Whig political philosophy had long warned against a large “standing army”—i.e., the sort of military we now have—as likely to oppress people’s natural rights during peacetime. The Whig view of the world saw a broad-based militia–something we don’t have now—as the obviously superior alternative.
At the end of the Revolutionary War, it looked possible for the U.S. of A. to achieve that Whiggish vision. Spain and France were allies, and Britain had agreed to peace terms. Spurred by a lousy economy, the Congress disbanded its Continental Navy and sold off all its ships.
On 2 June 1784, the Congress also ordered the Continental Army to disband, stating (in language proposed by Elbridge Gerry) that:
standing armies in time of peace are inconsistent with the principles of republican government, dangerous to the liberties of a free people, and generally converted into destructive engines for establishing despotism.The next day, it established a single federal regiment consisting of “eight companies of infantry, and two of artillery,” under a lieutenant colonel. That was the entire military strength of the government of the U.S. of A. in the late 1780s.
The Constitutional Convention wrote a document to strengthen the central government, and state ratifying conventions responded with Whiggish warnings. Look at the clauses against standing armies in Virginia’s ratification, for example. And that’s when a national army barely existed. When Congress drafted the Second Amendment in 1789, the country truly was depending on “a well-regulated militia” for its defense and was confident that was almost all it needed.
But the country also wanted land. Americans moving west quickly came into conflict with the Native nations allied as the Western Confederacy. The U.S. regiment and hundreds of local militia moved against those communities, but in a series of fights in October 1790 that American army was soundly defeated.
The Congress was still committed to the idea of a small standing army, authorizing a second federal regiment but only at low pay and only for six months. Once again American regulars moved west, along with a larger militia force. And on 4 Nov 1791 they were wiped out. Out of about 1,000 fighting men, nearly 900 were killed, wounded, or captured. One-quarter of the small U.S. Army was gone overnight.
President George Washington was already skeptical about militia systems. During the Revolutionary War he had argued long and hard for a stronger federal army and longer enlistment periods—i.e., a standing army. In 1792 the Congress started to expand the U.S. Army and also passed laws exercising more control over the state militias. America’s full Whiggish experiment was over. But the Second Amendment (and the rest of the original Constitution and Bill of Rights) are products of that brief period.
[The image above appears in George Ironstrack’s recent essay on the 4 Nov 1791 battle from the Myaamia (Miami) perspective.]