The 2nd Amendment and a History of American Militias

Currently there is a heated debate, spurred on by the recent mass shootings and events of the Iraq War, about State and Federal control of the armed forces and weapons in general. There are some who argue that the United States Military was originally set up as a decentralized force under the control of the States solely to be used in collective defensive efforts and believe it should stay that way. This, they believe, is the core intention of the 2nd Amendment. Others believe that is system is antiquated and that in the changing global landscape the United States military must be free as a whole to protect the interests of the United States worldwide at the direction of the President. They also believe that the 2nd Commandment is irrelevant, and should be done away with for all purposes but hunting.

There is also a moderate block who believe that the military, specifically the National Guard, can be called up to augment active duty forces in dire need- but otherwise should continue to be under the control of State Governors. These moderates, however, fall into several camps when is comes to gun control and the 2nd Amendment. Often times opinions originate in culture and life experience rather than pure logic, which is why dialogue becomes so heated. For example, if I have never fired a semi-automatic rifle and never used one in a practical situation, why would I support the right to own one? By the same token, if I had used a semi-automatic rifle to keep myself alive overseas and seen governments attack their own people, why would I not hear alarm bells at the prospect of the government taking such a tool away from me?

Given that the roots of the National Guard are in the early Militias of America, a vital question that must be asked in order to participate in this argument is: what was the role of Militias in centralizing power in the United States and do they have any modern equivalent? The answer to this question has the potential to aid our ability not just to effectively control and allocate our military forces, but also maintain the stability, security, and freedoms of our society. A look back at American history is able to show that a decentralized state with prevalent militias can transition effectively to a centralized cohesive state. This is a vital transition for an America that faced ever more frequent and large scale military conflicts as its history progressed. Understanding how this occurred can also help us to frame the current relationship between war and American political development in a historical context.

While the Armed Services tends to be seen as the driving force behind consolidation of power, an examination of militias is vital because of the militias ability to knit military and civilian society together, both experientially and organizationally. A militia is usually defined as a non-professional fighting force, often made up of citizens of a state or government that can fight to defend it at need. This is in contrast to a professional fighting force whose members earn their livings being soldiers and tend to have both better training and equipment. The United States Constitution, while it outlines provisions for militias, never actually defines them. They were, however, integral to the communities of the colonies (Fields).

Let us first consider: what is an American militia? The young American colonies did not have a standing military nor did they have police forces in any way that we could recognize. Any threats had to be solved locally and in a volunteer manner. Neighbors had to help neighbors and conversely had to bring them to local magistrates themselves in order to seek justice. “They became a militia when they talked among themselves, agreed on rules and a shared purpose, and signed a mutual contract. They were a militia as a community” (Bray, Page 1). It is very clear that the militia’s were not the armed faction within the community, but an organ surviving the complete body of the community. They were also administered communally, in a much more informal manner than was standard for military type institutions. “They had a commander, and he joined them for discussion” (Bray Page 1). Commanders were respected and often experienced individuals of the community whose leadership was highly valued, but absolute command was a rare occurrence.

The founding fathers recognized the integral nature and value to this system of militias that had spring up organically within the colonial systems of the New World. When the Constitution was drafted they also realized that the United States would need a standing national force: “the institutional roots of both the active duty, national military and the National Guard can be found in Article I, Section VIII of the U.S. Constitution. Congress is authorized to “Raise an Army and maintain a Navy” – the first two services, both of which are fully under control of the national government” (Griswold, Page 2). International relations at that time consisted mainly in playing Britain and France against each other. The need to prove viability and legitimacy to France as a potential ally and the need to defend against British aggression served as the two sources of necessity for a national military.

Given this realization of the importance of militias and the necessity of a national military, lawmakers eventually created an entirely new institutional framework for the military. “The division of military power between the states and the national government also provided a unique check on the federal use of military force – clearly a guiding principle among men distrustful of centralized power in nearly all of its forms.” (Griswold, Page 2). In 1903 the established and accepted network of Militia’s was integrated and standardized at the State level under the control of the governors. They were originally available for national utilization only in extreme cases. However, over time there has been an increase in these “extreme” cases transitioning the National Guard from primarily State controlled entities to a more national force (Griswold, Page 4). The transition from local militias to a national military structure helped to centralize power in the United States.

Another symptom of the gradual nationalization of the militia system in America was that local party blocks became less likely to deviate from the national party. “The early American militia was neither purely individual nor purely governmental; rather, it was deeply rooted in a particular place, making the militia a creature that stood with one foot in government and one foot firmly in civil society” (Bray, Page 1). This meant that militias where used as a vehicle to enable top down mobilization of what would otherwise be grass roots political forces. Politicians were often also leadership in Militias and so larger political parties mirrored the Militia command structures at the same level. Up to 1903 this allowed militias to serve as a political opportunity structure for communities, but after the National Guard took away a lot of the local control and dependency thereby beginning the separation of the militias from the political parties. From the point of view of preventing political conflict from becoming civil war this is a very positive move but it took away the militias function as a civic organization.

The use of Federal troops became a positive force internally allowing for both centralization and stability. While this was not the case so much in the moment during the Vietnam and Civil Rights eras, as a whole this structure prevented larger scale violence by removing military power from the dissenting factions. If there had been similar large scale discontent when militias were still decentralized we probably would have seen them used against the federal government. “The American military is divided into two distinct forces: what is commonly known as the “active duty” military, in the full time employ of the Department of Defense; and the National Guard, which is comprised of the Air and Army National Guard, not continuously active, and generally under the command and control of state governors” (Griswold, page 1. Under this structure we maintain an armed citizenry without exposing that citizenry to mob violence empowered by military weaponry. In the news recently we have the seen a great amount of fear of military style weapons being used in crimes against citizens but it should be noted that these are all isolated cases and not the work of armed groups of citizens working within an established political structure- as is the case when there is violence in many other parts of the world.

The movement from State to Federal control of the military legitimized the Federal (central) government.

Beginning in colonial times, militias were often organized by ethnicity and cultural background. This was largely due to the segregated nature of settlements in the new world, but it was also due to linguistic and religious concerns. As has already been explained, there was a process of centralization over the past two hundred years that have shown that the integration of ethnic militias helped to legitimize the central government of the United States. Ethnic minorities serving in federal forces helped to assimilate their home populations with the centralized system. Locally, militias often formed on ethnic and cultural lines within their relatively segregated communities. Minorities such as the Irish and the Germans had well established militias and were able to use their service during the American Civil war to improve the status of their communities within American society. The prestige that they earned on the battlefield allowed them to overcome much of the racism and discrimination that they faced in main stream society. Then, when it came time to blend all of these forces into the National Guard, it was more feasible because of the war record that these groups had established and the reputation they had built with their fellow Americans (Ofele, page 106).

African Americans, in contrast, were not permitted to form militias although all African American units did form and fight during the Civil War. While they were able to form Veterans groups and societies they were not able to maintain the same type of armed militia as other ethnic or cultural groups. Their status was obviously improved by their service in the Civil War but not nearly to the degree that it was for the Germans or the Irish, as is evident through the civil rights movement of the 1960s and 1970s. Still, their performance during the civil war may have lent the idea of African American units in the National Guard credence. Their inability to participate in the militia system but relative success in more federalized structures may have also played a significant part in the need to transition towards centralization. The racists could stomach integrated units far more than all African-American militias. In this way we see that centralization was a compromise of integration, even though it also facilitated integration through events such as desegregation of schools (Sayler, page 874).

Over time Federal troops were used on numerous occasions to enforce civil rights, making certain populations dependent on federal forces and alienated from local ones. There are two types of these events, active duty intervention and the use of the National Guard under Federal authority. Probably the most famous example of active duty intervention was in the riots in New York city during the American Civil War. There active duty units were pitted against mobs of civilians in an infamous and extremely unpopular action. Similarly unpopular was the use of the Guard during the Vietnam Era. However, while both situations were during a draft the National Guard were not utilized to even a fraction of the extent that militias were during the Civil War. By then, the Guard was centralized enough to be considered a formidable political force and Nixon felt that sending them to Vietnam would be politically unwise. Instead he send them to put down protests on the college campuses, which painted the Guard in a terrible light and significantly affected its recruiting and overall political power. Vietnam ended before the Guard could be affected in a way that would permanently degrade its power or influence, and it continued to develop and maintain its access to resources. This was possible in large part to its size and centralization. It is probable that if militia sized united had been subjected to similar political trials they would have crumbled (Griswold, Page 6).

Integration also had the effect of providing monetary reward for militia type service and eventually equalized pay rates in each state, further encouraging support for centralization from communities of Federal service members. Militias had started out as all volunteer forces and the new economic incentive for joining made it more of a professional force rather than a club or association. While they were not profession in the military sense (ie lack of training time), they were professional in the structure of the organization and its ability to consistently awuire resources. At this time, there are two types of activation for the National Guard: one which is paid by the State and the other which is paid by the Federal Government. The type paid for by the Federal government has increased in use over time, showing an increased centralization of these forces through the allocation of Federal resources (Griswold, Page 4).

After the formation of the National Guard in 1903 those ethnic groups that had been established and won prestige during the Civil War had a major change in image. The previous local community association of the militia was effectively rebranded as a State institution. This still maintained the independence of militias from the Federal Government (except in emergencies) but took away their ethnic and cultural identities, more effectively putting them under the control of the State Governor. Once militias were a homogenized State force they began to be activated more and more for Federal purposes, furthering the centralization to a high point.

We have seen how this centralization can then lead to lack of internal armed conflict or civil war, and how it can create a powerful political organization with distant but still existent local roots. Understanding this dynamic may allow us to maintain this order within the United States without losing our healthy civic society, which is trending downward in health. There is value to both the local involvement in the armed forces structure and the centralized leadership and resource allocation. Actively trying to foster a balance between these two should prove helpful to both the military as a whole and American society, which can benefit directly and indirectly.

It may also help us to understand how to predict the events of and assist in foreign political environments. To use Iraq as an example, we removed the centralized authority leaving the political control to various militias in strong competition for resources with each other. If we really understood the relationship between militias and stability we might have been able to foresee the horrific militia based sectarian violence that followed our successful destruction of the Iraqi military forces. This is not, however, to suggest that every system works in the same way as the United States but I think there are some very basic observations that can be made that apply across the board. The smaller the political entity, the more it has to struggle for resources, and if you arm these entities they will fight for the resources. However, if there is one structure for a diverse set of political groups that smoothly funnels resources to them this centralization creates both peace and stability.



Bray, C. (2013). What a “Militia” Meant in Revolutionary America. Wall Street Journal – Eastern Edition, 261(22), A13–A13

Capozzola, Christopher. (2011). Uncle Sam Wants You: World War I and the Making of the Modern American Citizen


Fields, William S.; Hardy, David T. (1992). “The Militia and the Constitution: A Legal History”. Military Law Review.

Friedberg, Aaron. (2002). “American Antistatism and the Founding of the Cold War State” Shaped by War and Trade. Princeton


Griswold, John C. (2011). “The Changing of the Guard: The National Guard’s Role in American Politics”. Forum (1540-8884)


Katznelson, Ira. (2002). “Flexible Capacity: The Military and Early American

Statebuilding”  Shaped by War and Trade, Princeton


Ofele, Martin. (2008). True Sons of the Republic: European Immigrants in the Union Army



Salyer, Lucy. (2004). “Baptism by Fire: Race, Military Service, and U.S.

Citizenship Policy, 1918-1935” (Journal of American History)


Schiff, R. L. (2004). Concordance Theory in America: The Post-Revolutionary Period. In Conference Papers — American Political Science Association (pp. 1–36). Presented at the Conference Papers — American Political Science Association.


Skowronek. (1982). “Building a new American state.” Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.


  1. Although I have not read any of these books there are some interesting facts that I thought of:

    First, the “Black Slaves, Negroes, Contraband, Property, Nigg.., etc.”, did fight during the Revolutionary War. They were adept fighters but never received what they were promised by the federal government or recognition. General G. Washington wrote he did not feel that they (blacks) could fight so for a time they were left out. Eventually they were allowed into the milita.(You must do your own research on this.)

    Second: They were not awarded what they were promised by the federal government and General Jackson after the Battle of New Orleans (1815) and history shows that were adept fighters again the British. They went back to their slave owners.

    Third: During the Civil War, after much political/military bickering Northern negro units were formed and fought bravely. Take for instance the “54th Massachusetts”. There were also negro units that fought with the South.

    Fourth: For the next 100 years blacks for for civil rights and blacks served with Teddy Rossevelt in Puerto Rico. Blacks were stationed in the west and were known as “Buffalo Soldiers” in the latter 1800s. They were very effective in WWI and WWII. Then came the Korean and Vietnam Wars from 1950-1975 and they were involved and did great service for the U.S.

    Fifth: I did not notice any reference to “Posse Comitatus of 1878”.

  2. No need negro units fought for the Confederacy. Individual blacks may have fought (indeed if you look at pictures of Confederate veterans there are pictures of blacks in Confederate uniforms.) In the closing days several black units were formed and matched through Richmond but, they never fought.

    Also Lee said if he had blacks in the ANV the unit’s would be integrated.

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