On January 26, 2016, law enforcement agents arrested Ammon Bundy, leader of the armed militia group “Citizens for Constitutional Freedom” that had occupied the Malheur National Wildlife Refuge in Oregon for most of January in protest of federal land use policy, along with 7 of his fellow militants. One person was killed in the clash, and three more surrendered the following day after Bundy issued a statement instructing the remaining militants to go home. An indeterminate number remain in the wildlife refuge.
Armed groups like Bundy’s share important similarities. First, they reject the federal government as illegitimate and oppressive. Second, they often describe themselves as “constitutional militias.” But militias have historically been in service to the American government, not aligned against it. In trading on the language of militias, the Bundy group camouflages what it really is: an armed gang attempting to pervert history.
Militias were not always the province of those on the far-right fringe. The British colonists who migrated to the Americas during the 1600s lacked the means to field permanent, or “standing,” armies. Even if they had had the means, maintaining armies without a war to fight contravened English tradition. Instead, the colonists met their defense needs through the militia, a concept dating back to medieval England. Every colony except Quaker Pennsylvania turned their adult male inhabitants into part-time soldiers. Militiamen were expected to own their own weapon, powder, and shot. They were also expected to train regularly. Militias could then be “called out” as needed to deal with threats.
This system did not work as intended. For one thing, only prosperous citizens could afford suitable muskets. Slaves, Native Americans, and poor whites were weeded out of militias. At the same time, no colonial government wanted to risk harming commerce by calling out masses of affluent citizens to fight. Defending colonies from threats like hostile natives often went to “Provincial” troops, who were usually hired for a year, and issued weapons. Ironically, most Provincials were poor whites – the same kind of men excluded from militias. And British regulars – the hated Redcoats – were necessary to deal with their French and Spanish counterparts.
Despite the militia’s ineffectiveness and the increasing reliance on professional troops, hostility toward the idea of standing armies only grew fiercer among many American colonists in the years leading up to the American Revolution. There was no room for standing armies in the radical Whig ideology that underlay the Revolution. Whiggish theorists emphasized building wealth through hard work while upholding individual liberty and civic virtue. Working for wages (and high wages were one of the few incentives armies of the time period could offer recruits) robbed men of their independence, as did submitting to the harsh discipline that drove 18th century armies.
Both factors combined to make standing armies instruments of tyranny, as Whiggish pamphleteers warned over and over again. Even during times of war, when a regular army might be required, enlistments would last no more than a year. Such short terms of service, it was thought, would prevent soldiers from becoming more loyal to their commanders than the state they ostensibly served.
Reality trumped ideology during the Revolutionary War. While the Continental Army was initially composed mostly of prosperous farmers on short-term enlistments, many of them left after a series of British victories in 1776, never to return. Washington, with the help of the Prussian Baron Friedrich von Steuben, reconstituted the Continental Army in 1777 to resemble one of its European counterparts, with long terms of enlistment and severe discipline.
Redcoats frequently outnumbered Continentals, and so Washington and his commanders always called out sizable numbers of militia in support before joining battle. But militiamen were just as likely to run away as they were to stand and fight. While the militia made some valuable contributions during the war, the Continental Army did the lion’s share of the fighting.
The ideological importance of militias outlived the war even as their record suggested they weren’t of much use. Most of the old prejudices against standing armies persisted among ordinary Americans. But the majority of the delegates to the Constitutional Convention in 1787 knew how undependable militias were. After much wrangling, the delegates reached a compromise located in Article 1, Section 8 of the Constitution. It authorized Congress:
While Congress also had the power to “raise and support Armies” it could not do so for longer than two years at a time – a sop to the “Anti-Federalist” delegates who remained highly skeptical of standing armies in particular and concentrated federal power in general. Thus state militias under ultimate federal control became one of America’s primary lines of defense.
Although the Second Amendment only consisted of one sentence (“A well-regulated militia, being necessary for the security of a free state, the right of the people to keep and bear arms, shall not be infringed”) it helped clarify things further. The legal apparatus ensuring that militias were “well-regulated” established rules such as how frequently militias had to train, what specific types of weapons would be required, and that those weapons be registered with civil authorities. The Founders did not all agree on what “bearing arms” meant exactly, but all of them almost certainly thought military service in defense of a republican society more important than hunting game or defending one’s home against criminals. Firearm ownership was a civic right that the historian Saul Cornell has likened to serving on a jury today. And unlike jury members, militiamen did not get paid for their trouble.
This arrangement held until it became clear that militias were highly unreliable during actual wars. In the War of 1812, for instance, many militias refused to leave the United States. That created a problem, since much of the fighting happened in Canada. Over time, membership in state militias became less and less well regulated, and the institution as a whole fell into disrepair.
From 1903 to 1912, the federal government passed several acts reforming the militia into a volunteer force that could be called up to support the regular army. The modern-day Militia of the United States consists of all able-bodied men ages 17 through 45, divided into two classes. The first is the National Guard (the “organized” militia). The second is everybody else (the “unorganized” militia).
As the unorganized militia lost both power and respectability, fringe groups transformed it into a symbol of independence and anti-government anger. To do so, they had to erase the historic link between militias and federal control. Instead of a tool of the state, these new militias positioned themselves against the state.
During the 1990s, the FBI considered these separatist militias a terror threat exceeding that of Islamist militants. Armed confrontations between federal agents and armed groups at Ruby Ridge in 1992 and Waco in 1993 fueled militia recruiting. By 1995, militias existed in all 50 states. Ruby Ridge and Waco were also factors behind Timothy McVeigh’s decision to bomb the Alfred P. Murrah Federal Building in Oklahoma City.
McVeigh’s goals went beyond revenge. A white supremacist, he drew much of his inspiration from the 1978 novel The Turner Diaries, in which Jews, gays, and non-whites control the government until being exterminated in a race war. By 2001, disillusionment with a revolution that never came had taken its toll, and the militia movement was a shadow of its former self. But the number of self-described militias surged in the wake of the recent financial crisis.
Ammon Bundy and his men wish to claim their place as heirs to the militia tradition. They see themselves as defending a free society against an oppressive federal government. What they fail to understand is that in American legal tradition, militias are placed under government control. Even the most ardent Anti-Federalist would have had little problem with the notion of state authorities placing strict regulations on their respective militias. Their principal objection was against the idea of the federal government creating a standing army more powerful than state militias. Viewed through this lens, Bundy’s “Citizens for Constitutional Freedom,” along with their 1990s forebears, are merely paramilitary bands. Referring to them as anything else is a gross misinterpretation of history.
Thomas A. Reinstein is a doctoral candidate studying American foreign relations at Temple University.