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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Thursday, May 13, 2021

“A Well Regulated Militia” at Fort Ticonderoga

Fort Ticonderoga has just opened an exhibit titled “A Well Regulated Militia: Citizen, Soldier, and State.”

The museum’s description says:
The militia, one of the most important institutions of American life for centuries, is today almost totally absent from American life. Throughout colonial and early national America, the militia formed the largest and often only means of defense. Regular military forces did not appear regularly until British regulars arrived during the French and Indian War, and even after the creation of the Continental and late[r] US Army, militia forces greatly outnumbered them.

For much of American history, the militia was thought to be more useful and more virtuous. Formed of the people themselves the militia represented the power of citizens that underlay the creation of the American Republic. Obligatory participation in the militia provided citizens with a means of defense and a critical role in the institutions of the state.

At its peak, the militia may have comprised as much as 10% of the US population, compared to well under 1% of the population serving in the National Guard today (the descendant of the militia).

This new exhibit explores this often misunderstood institution from its formation in the colonial period through its decline in the early 19th century. Despite being central to debates over the Constitution and American identity, the militia never truly represented all of “the people” and had a mixed record in military campaigns throughout our history.

Learning about the development of the American militia allows us to go beyond battles and campaigns and reflect on what our nation values, the obligations and benefits of citizenship, and who participates in American society.
From the photographs on the exhibit webpage, it seems to include a lot of nineteenth-century militia uniforms. As handsome as those are, I think it’s crucial to recognize that the essence of the Revolutionary-era militia was that it did not require uniforms.

Officers and companies that drew from the upper class, such as the Company of Cadets in Boston, could afford special matched outfits, and they certainly provided a more showy and military experience at drills and parades. But the strength of the militia was how it drew on nearly every able man in society, meaning mostly farmers and artisans. They were expected to come dressed as they were.

Militia service also had a social function. As I discuss in The Road to Concord, the local company was a community institution and potentially a ladder of class mobility. In nineteenth-century cities, militia companies became increasingly like social clubs, with less connection to either military preparation or government control.

By the late 1800s, for example, the organizational descendant of the Company of Cadets was known for its fundraising theatricals, and those theatricals were known for their cross-dressing men. (See Anne Alison Barnet’s Extravaganza King.) Even by the standards of nineteenth-century militia uniforms, that was showy.

2 comments:

G. Lovely said...

Given recent events, it might be worth noting that the Cadets Armory those theatricals raised funds for, provided them with indoor stables, an equestrian drill floor, 12 foot thick walls, and moat with drawbridge, plus a direct artillery line of sight to the dome of the State House, should it ever be necessary to rescue Massachusetts' legislators from an unruly mob.

J. L. Bell said...

Or to threaten the State House should it ever be necessary to oppose a legislature chosen by a broader electorate.