Barack Obama took a nice dig at Second Amendment absolutists in his second inaugural speech:
For the American people can no more meet the demands of today’s world by acting alone than American soldiers could have met the forces of fascism or communism with muskets and militias.
The question: what did the authors of that little sentence, the Second Amendment, mean by it? is subject to the historical analogy to Goodhart’s Law : when an indicator is used for policy, it gets distorted (see: monetary targets, Soviet central planning). To get an unbiased evaluation of the original intention, you’d have to hire a historian from Mars and deprive them of all data after 1800.
Fortunately there’s a slightly easier question. Where did they get the idea of :
A well regulated militia being necessary to the security of a free state …
How does this stand up as a claim of fact?
In 1792 it looked pretty good:
- List of free states: Great Britain (*), France, Netherlands, Switzerland, United States.
- List of free states with militias or citizen armies: Great Britain, France (chaotically), Switzerland, United States.
* when not considered as a tyranny under the iron gaiters of George III.
Today the proposition doesn’t look quite so good:
- Non-tiny countries characterised as “free” in 2012 by Freedom House :
Argentina, Australia, Austria, Belgium, Belize, Benin, Botswana, Brazil, Bulgaria, Canada, Chile, Costa Rica, Croatia, Cyprus, Czech Rep., Denmark, Dominican Rep., El Salvador, Estonia, Estonia, France, Germany, Ghana, Greece, Guyana, Hungary, Iceland, India, Indonesia, Ireland, Israel, Italy, Jamaica, Japan, Latvia, Lithuania, Luxembourg, Mali (!), Malta, Mauritius, Mongolia, Montenegro, Namibia, Netherlands, New Zealand, Norway, Panama, Peru, Poland, Portugal, Romania. Serbia, Slovakia, Slovenia, South Africa, South Korea, Spain, Suriname, Sweden, Switzerland, Taiwan, Trinidad and Tobago, United Kingdom, , Uruguay.
- Non-tiny “free” countries known to me to have a regulated militia:
- Non-tiny “free” countries with a conscript citizen army, with or without an obligation to serve in the reserves after full-time military service:
Greece, Israel, South Korea, Switzerland.
Most stable democracies don’t have militias. The USA is an outlier with the volunteer National Guard. Otherwise? Britain’s part-time Territorial Army units are extensions of the full-time army, including the splendidly named Artists Rifles, a regiment of the SAS. Israeli and Swiss men are subject to obligations of service in the reserves for some years after their period of full-time service, but this is not a distinct militia. South Korea seems to rely on long conscription, not reserves.
This reflects a military consensus on the low value of part-time militias, as opposed to reserves after full military training. Small countries facing serious military threats rely on versions of the citizen army (conscription for a few years then a reserve obligation) created by Scharnhorst and von Stein in Prussia in 1812-1815.
Survivalist nutters in their planned Idaho CitadelÂ impose these conditions on applicants:
All residents over 13 must be proficient with both rifle and pistol, and each household will have to provide one â€œable-bodied Patriotâ€ for once-a-month militia training and support.
Once a month. And they are thinking of resisting professional soldiers! The middle-aged Yeomen of the GuardÂ at the Tower of London, 22-year veteran NCOs, could take them out with halberds.
This overwhelming imbalance long antedated the American Revolution. The first professional standing army in modern EuropeÂ was set up by Charles VII of France in 1445, if you don’t count the 14th-century Ottoman janissaries. In practice kings had relied on paid professional soldiers rather than feudal levies for their campaigns for a century before that.
The American revolutionary war did provide some argument for militias, since the rebel armed forces were initially drawn from colonial militias. However, the revolutionaries immediately recognized the need to create a regular army to face British redcoats. The state militias became auxiliaries to the full-time Continental Army. Daniel Morgan’s successful tactics at Cowpens for instance were designed to work around the known weaknesses of his militia forces, using them as shock-absorbers in front of his regulars.
These American militias of the 1770s did exceptionally well against the redcoats, for a number of reasons. The colonials had been left very much to their own devices for 150 years by the British Crown, which provided troops only for international conflicts. Colonial militias had real functions in fighting Indians, and putting down riots, affrays, and slave revolts. The Seven Years War, ending only twelve years before the revolution, had created an existential threat to the British colonies, with high anxiety and preparedness. The run-up to the outbreak of the revolution had maintained this. It’s hard to imagine more favourable circumstances for a popular militia. In the conflict itself, the huge size and rugged terrain of the theatre of operations allowed militia forces to make a contribution impossible in Western Europe; compare the Soviet Partisans in the forests and marshes of western Russia and Belorussia in WWII.
Later exceptional victories by largely militia forces – New Orleans in 1812 and the Texians’ San Jacinto in 1836 – further encouraged theÂ myth of exaggerated militia prowess born at Concord and Lexington. The former was down to outstanding leadership by the experienced frontier warrior
Alexander Andrew Jackson, facing a talentless British general; the defeat at Bladensburg was more typical. At San Jacinto, Houston got lucky against very poor Mexican regulars, who hadn’t posted picquets for their siesta. It wouldn’t have happened in Marlborough’s or Wellington’s armies, or for that matter those of Gonzalo de Cordoba and Alexander.
Besides, the technical gap in skills and weaponry was at its historical narrowest in the 18th century: the prime object of training musketeers was to reduce them to brainless automatons, components of the short-range machine gun of an infantry company. This doesn’t take that long, compared to instilling the skill sets of a Mongol archer on horseback, a knight in early mediaeval Europe, or the driver of a modern tank. In fact, the use of hunting rifles even gave American militiamen an advantage in range and accuracy over musketeers when firing from defensive cover, as at New Orleans.
The course of the war explained why the militia rated a flattering mention in the constitution of the new state; but not its curious form. Revolutions are by definition atypical situations. The Second Amendment implies that militia have a long-term constitutional value in the steady state, including peacetime. Why should the authors have thought so?
We should look at two strands of of their intellectual heritage: the fate of the Roman Republic, and British constitutional struggles.
The Founders had thorough classical educations, and thought much more than we do about the fate of the very few republics known to history at that time. The greatestof these was the Roman Republic. It fell through a toxic combination of greed, ambition and unrestrained competition within the senatorial class, and the huge professional armies needed for imperial conquest and control. A crucial step in the path to ruin was the military reforms of Gaius Marius in 107 BC, which opened the door of the Roman army – previously restricted to the propertied – to the poor; and made it a standing one, with long service and pension rights. Since the poor still had no political rights, this drove an ultimately fatal wedge between the citizens and their army. The lesson for the Founders was that professional standing armies are a threat to republican institutions.They could have drawn the same conclusion from Philip of Macedon’s destruction of Greek democracy.
(I cannot unfortunately prove this. They would have read Macchiavelli, who inveighs against mercenaries and tried to set up a militia in Florence; but he did not as far as I can search make the connection to Marius that I do.)
They would have reached the identical conclusion from their knowledge of the struggles in Britain between King and Parliament. A quick recap of a story they would have been very familiar with.
Start in 1640. Protected by the sea and its (professional) navy, England had not been forced to follow its continental counterparts down the path of professionalisation and discipline shown by the Spanish tercios. Quasi-feudal levies and trained bands were enough to deal with the limited threats that Scotland and pacified Wales could mount, and internal rebellions. However, the English were well aware of developments in Europe. For all Elizabeth I’s bravado in front of her troops at Tilbury in 1588, everybody knew that if the Spanish Armada succeeded in its mission of transporting the superb army of the Duke of Parma to Kent, Protestant England was toast. The squires didn’t need Livy to see the connection between Papism, absolutism and standing armies, not to mention taxes: for a standing army is its own tax-collector. They developed a justified political suspicion of the idea.
Charles I did not SFIK try to set up a standing army, but his efforts to rule by prerogative ironically led to the creation by his adversaries of just about the finest professional army England has ever had, Cromwell’s New Model. This army was an anomaly, not only by its cohesive Old Testament ideology. Eventually a fraction of it, under the centrist (or sellout) General Monck, allowed Charles II to restore the monarchy in 1660.
Complicated manoeuvres over the next two years led to the creation both of a formal English militia and a small standing army, both under royal command. Charles first audaciously created a county militia by prerogative. This was a paramilitary police force charged with disarming republicans, including many highly dangerous trained veterans of the New Model. Meanwhile the relics of the New Model Army were slowly disbanded. The Cavalier Parliament was all in favour of disarming republicans but objected to the use of the prerogative. At the same time Charles got lucky when a tiny group of crazed Fifth Monarchists attempted a hopeless coup. Hyping the non-existent threat, Charles got his Patriot Act in the form of the Militia Act of 1662. This both confirmed the county militias and halted the disbandment of Protectorate troops, allowing a few regiments to become the origin of Britain’s Crown-led army.
A musketeer of the Coldstream Guards in 1669, the oldest regiment in the British Army and its historical link to the New Model Army. Coldstream in the Cheviots was where Monck’s army entered England.
It’s most unlikely that anybody at the time was confused about the difference. This surely included Charles, who had led a scratch force to a crushing defeat against the New Model at Worcester in 1651. He had enjoyed plenty of opportunity in exile in France and Holland to observe the modern professional armies that had defeated that of Spain. Sure enough, when the Duke of Monmouth launched a rebellion against James II in 1685, the militias failed to deal with it until the proper army arrived. When James pushed the English squirearchy too far, they got rid of him not with a pointless militia revolt but by calling in William of Orange from the Netherlands with a Dutch professional army. James’ irresolution invited that of his standing army, which never engaged the invaders in more than skirmishes.
The English Bill of Rights of 1689 consolidated the Glorious Revolution. It did not mention the militia, which had played no significant part in the crisis. It did provide:
That the raising or keeping a standing army within the kingdom in time of peace, unless it be with consent of Parliament, is against law;
That the subjects which are Protestants may have arms for their defence suitable to their conditions and as allowed by law.
There is no clear connection between these clauses. A proposal that the right to bear arms be for collective defence was actually struck out in the drafting. The 1688 right to bear arms is individual, except for those untrustworthy Catholics.
Parliament meant business about the standing army. Since it recognized that one was in practice essential, it kept control by adopting the Mutiny Act – the basis of military discipline – one year at a time, until as late as 1879. In contrast, the militia system declined steadily in the following century and was eventually abolished as an irrelevance in 1816, after two decades of a great European war in which it had played no part.
The political connection in England between a militia – useful for police purposes but not in war against other European powers – and the preservation of liberty was, I suggest, only this: that it reduced the size of the peacetime standing army, which did represent a permanent threat to the constitutional settlement of 1688. Alexander Hamilton stated the case clearly in Federalist Paper 29:
If standing armies are dangerous to liberty, an efficacious power over the militia, in the body to whose care the protection of the State is committed, ought, as far as possible, to take away the inducement and the pretext to such unfriendly institutions.
Both the classical and the British streams of intellectual influence would have strongly supported the idea that a militia is useful to the preservation of liberty in two ways: as a police force against threats to society short of proper war, and as reducing or obviating the need for a standing army.
I can’t find in either the classical or the British histories any idea that a militia represents a military counterweight to a standing army, a threat in being of justified rebellion against a tyrant. This has been patent nonsense since the fifteenth century. Is there any evidence that the level-headed, educated, battle-hardened and cynical authors of the American Constitution entertained it for a second?
Madison, in The Federalist No. 46, invoked “the advantage of being armed, which the Americans possess over the people of almost every other nation,” avowing that if European civilians were comparably equipped, “it may be affirmed with the greatest assurance that the throne of every tyranny in Europe would be speedily overturned in spite of the legions which surround it.”
Homer nodded. [Update/correction 20 February: this turns out to be a dangerously selective quotation. Madison’s argument is more sophisticated and while still a stretch is far from silly. See Stanton Scott’s comment infra.}
A clip from Dad’s Army, an affectionate tribute to Britain’s wartime Home Guard:
Update 19 February
Thanks to commenters for an excellent discussion thread.
My claims stand up pretty well, but comments add important nuances. I mentioned the slave control function of American militias, but it was clearly much more important to the slave states than I thought, and a specific driver of the Second Amendment. The non-slave states went along partly because they also faced regional threats (British Canadians, Indians), partly because they bought into the contemporary Anglo-American CW – now refuted – about standing armies.