp Act, but the name was  taken up by other local groups prior to the outbreak of hostilities between the British government and the colonies.  Some might argue that secret societies and clandestine raids is a mark of cowards, bolstered by the fact that during the so-called Tea Party, they dressed themselves as Indians. 

[9] “This may be the true palladium of liberty … The right of self-defence is the first law of nature.  In most governments it has been the study of rulers to confine this right within the narrowest limits possible.  Whenever standing armies are kept up, and the right of the people to keep and bear arms is, under any colour or pretext whatsoever, prohibited, liberty, if not already annihilated, is on the brink of destruction.”  Sir William Blackstone, 1803.

[10] In an article by R. E. Barnett, Georgetown University Law Center and Heather Gerken, Professor of Law at Yale, the authors provided an overview of Article 1, Section 8: Federalism and the Overall Scope of Federal Power.  Historically, federal-state relations have always contested, with federalism undergoing four distinct phases: Enumerated Powers Federalism (1787), Fundamental Rights Federalism (1865), New Deal Federalism (1933), and State Sovereignty Federalism (1986-).  The authors credit the Rehnquist Court with the revival of Enumerated Powers Federalism, and the Roberts Court, which continues the work of Rehnquist favoring state sovereignty over federal authoritarianism. 


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Mustang

US Marine (Retired), historian, writer.

7 thoughts on “Citizen Soldier and the American Militia”

  1. Bravo, Colonel. A very timely post. I pray there are only a few minor typos in my ensuing comment given my failing eyesight.

    I believe our Constitution has worked well in spite of the whacky Left’s containing onslaught on it AND us law-abiding citizens – while ignoring the filth amongst themselves and the three-letter agencies.

    I have talked about this very subject – militias – among close friends as well as about Sniffy Joe; it is amazing how he can foul things up so bad while working less than four hours a day.

    While we are on opposite coasts, I will follow you to the ends of the earth. You know what I mean.

    God bless you and the Corps – and the young Marines that needlessly perished in Kabul. Semper Fi.

    Liked by 1 person

  2. imo, Firearms are a waste of time in countering the government, but useful for protecting your own or someone elses life in some personal attack situation.
    I think a much better way to protest government is to do such as Australia is doing. The truckers have stopped moving goods. It might also be useful to find out where the politicos and rich fascists live and turn off their utlitiies. Block the roads like they do in France (or like biden did when he recently visited Cincinnati town center at rush hour) so the suckers can’t go anywhere unless they have private helicopters.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Of course, you’re right. The overwhelming power of the federal military renders small militia groups nearly laughable, and this fact should serve to remind us of the wisdom of our ancestors who never trusted “standing armies.”

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