What was a “well-regulated militia”?

A volunteer Arkansas militia company

An NRA spokesperson and others have recently been offering a quote from George Mason, one of the framers of the Constitution, purporting to define a  militia.  According to this quote, a “militia” consists of  “the whole people, except for a few public officials.”  Even in the context of its time, this statement is thoroughly misleading.

At least three of my Southern ancestors were officers in their local militias. My second-great grandfather Thomas Stevenson Drew, in his 20s, was a general in the Clark County, Arkansas militia.  His grandfather, Thomas Maxwell, was an officer in the militia of Tazewell County, Virginia, at a time when that mountainous area was still the scene of fierce conflict between whites and Indians.  During the American Revolution, the cousin of another ancestor was a member of a North Carolina Loyalist militia led by Colonel David Fanning, known for his daring raids on Patriot strongholds. My research into their lives provides a snapshot of what a “well-regulated militia” consisted of in the 18th and early 19th centuries, and what its responsibilities were.

At the time the Constitution was written, a  militia consisted of a group of white men of fighting age, under the command of designated officers, who were regularly drilled and trained in order to be ready to protect their communities.  In theory, all able-bodied white men were required to participate.  And in order to carry out their responsibilities, it was necessary, at that time, for them to provide their own guns. Free men of color, however, were gradually excluded from militias over the course of the 18th and early 19th centuries, as slowly, state by state, they lost the right to bear arms.

Mason’s contemporary John Adams had a more comprehensive and accurate definition: “The fundamental law of the militia is, that it be created, directed and commanded by the laws, and ever for the support of the laws.”

In drafting the Second Amendment, the framers of the Constitution had one overriding objective: protection of the state and local militias from the danger of a standing army, which could be used by a tyrannical government to destroy the Republic.  Elbridge Gerry of Massachusetts voiced this argument: “What, Sir, is the use of a militia? It is to prevent the establishment of a standing army, the bane of liberty.” Alexander Hamilton argued that that danger from that standing army would be averted if “a large body of citizens, little if at all inferior to them in discipline and use of arms, [stood] ready to defend their rights.”  Southern politicians like Mason were exceptionally vocal about this danger, which was typically conflated in their minds with an effort by a national army, dominated by northerners, to abolish slavery.

The militias had three main responsibilities: on the frontier, to protect their settlements from Indian attacks; in more settled areas, to prevent and suppress the slave insurrections that were an ever-present terror in southern white minds; and, on occasion, to assist the regular army in defending against a foreign enemy. Thus, Thomas Maxwell was drilling his militia company on the Virginia frontier when his neighbor Mr. Ingles came to tell him that Indians had taken Inglis’s wife and daughter captive.  Nearly  a hundred years later, angling for a colonel’s commission in the Confederate Army, Thomas Drew recalled having trained his militia in military tactics in his youth, serving  “in the capacity of…Sergeant, Major, and Brig. Gen. of Militia.”

An article at lawsonline.com/LegalTopics/Militia/ recounts the history of these militias:  “As the country grew,  the general militias [theoretically composed of all white males] proved too unwieldy, disorganized, [i.e., unregulated] and underprepared to provide even local solutions and states increasingly favored volunteer or select militias who advocated for national support.” At the beginning of the 20th century, these select militias were officially transformed into the National Guard.  In addition, many states have created their own state defense forces, which assist the National Guard in local emergencies and occasionally act as a reserve for the National Guard.

In the nightmare scenario still imagined by some members of the alt-right and the NRA, it would be the National Guard standing up against the tanks and rocket launchers and drones of the evil national government – if the states’ governors so ordered. Despite the fears of the framers, a standing army has been a feature of American life for most of our history.  But over the past three hundred years, the meaning of a “well-regulated militia” has not changed.

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