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Exploring the Constitution, Part 22: Do We Need the Militia Today?

Copyright 2000 by David W. Neuendorf

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In the previous installment in the series on the Constitution, we started to look at the Second Amendment and the meaning of "a well regulated Militia." We saw that the Framers of our Constitution relied on the militia (the armed populace) for both national defense and restraint against government usurpation of power. In this, the 22nd installment, we'll try to apply their ideas on the militia to our situation today.

The greatest fear that many Americans had at the time of the nation's founding was that a standing army would enable the federal government to establish and enforce tyranny over the American people. Thomas Jefferson, for example, noted in 1803 that "None but an armed nation can dispense with a standing army. To keep ours armed and disciplined, is therefore at all times important." He later commented that "...we cannot be defended but by making every citizen a soldier, as the Greeks and Romans who had no standing armies." He always assumed that standing armies were dangerous to liberty, and that it is necessary to find an alternative to them. James Madison, in arguing for ratification of the Constitution, repeatedly tried to assuage the people's fear of a standing army by claiming that the militia would make the permanent force unnecessary.

Others of that era argued that a standing army would be necessary to defend the nation from external attack, but that the presence of an armed populace would remove the danger of having such a force. Alexander Hamilton, in The Federalist No. 29, pointed out that it would not be right for "the great body of yeomanry and of the other classes of citizens to be under arms for the purpose of going through military exercises and evolutions, as often as might be necessary to acquire the degree of perfection which would entitle them to the character of a well regulated militia...Little more can reasonably be aimed at with respect to the people at large than to have them properly armed and equipped." He thus relied on the armed populace not so much for national defense as for a protection against the dangers of a standing army, which he regarded as a necessary institution.

I tend to agree with Hamilton's view that we need a professional military for national defense. Especially in our day of high technology, no militia could maintain equipment like tanks, ships and ICBMs, or respond fast enough to threats to ensure our safety. We need at least a cadre of well trained officers and soldiers to hold the line during the early stages of a war, to give the militia time to get trained and integrated into the regular (i.e., standing) military.

Does the need for a standing army mean that we no longer need the militia? I believe that it means we need the militia more than ever. With a standing army at the disposal of the politicians in Washington, the armed populace and the good behavior of those politicians are the only things standing between us and tyranny. Relying totally on even the good intentions, let alone the good behavior, of politicians is folly of the first order.

How should we be using the militia in our day? I think we should cut the size of our standing army to what we need for the early weeks of a major war. The states, on the other hand, should expand the organized militia (National Guard) to make up for the smaller federal army. They should also provide standard infantry weapons at a reasonable price to those citizens (the unorganized militia) willing to undergo basic military training, using the same training standards as the National Guard, but without the obligation for further service in peacetime. The states should provide firing ranges for competition and other activities designed to maintain proficiency in the use of weapons. This equipping and training would get the militia in shape to discharge both of the purposes which the founders envisioned for them.

In the next and final installment on the Second Amendment, we'll examine the right to keep and bear arms as a personal right, independent of the need for a militia.