Here’s something surprising I learned last year. When the founding fathers spoke of “militias,” they were not referring to a bunch of yahoos running around in the woods with paint on their faces outside of state control. They were referring to a citizen army under state control.
But isn’t that what our army is?
The founding fathers knew they needed to provide for the common defense, but they saw standing armies controlled by a central government as an immediate threat to the viability of the new union. A standing army is one made up of professional, full-time soldiers like the US Army, the Marines, the Navy, and the Air Force.
The founders had seen standing armies cause all sorts of problem in the centuries before. They had also seen how kings and queens would wield them to impose their will and oppress the people. They believed a standing army would only undermine what they were trying to accomplish. Remember: the world then was ruled by monarchies. The founders had never seen a standing army wielded by any other type of power.
So if you don’t have a standing (permanent) army, how can you defend your country?
The founding fathers thought they had found a solution in a tradition of duty that went back hundreds of years in England, all the way back to the fyrd, which was the name of the Saxon army made up of landowners that were duty-bound to fight. This tradition simply stated that it was the duty of every land-owning man between certain ages to provide their own arms and defend the land when called by their leaders.
But these weren’t full-time soldiers. And the army wasn’t meant to be permanent. Citizen armies were to be called out when needed, and when the crisis was over, they were to go back home. They were controlled by the king. But it was not to be a standing army.
The founders took this idea and tweaked it. It was still a temporary citizen army. The states still controlled them. But now the Federal government would help fund the weapons, and the state governments would organize, command, and regulate the militias and issue the weapons.
BTW, this had nothing to do with personal firearms for hunting and protecting yourself. Back then, owning personal firearms was just accepted. This was all about how regulate an army that would protect the country from foreign invaders.
So militias, as thought of by the founders in the 1700s, were not groups outside the government’s control. They were temporary citizen armies, a way to separate the powers of the military so they couldn’t accumulate centrally and come under control of a king or queen or handful of politicians.
So let’s look at the language of the Second Amendment in light of this context.
“A well regulated Militia, being necessary to the security of a free State, the right of the people to keep and bear Arms, shall not be infringed.”
It’s all about keeping the power of the military from accumulating to a central government.
The problem is militias didn’t work to provide for the common defense. Not well enough.
It didn’t work during the Revolutionary War. They had to create the Continental Army. That army was supported by the militias, but the colonists found they couldn’t rely on the militias. They had to have the regular army to fight the British.
After the war, the Continental Army was disbanded, but the militias simply weren’t good enough to face the threats the new nation faced, and George Washington himself openly lamented it. They took a licking in 1791 and then again during the war of 1812, being routed time and again.
Heck, militias didn’t even work in the days of the fyrd. The Saxon and Norman kings relied on their house warriors and mercenaries and only supplemented with the fyrd.
So the early leaders of the USA soon realized they needed a regular army with the training and skill it possessed. And they decided to form one soon after that defeat in 1791. It began in 1792. The standing army was small. But it grew again during the war of 1812. And it continued to grow until we now have the regular armed forces of the US (the standing army) and the National Guard. BTW, that National Guard is what the militias transformed into, but, wouldn’t you know it, even the National Guard is now mostly under the control of the Federal government.
What does this mean?
It means we now have the most powerful standing army the world has ever known and almost no militia. It means our military is a complete 180 of what the founders envisioned. I’m not saying it’s bad. I love our military. I’m merely pointing out that militias back then meant a certain thing and were thought useful for a certain reason. And we have completely replaced that arrangement with the very thing it was devised to prevent.
Three Wikipedia articles: