What is the militia?

It would seem from the rash of condemnatory press reports relating to the Militia that the press, if not Americans generally, have an unwarranted fear of the Militia.  This fear contrasts starkly with the near universal esteem that our Founding Fathers had for the Militia.  Have we changed so much in two hundred years that we no longer share the ideals that our forefathers gave their lives  to secure?  In order to answer that question, it is necessary to explore the role of the Militia as envisioned by our Founding Fathers.

The Constitution refers to the Militia in six places.*  The first mention of the Militia is found in Article I, Section 8 of the Constitution, where Congress' war powers are set forth.  In that Section Congress is empowered --

    • To define and punish Piracies and Felonies committed on the high Seas, and Offences against the Law of Nations;
    • To declare War, grant Letters of  Marque and Reprisal, and make Rules concerning Captures on Land and Water;
    • To raise and support Armies, but no Appropriation of Money to that Use shall be for a longer Term than two Years;
    • To provide and maintain a Navy;
    • To make Rules for the Government and Regulation of the land and naval Forces;
    • To provide for calling forth the Militia to execute the Laws of the Union, suppress Insurrections and repel Invasion;
    • To provide for organizing, arming, and disciplining, the Militia, and for governing such Part of them as may be employed in the Service of the United States, reserving to the States respectively, the Appointment of the Officers, and the Authority of training the Militia according to the discipline prescribed by Congress;


The next mention of the Militia is in Article II, Section 2 where the President's military authority is defined as follows:

The President shall be Commander in Chief of the Army and Navy of the United States, and of the Militia of the several States, when called into the actual Service of the United States;

Thus it is clear that our Founding Fathers intended the Militia to play a central role in our Constitutional Republic.

Reading these provisions in context, one reaches certain conclusions.  First, it was contemplated that the federal government would be exclusively responsible for Naval defense and the execution of the laws on the High Seas because these were areas outside the jurisdiction of any one State and related to the Law of Nations.  Second, it was contemplated that the federal government would not maintain a large standing army in times of peace.  This is implicit in the facts that Congress could make no appropriation of more than two years duration, for the purpose of raising and supporting of armies, but was empowered to organize, arm and discipline the State Militias to "insure domestic Tranquility" and "provide for the common defence".  (Quotations from the Preamble to the Constitution).  Third, it was contemplated that each State would maintain a Militia over which they  had authority to train its members and appoint Officers, but said State Militias were to be available to the federal government and under the command of the President, when called into actual service, "to execute the Laws of the Union, suppress Insurrections and repel Invasions."

In this context, the Second Amendment makes sense.

  • A well regulated Militia, being necessary to the security of a free State, the right of the people to keep and bear Arms, shall not be infringed.
  • It clearly expresses an individual right to keep and bear arms while recognizing the duty of "the people" to serve in the Militia.

The Militia movement that has swept the country, in my opinion, arises out of government's steadily increasing encroachments on individual liberty.  The movement does not violate the spirit of the Constitution, rather it furthers it.  Based on my contacts with members of  Militia, I would suggest that the principal goals of the various Militia are to:

  1. Educate Americans about our Constitution, the form of government provided for therein and rekindle a respect for the individual liberties recognized therein.
  2. Counter governmental encroachments on our rights by promoting the responsible exercise of our fundamental freedoms and providing constructive means by which to exercise popular sovereignty.
  3. Energize Americans to demand, through proper Constitutional channels, that our government return to and operate within the scope of the limited authority granted to it under the Constitution.

It is only as a last resort that the Militia would take up arms and even this eventuality does not violate the spirit of the Constitution.  Rather, in the words of Thomas Jefferson:  "The strongest reason for the people to retain the right to keep and bear arms is, as a last resort, to protect themselves against tyranny in government."

*Excluded from this analysis is the reference to the Militia in the Fifth Amendment, which states as follows:  "No person shall be held to answer for a capital, or otherwise infamous crime, unless on a presentment or indictment of a Grand Jury, except in cases arising in the land or naval forces, or in the Militia, when in actual service in time of War or public danger."

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