J. L. BELL is a Massachusetts writer who specializes in (among other things) the start of the American Revolution in and around Boston. He is particularly interested in the experiences of children in 1765-75. He has published scholarly papers and popular articles for both children and adults. He was consultant for an episode of History Detectives, and contributed to a display at Minute Man National Historic Park.

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Friday, August 23, 2013

“Exempted from all trainings”

Yesterday I quoted a 1707 Massachusetts law written to plug a supposed hole in the province’s militia law. Here’s part of that 1693 militia law, stating who didn’t have to show up for seasonal drills:

[Sect. 12] That the persons hereafter named be exempted from all trainings, viz:

the members of the council, the representatives for the time being, the secretary, justices of the peace, president, fellows, students, and servants of Harvard Colledge exempted by colledge charter, masters of art, ministers, elders and deacons of churches, sheriffs, allowed physitians or chirurgions, and profest schoolmasters; all such as have had [military] commissions, and served as field officers or captains, lieutenants or ensignes; coroners, treasurers, attourney-general, deputy sheriffs, clerks of courts, constables, constant ferrymen, and one miller to each grist mill; officers imployed in and about their majesties’ revenues; all masters of vessels of thirty tuns and upwards, usually imployed beyond sea; and constant herdsmen, lame persons or otherwise disabled in body (producing certificate thereof from two able chirurgions), indians and negro’s.

[Sect. 13] That the persons hereafter named be and hereby are exempted from military watches and wardings; viz., the members of the council, secretary, representatives for the time being, president, fellows, students of Harvard Colledge, and the gentlemen belonging to the governour’s guard, ministers and elders of churches, allowed phisitians and chyrurgeons, constables, constant ferrymen, and one miller to each grist mill.
Men not required to turn out for regular militia training thus included:
  • The very top of society, including the legislators who enacted this law and other high officials, anyone who had earned an M.A., ministers and doctors, and gentlemen who had already served as officers in the militia and therefore couldn’t be expected to just go back into the ranks.
  • Men who couldn’t be spared from their particular work, such as herdsmen and ferrymen.
  • The disabled, as long as they brought the required doctors’ notes.
  • The very bottom of society: blacks and Native Americans.
It makes sense for the legislature not to want to arm and train men of color who had plenty of reasons to be upset at the dominant society. But I see a couple of other reasons that white men of property didn’t want to drill with blacks and Natives. By the mid-1700s and probably earlier, militia drills were social occasions as much as military practice. In addition, militiamen elected their own company officers. Including men of color in those social rituals would grant them forms of equality and influence, and the upper classes weren’t going for that.

Interestingly, section 26 of the same law stated: “That all persons exempted by this law from trainings shall, notwithstanding, be provided with arms and ammunition compleat, upon the same penalty as those that are obliged to train.”

Despite the passive voice, that clause required men to supply their own arms suitable for military service. That section was probably aimed at the upper-class white men who, though they didn’t have to turn out to drill like ordinary farmers and craftsmen, were still expected to serve in a military emergency.

But the way the law was written suggests that it required blacks and Indians to own guns and ammunition even though they were exempt from militia discipline. And I can’t imagine that’s what the legislature had in mind.

One big question about provincial Massachusetts’s militia laws is how closely they were enforced. As I noted yesterday, by 1775 black and Native men were participating in town militia companies alongside white men. And I don’t know of records showing widespread fines for not coming to militia drills or showing up without all the equipment this law required. The very detailed militia law was probably an expression of the ideal rather than a reflection of how people actually did things.

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