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, May 30, 2014

The Second Amendment’s Historic Moment

In considering the Second Amendment, I think it’s valuable to recognize the unusual historical moment in which it was enacted.

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.]


Charles Bahne said...

This is one of the best descriptions of the role of the 18th-century militia that I have read. It is succinct, and puts everything in the context of the times. Excellent job, John!

Pacificus said...

Murray Rothbard has some interesting things to say on the militia and Washington's traditional standing army in his book "Conceived in Liberty, Volume 4 Part 1 Ch. 3-8.

It's worth noting that the militias drove the regulars back to Boston and kept them there until Breed's (Bunker) Hill, and seized Ticonderoga. Militia weren't and aren't entirely, as WWII, Vietnam and other subsequent guerilla wars have shown. The American regulars under Washington's lead had many a defeat, and really it was the French who brought about the victory at Yorktown. Washington was just in many ways a poor military man when it came to battles and fighting. Lee probably was the better choice`, but we'll never really know. I'd personally rather have a very small standing army in time of peace and rely on the militia until actual war has been declared and a standing war time army can be raised for that specific period of time the war rages on. But that's just me...and many of the Founders, sans the militarists in the group.


It would be interesting to see just how much the militias affected/influenced/contributed to victorious battles during the Revolution. Is there any research on this that you are aware of J.L.?

J. L. Bell said...

I've often said that the New England militia system was great on defense, weak on offense. Four times in the late 1700s, the system put tens of thousands of armed, trained men on the march within days when the populace suddenly felt threatened. (Those events were the fall of Fort Edwards, the Powder Alarm, the Lexington Alarm, and the response to Burgoyne's campaign from the north.)

However, in all those cases the militiamen were fighting to defend what they saw as there own land. Campaigns to take someone else's land, whether Canadians or Native Americans, fell apart quickly. (Often those troops were nominally regulars, but they tended to be recruited for short terms and had less training, thus more like militia units.) Continental commanders had to learn how to use militia troops for their strengths and not rely on them for more than they'd be able to handle.

The years of the early republic discussed in this posting don't show that a very small standing army and a broad-based militia couldn't defend the U.S. They showed that system didn't allow the U.S. settlement to expand as its citizens in the west and their sponsors wanted.