Several generations are now largely unfamiliar with the nature of the responsibilities once held by most Americans in the defense of our states, the United States, and their laws. We catch glimpses of unfamiliar settings and practices from movies taking place during the American Revolution or the 1800s. Talk about allowing, encouraging, or requiring citizens to be armed elicits derogatory comments about a return to the “Old West”. Suggesting a lawlessness that was settled at the barrel of a gun.
However, the reality that existed in the U.S., until the early 1900s, is that our national defense followed the pattern used by Switzerland for hundreds of years: the Militia. The first part of the Militia Act was signed into law by George Washington. This system continued (with occasional modifications) until the early 1900s, when it was replaced with the National Guard and Selective Service systems. This step increased the power of the federal government and weakened the responsibilities of the average citizen.
Essentially, most 18-45 year-old men were required to register and drill with their local militia. Communities were required to organize the men in their area as part of their state’s militia. Originally, each man was required to purchase his own firearm, which was protected by law, even if he owed taxes or other debts. Imagine that! You could take almost anything from a debtor–except his gun. There was other equipment each man was required to maintain as well. They were under obligation to train and conduct drills with their units.
So what were the obligations of the men in these militias? The U.S. Constitution (Article I, Section 8) provides powers to Congress for raising revenue for the purpose, in part:
“To provide for the calling forth the Militia to execute the Laws of the Union, suppress insurrections and repel invasions; …”
This describes some of the duties and obligations of the Militia. I addressed these in part in my blog on the right to bear arms. I will provide another angle to that argument in attempting to expand our understanding of the usefulness of the Militia.
1) To Execute the Laws of the Union:
In movies about the Old West, we often find the local Sheriff or Marshall calling together a posse. We may think about the Posse Comitatus laws as being the justification for calling together a posse, which is partly true. However, it was also a responsibility of the Militia to execute federal law when “called forth.” A Federal Marshall, having the authority to execute the laws of the Union, calls upon members of the Militia to fulfill their duties in assisting him in the execution of those laws. In those days, “calling for back-up” meant calling upon members of the Militia to form a posse.
2) To Suppress Insurrections:
The next time the Militia was expected to be called into action was in the event of rebellion. This is a more widespread refusal to follow the laws of the Union, with examples in our history such as the Whiskey Rebellion (a rejection of taxes imposed on whiskey) and the Civil War, in which militias from the North were called into action to help suppress the rebellion of the southern states and their militias.
3) To Repel Invasions:
In border states of the western frontier (however East that may have been at the time), Militias were often called up to defend communities and the nation from attack. A rather small U.S. Army originally relied on the residents in borders areas to protect against invasion and attack.
The opponents of the Militia Act, of over a century ago, argued that it was inefficient and outdated, among other arguments. I will provide a few reasons why it is still relevant today (confessing that I believe it was a mistake to leave it). Here are some of my views about the need for, and benefits of, an updated Militia Act.
First, we must be responsible for our own freedom:
We have become too specialized in the United States. Specialization in many areas of our lives has made us more dependent than independent. Not only are we unaware of the many people and processes that provide us with the necessities of life, it seems that many people could not survive if those links were interrupted. However, the most troubling area of specialization is that of defending freedom. We have professional military and professional law enforcement. The voluntary service and bravery of these men and women should be treasured. They demonstrate a commitment to preserving our lives and our freedoms in our nation and communities. But what about those who are able, but do not serve? Do we contribute to our own freedom by paying taxes? Is that the price of freedom?
Specialization should never have reached a point where we consider ourselves so safe because of our citizenship that we do not take an active part in preserving our freedoms. I am not talking here about participating in every military action the latest administration decides we need, as our active-duty military is expected to do. I am talking about training, being prepared, and taking an active role in our own communities to support the laws. Too many in this country are far too willing to enjoy freedom without a willingness to place our lives on the line for it.
We were endowed by our Creator with a right to Liberty. It is a precious gift, more valuable than life or fortune. It is so precious that the selfish become jealous and will want to take it from you. Protecting this gift is a sacred honor, because it allows us to worship Him according to our own conscience. We are weak to protect it individually, but, if we are united, we can preserve it as the best inheritance we can give to our children. If we do not make individual effort to protect this gift, we will lose it. If we leave its protection to others, instead of standing united in its active defense, those who seek to take it from us will chip away until there is nothing left to protect. We are nearly at that point when, looking at the remains of the gift, people begin to give up and question the value of the gift. They pay extortionists to protect it from thieves and robbers–constantly granting a bigger piece of the gift for the ever-increasing demands of protection. If we expect others to treat our gift with respect, we must respect and preserve it.
Using the previous three responsibilities of the Militia, I will illustrate the benefits we could have now:
1) Law Enforcement:
Imagine almost every adult male in the United States being trained in the use of firearms, understanding Constitutional rights (including search and seizure), and owning at least one firearm (a rifle) by law. Now think about a crime being committed in a neighborhood, or an apartment complex. What would the response time be for law enforcement?
Essentially, every adult male, between the ages of 18-45, could be trained at the level of a reserve law enforcement officer. Instead of a neighborhood watch calling the police when a crime is committed, they could call full-time police and also legally respond to the crime in progress with a number of other trained neighbors. The neighborhood tactical team takes the person into custody and secures the scene until the full-time police arrive.
With the equipment being provided over time by each Militia member, the costs of law enforcement would go down, including the number of full-time officers needed, while the safety of communities would increase.
2) Disaster Response and Constitutional Defense:
The specialties of Militia members from two hundred years ago would certainly be updated. This can include radio operators, medical, fire protection, and other important functions. Now imagine the number of people trained to support a disaster in any community throughout the United States. In addition to their daily work, almost all adult males would learn skills that would be vital to the safety of their neighbors during a crisis. The original provision for “able-bodied” men could extend to those with disabilities, but who are able to provide less physical skills in support.
The type of insurrection that most people in the United States seem to ignore, or flatly dismiss, is the possibility of despotism and tyranny from our own government. An attempt by the government to overthrow the Constitution and establish a government in violation of our natural rights. In addition, ideological differences between large segments of the population may one day return us to a state of civil war. Militias would provide us with the power and authority at the state level to effectively counter attempts by the national government to overthrow our freedoms. At the same time, these state militias would be checked against insurrection by the joint forces of all other states and the national military. The nature of people has not changed. As such, the dangers of tyrannical government have not changed. Our Constitution has slowed the progress towards tyranny, but we are not immune in the U.S.
3) National Defense:
Already, the number of firearms in homes throughout the United States stands as a deterrent to potential foreign aggressors. Our military is second to none in its technology, training, and courage. However, this does not make us invincible. The world has a strange relationship with the United States. Even our long-time allies do not always sound like allies. Our foreign and defense policies have attempted to take the fighting to our enemies and even our potential enemies, as we encourage, train, and support surrogates. We have an intimidating presence in the world. At the same time, we have spread our forces thin and drastically increased our debt. Militias would be able to ensure protection at home, wherever our active-duty or reserve military may be called to fight, and at very little cost during peacetimes.
The Militia is a responsibility of citizenship. It is also a largely volunteer service in which militia members provide most of their own equipment. They would not be paid for the regularly scheduled exercises, but they would be paid if they were called up for an emergency or for national defense. The buildup of equipment could be gradual over time, with some issued equipment for those who are unable to purchase their own. Requirements of equipment would also be kept to a minimum, but should at least include: a fully-automatic assault rifle (AR-15/M4 style, .223/5.56), extra magazines (compatible with other M4-style rifles), ammunition, body armor, and a radio. These things are not very cheap right now, but the drastic increase in demand (over a several-year transition period) will quickly drop those prices. The drill schedules would not need to be as frequent as Reservists or National Guard, but may average one day a month, or every two months. All Militia members would begin with an Basic Training that would include firearms training and laws, but could continue training on-the-job during their exercise periods in whatever skill they may choose, which is needed in their area. All would benefit from early training in rights, laws, and procedures for law enforcement in their respective states and communities, in order to provide effective support for the enforcement of laws in their area.
The main thing missing from this plan: Public Support. Despite the increased safety, decreased costs, and benefit to liberty in the United States, we have been taught to fear this system because of a distrust for others. We may be happy to trust ourselves, but afraid to trust our neighbors. It will raise fears of abusing authority and of widespread death and destruction. In addition, too many Americans do not want to bear the responsibility for their own safety and freedom, let alone the safety and freedom of others.
Why do I think this could work (assuming the public ever got on board)? We can trust each other. Even in the last 12 years, we have shown time and again that we are ready to defend the lives and liberties of our fellow Americans. From the heroes of 9/11–and particularly the civilians, such as on Flight 93–, who knowingly sacrificed their own lives to save others, to the large numbers who volunteered for military service to defend us against terrorism, to the teachers and principal at Sandy Hook Elementary who sacrificed their lives to save children and attempt to stop the shooter. All of them showed courage in defending life and liberty. All of them lived up to their sacred honor. I am convinced there are many more who are ready to do exactly the same, if it is needed. We can trust each other with these responsibilities. It does not mean we will automatically solve our problems with violence, as the fear seems to be. It means we will be equipped to stand up against aggressors when that time arrives.
The Militia Act of 1792, passed May 8, 1792, Article I:
“I. 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. And it shall at all time hereafter be the duty of every such Captain or Commanding Officer of a company, to enroll every such citizen as aforesaid, and also those who shall, from time to time, arrive at the age of 18 years, or being at the age of 18 years, and under the age of 45 years (except as before excepted) shall come to reside within his bounds; and shall without delay notify such citizen of the said enrollment, by the proper non-commissioned Officer of the company, by whom such notice may be proved. That every citizen, so enrolled and notified, shall, within six months thereafter, provide himself with a good musket or firelock, a sufficient bayonet and belt, two spare flints, and a knapsack, a pouch, with a box therein, to contain not less than twenty four cartridges, suited to the bore of his musket or firelock, each cartridge to contain a proper quantity of powder and ball; or with a good rifle, knapsack, shot-pouch, and powder-horn, twenty balls suited to the bore of his rifle, and a quarter of a pound of powder; and shall appear so armed accoutred and provided, when called out to exercise or into service, except, that when called out on company days to exercise only, he may appear without a knapsack. That the commissioned Officers shall severally be armed with a sword or hanger, and espontoon; and that from and after five years from the passing of this Act, all muskets from arming the militia as is herein required, shall be of bores sufficient for balls of the eighteenth part of a pound; and every citizen so enrolled, and providing himself with the arms, ammunition and accoutrements, required as aforesaid, shall hold the same exempted from all suits, distresses, executions or sales, for debt or for the payment of taxes.”