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History of the U.S. Militia

On April 25, 1995 Mark Pitcavage of the Ohio State University's History Department posted a historical overview of the U.S. militia.

Pitcavage's main point was that the militia was not, as maintained by the modern militia movement, an armed populace separate from any branch of government, but rather a type of military draft run jointly by the federal and state governments.

Pitcavage explained:

With the framing of the Constitution, the federal and state governments assumed joint control over the militia. The President was given authority over the militia when called into federal service. Congress was given the authority to frame laws allowing the president to do that. Furthermore, Congress could 1) organize, 2) arm, and 3) discipline the militia. To the states were reserved the power to appoint officers and to train the militia.

What did these powers mean? To organize the militia meant that Congress first of all had the power to define what constituted the militia. It did so in its first militia law, the Uniform Militia Act of 1792, when it declared that the militia constituted all white males aged 18-45. In addition, this power gave Congress the ability to set up a table of organization for the militia, to determine what equipment would be required, etc. To discipline the militia meant that Congress could prescribe the tactics by which the militia would train. The 1792 law prescribed von Steuben's system of tactics developed in the Revolutionary War. Subsequent laws would change this.

The third area was the ability to arm the militia. This caused a great deal of debate during the battles for ratification of the Constitution. Some people argued that this meant only that Congress had the ability to specify what type of weapons were required. Others argued that this gave Congress the ability or the responsibility to procure arms for the militia ... The Second Amendment guaranteed that even if Congress had the power to arm the militia, nothing would prohibit the states from procuring their own arms.

... Under state law, every last detail regarding the militia was regulated, from the number of and times for musters, court martial procedures, how to notify people that there would be a muster, fines, how to appeal fines, uniforms (if applicable), compensation (if applicable, which it usually wasn't), and so on and so forth. An average militia law might be 80 pages long; some were far longer than this.

... the entire militia was subject to the orders of the government ... they suppressed rebellions, maintained order in the cities, fought Indians, fought foreigners, celebrated the Fourth of July, and so forth. All as officially constituted agents of the government, be it federal or state.

Pitcavage goes on to say that the militia as "armed populace" is a myth. The law limited the militia to a portion of the populace, namely white men in a certain age range, and states provided numerous exemptions so that "the militia consisted of people too poor and too dumb to get out of it." Further, not all militia were armed, as firearms were scarce in much of the South and West, according to Pitcavage.

Dissatisfaction with the organization of the militia in the 1820's and 1830's led the states to switch from compulsory militia to volunteer militia in the 1840's. By the 1850's, only a vestige of the militia remained.

With the outbreak of the Civil War, militias came back into use, gradually evolving into the National Guard, solidified with the Dick Act of 1903, the National Defense Act of 1916 and 1920 and 1933 amendments to the National Defense Act.

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