The Mises Institute recently published an article entitled, “Why We Can’t Ignore the ‘Militia’ Clause of the Second Amendment,” and it’s really worth a good look. It delves into an often-overlooked facet of the USA’s foundations, namely the preference of local militias to be deployed as needed, rather than having a permanent army — and why this helped form the language of our Second Amendment.
The mission statement of Mises includes the promotion of honest history… and this is exactly that. It takes a good look at our founders’ general distrust of standing armies and explores the reasons for including the militia phrase.
While many defenders of private gun ownership recognize that the Second Amendment was written to provide some sort of counterbalance against the coercive power of the state, this argument is often left far too vague to reflect an accurate view of this historical context surrounding the Amendment.
After all, it is frequently pointed out that private ownership of shotguns and semi-automatic rifles could offer only very limited resistance to the extremely well-equipped and well-armed United States military.
It is often, therefore, just assumed that the writers of the Second Amendment were naïve and incapable of seeing the vast asymmetries that would develop between military weaponry and the sort of weaponry the average person was likely to use.
Was the plan really to just have unorganized amateurs grab their rifles and repel the invasion of a well-trained military force?
The answer is no, and we know this by looking at the wording and reasoning behind the Second Amendment.
The authors of our beloved 2A were smarter than some might think, and they understood all too well that a central and permanent military force — always and inevitably — leads to the demise of liberty.
Fearful that a large federal military could be used to destroy the freedoms of the states themselves, Anti-Federalists and other Americans fearful of centralized power in the US government designed the Second Amendment accordingly. It was designed to guarantee that the states would be free to raise and train their own militias as a defense against federal power, and as a means of keeping a defensive military force available to Americans while remaining outside the direct control of the federal government.
And these views were not extreme nor unusual; they were shared by a majority of the free-thinkers and students of history who were going about the business of creating a new nation. So given that, how do you keep a nation safe as well as free?
Answer: Local militia.
On this, the Americans did not need to re-invent the wheel. After all, the idea of locally-controlled military forces answerable to civil officials was put into place in seventeenth-century England. The English militias had been created out of fear of a large standing army directly answerable to the king.
Although the system had fallen into disuse in England by the time the Americans were debating the matter in the eighteenth century, the Americans were well aware of this history.
These ideas were further developed at the Virginia ratifying convention where Patrick Henry mocked the idea that liberties could be preserved by simply “assembling the people.” Without locally controlled, military might, Henry noted, federal force could destroy the independence of the state governments. Similarly, George Mason concluded that the “militia … is our ultimate safety. We can have no security without it.”
Early on, this was routine, and those in government understood the threat posed by central armies… and stood firm against that danger.
Even after the adoption of the new constitution, opposition to a powerful federal military continued. Congress opposed not only attempts to increase the size of the professional US army much beyond 1,000 men, but also opposed attempts to mandate any specific training in a “federally organized militia system.” In the end, opposition to federal control of military affairs meant training of militias was “left entirely to the states.”
The article explores the tendency of state governments to include private gun ownership and militias of their able-bodied male citizens in their state constitutions.
Ideally, each state would have its own “unorganized militia” of residents who could “aid … the civil power” in case of civil unrest or invasion.
Note that the idea of the unorganized militia nevertheless remains connected to the organized militia. There is no evidence that the authors of the Second Amendment would have considered just any group of armed civilians to be a militia. An element of state sanction was assumed. The unorganized militia was imagined as a sort of potential militia, that could be, as made clear in numerous state constitutions, called to assemble, with arms, to “aid the civil power.”
As noted by Jeffrey Rogers Hummel, many states experimented with various measures designed to increase the training and readiness of this militia. That is, there were efforts to make the unorganized militia moderately more “organized.” Some militias even became de facto private militias functioning under state charters. Nevertheless, regardless of the exact level of readiness demanded by the state government, the idea was that each state’s general citizenry served as the “reserve” force for the state government.
Does the National Guard equate to the militia envisioned by our founders? Nope, not by a long shot.
The Founders did have a concept that approximates today’s National Guard — but it was a concept they disapproved. This is the “select militia” — a specially trained part of the citizenry. To the Founders, a select militia was little better than an army. The Philadelphia Convention explicitly rejected a proposal to create a “select militia” for the federal government, as did the Third Congress. The Constitution’s proponents, moreover, repeatedly denied Anti-Federalist charges that Congress’ power to “provide for training” the militia would lead to creation of a select militia.
Ultimately, the practice of forming state-based citizen militias has fallen by the wayside, as power continues to shift ever-farther towards a central government which grows larger and more powerful by the day — in exactly the way our founders feared it would. But should the original concept of “militia” be allowed to stay as dead as it seems to now be? The author says no.
Certainly, the common view among establishment military historians — a biased source to be sure — is that state militias were always inept. Even if this were the case, however, this doesn’t prove that the militia ideal can’t be — or ought not be — revived as a check on federal power. After all, the conditions that often provided obstacles to the creation of reliable militias — such as the presence of an extremely rural, widely dispersed, and undercapitalized population in many states in nineteenth century America — no longer exist.
While the rejuvenation of the unorganized militia (and the abolition of the National Guard and other military branches) seem unlikely — nay, impossible — from here, the author observes that private gun ownership is alive and well in the USA… but not for the reasons for which it was originally protected.
It is interesting that while the original conception of the militia has been destroyed by federalization — and thus the central rationale of the Second Amendment has been eviscerated — state provisions encouraging private gun ownership have proliferated. When it comes to home defense against small-time thieves and murderers, this is all to the good.
Widespread unorganized gun ownership, however, does little to re-create the idea of a locally-controlled militia that would be used to keep the size and power of federal standing armies in check and to decentralize political power away from the federal government.
Yes, private gun ownership is undeniably moderately inconvenient for governments at all levels, but compared to the militia concept protected and fostered by the Second Amendment, these privately-armed citizens can only offer relatively token resistance.
What has changed more than anything else is the mindset and the way of thinking of the average American, he says.
Moreover, the idea that a large standing army ought to be vehemently resisted and viewed with suspicion — in favor of both an organized and unorganized militia — is long gone. Indeed, many Americans who fancy themselves defenders of the Second Amendment also enthusiastically support a large federal military establishment. George Mason and Patrick Henry would have found such an attitude incomprehensible.
Read the entire article here.
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