The Jeffersonian notion of ‘militia’ didn’t work all that well out in the real world

General Brock was mortally wounded, but his redcoats won the Battle of Queenston Heights.

General Brock was mortally wounded, but his redcoats won the Battle of Queenston Heights.

On a previous thread about the Second Amendment, I promised to comment further on the notion that the Framers had of a militia made up of a well-armed citizenry.

I got to thinking about it because of this column in The Wall Street Journal on Friday. It’s purpose was to argue, on that conflict’s bicentennial, that the War of 1812 was more important than many people believe. It did so ably enough. An excerpt:

First, the war validated American independence. The new republic had been buffeted between the two great powers of the age. Great Britain had accepted the fact of American independence only grudgingly…

Thus historians have sometimes called the War of 1812 the second war of American independence.

Second, it called into question the utopian approach to international relations. As president, Thomas Jefferson had rejected Federalist Party calls for a robust military establishment. He argued that the U.S. could achieve its goals by strictly peaceful means, and that if those failed, he could force the European powers to respect American rights by withholding U.S. trade.

Jefferson’s second term demonstrated the serious shortcomings of his thinking… As a result of the War of 1812, American statesmen realized that to survive in a hostile world, the U.S. would have to adopt measures, including the use of military power and traditional diplomacy, that doctrinaire republicanism abhorred.

Third, the conduct of the war exploded the republican myth of the civilian militia’s superiority to a professional military. Thus, during the three decades after the War of 1812, the Army would adopt generally recognized standards of training, discipline and doctrine. It would create branch schools, e.g., schools of infantry, cavalry and artillery.

It’s that third item that I call y’all’s attention to in particular.

The Jeffersonians, among whom we for most purposes can count leading Framer James Madison, had an image in their minds of what government in general should be, which in a word one would say minimal. It was close to the ideal that libertarians still embrace today. We were to be a nation of independent yeoman farmers, each of whom looked after himself, and should the need for national defense arise, these doughty free men would come together spontaneously to drive away the invader.

Consequently, Jefferson opposed both a standing army and a navy, for anything other than coastal defense.

It is in that context that the Second Amendment makes the most sense. If those citizens were to be any use in a militia, they needed to be armed, and to have some personal experience with firearms.

But it didn’t take long at all for history to teach us the utter inadequacy of the Jeffersonian ideal of an armed citizenry being the only defense we needed. In Jefferson’s own time as president, he discovered the need to project power far beyond our coast, against the Barbary pirates. Our young Navy and its Marine contingent came in very handy in that instance.

But it took the War of 1812, “Mr. Madison’s War,” to demonstrate how useless untrained or lightly trained militia, with an unprofessional officer corps, was against the army of a superpower.

We got spanked by the redcoats, in one land encounter after another. The Brits burned Washington. Until the Battle of New Orleans — which unbeknownst to the combatants occurred after the war was over — the irregular American troops were humiliated time and again. If not for the occasionally sea victory, in single-frigate-versus-single-frigate actions (which, until Philip Broke’s big win off Boston Harbor, totally demoralized the Royal Navy, accustomed as it was to dominating the French), there would have been little to give heart to Americans during most of the course of the war.

Being reminded of all this led me to an interesting train of thought, as follows: The constitutional justification for universal gun ownership, a well-regulated militia, was shown within a generation to be a deeply flawed model of national defense.

From then on, American history saw a fairly steady march toward maintaining professional military forces, led by a professional officers. The notion of the citizen-soldier is far from dead, but it’s highly amended. We created a mighty force out of the civilian population in World War II, but they were trained up to effectiveness by a core of experienced professionals. And today’s National Guard contains some of the most thoroughly trained individuals in our overall defense establishment. Technology has made warfighting such a specialized enterprise that no one expects anyone to be an effective soldier just because he owned a rifle growing up.

Oh, one footnote, from that same column. I thought the South Carolina angle intriguing:

Many of these military reforms were the work of John C. Calhoun, who proved to be one of the most innovative and effective secretaries of war (which was the title of the cabinet officer before 1947, when it was changed to secretary of defense).

Early in the war, our only victories were at sea. Here, USS Constitution defeats HMS Guerriere.

Early in the war, our only victories were at sea. Here, USS Constitution defeats HMS Guerriere.

20 thoughts on “The Jeffersonian notion of ‘militia’ didn’t work all that well out in the real world

  1. Brad Warthen Post author

    Of course, no generalization is perfect, and the notion of military professionalism was one that evolved rather gradually during our history.

    I show above a picture from the Battle of Queenston Heights. That battle, an early British victory, included some American “regulars” as well as militia, while the British force included some Canadian militia along with regular redcoats and Mohawks. The American force was weakened by squabbling between officers, when the regular officer refused to take orders from the militia commander.

    We saw the same sort of petty personal attitudes among senior officers cause Union defeat at the second Battle of Bull Run (for which McLellan should have been shot, by the brutal standards of the day, for deliberately causing thousands of American casualties)…

  2. Burl Burlingame

    The current meme among the upper echelons of the NRA is that the “militia” is aimed at government in general, including our standing, elected government. “Second-Admendment Solutions,” and all that. The subtext, of course, is “Accept our demands, as we have the guns.”

    (I see you’ve dissolved the rather heated argument below in the “old” blog we were having about this subject. Gun oil upon troubled waters!)

  3. Bryan Caskey

    “Technology has made warfighting such a specialized enterprise that no one expects anyone to be an effective soldier just because he owned a rifle growing up.” -Brad

    Maybe not everything (jet pilots, submarine captains, minesweepers) but at the end of the day, the lowly infantryman standing on a street-corner with his rifle is what it takes to occupy and subdue a place.

    Sure, you can send any 18-year-old through ten weeks of basic training and you’ll get a basic infantryman. (It takes two weeks longer to make a Marine.) However, it wouldn’t hurt if that same 18-year-old had been shooting over the course of his life and didn’t have to learn the basic skill of an infantryman: riflery.

    Also, I’m not sure I would agree that the British “humiliated” us. The war was more or less a tie.

  4. Brad Warthen Post author

    We didn’t give a good account of ourselves on our home field.

    The burning of Washington was pretty humiliating. It’s a bit difficult to imagine, from a 21st-century perspective, any conventional army ever being in a position to do that. The only one that ever came close after that was the Army of Northern Virginia.

  5. Brad Warthen Post author

    And remember, the British were rather busy with Napoleon. This war was a distraction to them, a wasteful diversion of troops and materiel to defend Canada.

    In the broader scheme of things, it was well worth it to Britain to sign the Treaty of Ghent.

  6. Ralph Hightower

    I don’t think that we can get rid of handguns.

    But there is no reason for us to own assault rifles, large capacity magazines, or armour piercing bullets. That stuff should be reserved for the military and law enforcement.

    Rifles and shotguns for hunting game is okay.

    1. Nick

      Assault rifle – any firearm with select fire capability.
      Large capacity magazines – magazine capacity greater than 20 rounds.
      Armour piercing bullets – any combination of projectile and propellant capable of fully penetrating standard police body armor more than 50% of the time, from a range of 50 yards (long arm) or 15 yards (handgun) .

      1. tavis micklash

        Just curious, where did you get your armor piercing definition?

        That’s pretty specific policy looks like it came from a think tank somewhere.

        Id be interested in seeing the basis/background behind it.

  7. Silence

    We’ve really adopted both models – we have both a professional, full-time military and also a national guard made up of “citizen-soldiers” that we use to back up and augment the active duty miiltary.

    Jefferson saw, correctly, that a professional military could be used to control the subjects of a state, not just to protect them. He also believed that an armed militia – made up of pretty much every able bodied male could be an effective deterrent to foreign (or domestic) aggressions. Given the benefit of hindsight, the militia model doesn’t work very well as a rapid reaction force. If you have months to train soldiers and vast arsenals of equipment, it would work just fine. Look at how our military expanded and contracted for WWI, WWII, and how the recent repeated deployments of the National Guard have worked out. I think we’ve struck a pretty good balance.

    That being said, through some combination of armed neutrality, dumb luck, banking finesse, mountainous topography, chronographic excellence and advanced cutlery technology, the Swiss have utilized the citizen militia model well and haven’t been successfully invaded since 1798.

    1. Brad Warthen Post author

      I think they’ve somehow mass-hypnotized the rest of Europe. Hitler rolls over the rest of the continent, and then, when he’s too busy breaking his non-aggression pact with Stalin to invade any more countries in Western Europe, he’s all like: “Doh! I forgot Switzerland was there!”

      I mean, seriously, who thinks about Switzerland unless they a) need to park a few million offshore, or b) need to get a new Swiss Army knife, because the little spring thing on the scissors of their old one broke?

      Back to your original point… I don’t think we really use “both models” today. Our National Guard is pretty professional, just part-time. The pilots at McEntire have long been more experienced than those in the regular Air Force, for instance.

      As for the militia being a bulwark against tyranny, think about it — whom do the powers that be call first when there is civil unrest, or even the threat of it (such as potential looting after a natural disaster)? The National Guard, of course. Think Kent State…

        1. Nick

          Silence, the majority of IRR call-ups that I remember came during the first desert war, in 1990, and most of those were for people with critical skills. I don’t know of any infantry call-ups (and neither does my retired infantry ex-brother-in-law for any of the wars.

          The military did keep people on past their normal separation dates using stop-loss programs, but that’s a different aminal.


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