Since at least as early as the mid-1990s, the term “militia” has been increasingly used by journalists and scholars on the left in connection with alleged “right-wing extremists.”1
time, the term “militia” has been used to describe nearly any group of
nonleftist armed men, and has been generally used in close connection with
terms like “extremism,” “violence,” and “vigilante.” We have been reminded of
this in recent years during riots in places like Ferguson, Missouri (in 2014), and Kenosha,
Wisconsin (in 2020). In both cases,
armed volunteers attempted to assist private sector business owners with
protecting their property from looters and rioters. And in both cases, the
volunteers were described with terms such as: “violent,” “militia,” “extreme,”
and “white vigilante.”
Historically in the United States,
however, the term “militia” had entirely different connotations. Throughout
much of the nineteenth century, militias were considered to be common
institutions central to civic and community life. They were a common fixture of
local festivals and celebrations, and they functioned in some ways as fraternal
orders function today.
some critics of the militia idea have attempted to claim militias existed primarily to
suppress slave rebellions, the fact is militias were common and
widespread in Northern states where they had no role whatsoever in maintaining
the institution of slavery. In fact, militias often served an important role in
providing opportunities and community cohesion for new immigrants.
more, many militias were independent of a centralized state militia system and
functioned largely as private entities. They elected their own officers, were
self-funded, and trained on their own schedules. Although they were ostensibly
commanded by the state governors, this system of functionally private militias
became an established part of daily life for many Americans. These were
local volunteer militias with names like the “Richardson Light Guard,” the
“Detroit Light Guard,” or the “Asmonean Guard.”2 They were essentially private clubs
composed of gun owners who were expected to assist in keeping law and order
within the cities and towns of the United States.
They were separate from the so-called common militias, which
developed in the eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries, and which in many
cases were staffed with conscripts, were funded with tax dollars, and were
commanded by an established state bureaucracy.
by the Jacksonian period, new volunteer militias began to arise. As noted by
Jeffrey Rogers Hummel, the United States by the 1830s had seen “a remarkable
growth in the privately organized volunteer militia. The number of volunteer
units had been expanding steadily since the American Revolution, but after the
war of 1812, it exploded. Three hundred sprang up in California alone between
1849 and 1856.”3
groups were, in the words of historian Marcus Cunliffe, “volunteer companies
existing independently of the statewide system of militia, and they held
themselves aloof from the common mass. They provided their own uniforms.”4
also elected their own officers, did their own fundraising, staffed their own
governing boards, and sought out for themselves a secure position within the
communities where members lived. In earlier decades, especially the 1830s and
1840s, these groups tended to be “elite” in the sense that they attracted upper
middle– and upper-class members of the community. This was in many cases
because of the cost of funding these volunteer militias.
member of the Detroit Light Guard remembered, “at that time the company got
nothing from the State. They had to pay for all they got, uniforms and all.”5
But by the 1850s, firearms
and uniforms were becoming more affordable to the middle and working classes.
This brought in many new members from outside the local elite circles of
established families. Moreover, some militias were able to solicit funding from
wealthy members of the community who acted as patrons. The case of the
Richardson Light Guard (RLG) is instructive:
RLG came into being in South Reading, Massachusetts, in 1851, in response to a
perceived shortage of militiamen in the years following the Mexican War. At the
time, all that was necessary for the militia to be regarded as legally
sanctions was for the group to “petition the governor” for what amounted to a
nod of approval. This was granted. But at that point, the group still lacked
funding. Although members paid dues, historian Barry Stentiford notes
that “Dues were not enough [to] cover the expenses of the fledgling
company, and committee members had to use their own money to carry out its
came up with a plan to offer “honorary memberships” to wealthy members of the
community. The largest donor in this scheme was a man named Richardson, after
whom the militia was soon named. Funding from prominent community members also
added legitimacy to the group and ensured it would continue to be regarded as a
the RLG enjoyed legal sanction, it was essentially a private organization, and
Stentiford notes, “At its inception, the RLG belonged to its members, and to
prominent residents of the town of South Reading. The town of South Reading,
the Commonwealth of Massachusetts, and the federal government occupied a
diminishing hierarchy of influence.”7
In other words, while everyone
admitted local, state, and federal officials enjoyed some form of control of
the militia, this authority was tentative at best.
wasn’t the only place were militias were privately funded and privately
controlled. When Iowa became a US territory in 1838, for example, an “official”
territorial militia was formed. On the other hand:
formation of local militia groups was more relaxed in comparison to the State
militia service. To form a local militia group one would simply ask for local
men to sign up, name the group, possibly elect officials or form by-laws, and
then write to the Iowa Territory legislature to introduce themselves and
request weapons….If you received a positive letter back and weapons, you were a
militia group in the Territory of Iowa.
this sort of local—and even private ownership—was an increasingly common method
of organizing militias by midcentury. Hummel concludes that “Because many
volunteer units were privately organized, recruited, and equipped, the militia
became a partially privatized system as well.”
of their local nature, many militias reflected local character as well—and
access was hardly limited to national ethnic majorities. By the 1850s,
immigrants had come to dominate many volunteer militias, with Irish, Scottish,
and German militias becoming especially common. The Scottish militiamen wore
kilts as part of their parade uniforms. The Italians created a “Guardia Nazionale
Italiana.” Robert Ernst notes that the “significance of the immigrant military
companies is evident in the fact that in 1853, more than 4,000 of the 6,000
uniformed militia in New York City were of foreign birth.”8
were militia groups limited to Christians. Jack D. Foner recounts in
in New York City formed military companies of their own. Troop K, Empire
Hussars, was composed entirely of Jews, as was the Young Men’s Lafayette
Association. A third unit, the Asmonean Guard, consisted of both Jewish and
Christian employees of
As militias became more
middle class, their names changed as well. Militias began to refer to
themselves with names that might be used for sports teams today, including
terms like “Invincibles,” “Avengers,” and “Snake Hunters.”
uniforms were often extravagant and modeled on Napoleon’s troops earlier in the
century. These groups were even known to impress foreigners. As one Englishman
remarked: “They marched in sections, with a splendid band at their head and…it
would be impossible to find a more military-looking, well-drilled body of men.”9
volunteer militias were attractive to potential members, because these groups
served many social functions as well. As noted by historian Briton Cooper
Busch, “in peacetime, all [volunteer militias] helped their communities
celebrate festivals, holidays, and funerals with marches, balls, and banquets,
helping out in emergencies, and often building an esprit de corps which established
a basis for effective wartime service and even elite reputations.”10
many cases, membership in a local militia provided opportunities for social
advancement, and “it was not uncommon for individual families to have long
associations with these institutions.”11 For
newcomers to any community, whether or not of foreign origin, “the militia
company provided a means for newer residents to embed themselves into the
fabric of the community.”12
volunteer militias played a similar role to that of the volunteer fire
brigades of this period, which in many communities came to be dominated by
immigrant groups and served as a way to and advance the social and economic
lives of newcomers.13
Needless to say, this model of American militias is long gone from the
imagination of nearly all Americans. Modern-day journalists and scholars have
been hard at work attempting to connect militias, past and present, either to
slavery or to fringe groups and vigilantism. Moreover, many Americans now
regard the idea of privately controlled bands of armed men with trepidation and
the size and scope of taxpayer-funded bureaucratic agencies grew throughout the
nineteenth century, private volunteer militias were deemed increasingly
unnecessary and undesirable. The late nineteenth century was a period during
which states and the federal government went to great lengths to end the old
system of locally controlled militias, and this was topped off by the Militia Act of 1903 which
largely ended autonomy in controlling
state military resources as well. By 1945, the National Guard was well on its
way to becoming little more than an auxiliary to the federal government’s
military establishment, although some remnants of the old decentralized system remained.
it comes to urban environments, these militia were in many respects replaced by
today’s state and local police forces, which unlike the volunteer
militias are on the job full-time and enjoy immunity and privileges
far beyond what any militia member of old might have ever dreamed of having.
Rather than private self-funded militias called out only occasionally to quell
riots and uprisings, we have immense, taxpayer-paid police forces with military
equipment, SWAT teams, and riot gear to carry out no-knock raids (often getting the address wrong).
The old militia system was by no
means flawless, but this switch to a more centralized bureaucratic system is
not without costs of its own, both in terms of dollars and the potential for
Moreover, as has become increasingly
apparent in recent years, National Guard troops and local police forces are
clearly inadequate to provide safety and security for private homes and
businesses. Half of the nation’s violent crimes remain “unsolved” as police
focus on petty drug offenses rather than homicides. Meanwhile—as happened in
both Ferguson and
Kenosha—National Guard troops focus their protection on
government buildings while private businesses burn.
The dominant shapers of public opinion would have us
believe that volunteer groups of armed men must be regarded with horror. Yet it
is increasingly clear that the institutions that have replaced the militias of
the past still leave much to be desired.
1.Chip Berlet, (New York: Guildford Press,
2000), p. 289. Berlet asserts during the mid-1990s, “armed militia movements
grew rapidly” and labels the growth in these militias a “major U.S. social
movement” of the time.
2.The term “guard” was common in names for
these militia groups. The term, according to Stentiford, “emhpasized the
defensive ideals of the American militia.” (p. 33).
3.Jeffrey Rogers Hummel, (Peru, IL: Open Court Publishing, 1996), p. 157.
4.Marcus Cunliffe, (Boston:
Little, Brown, 1968), p. 218.
5.James D. Elderkin, (Ann Arbor, MI: University of Michigan
Press, 1899), p. 127.
6.Barry M. Stentiford, (Jefferson, NC: McFarland,
2013), pp. 33–40.
7.Ibid., p. 39.
8.Robert Ernst, (Syracuse,
NY: Syracuse University Press, 1994), p. 129.
9.Cunliffe, p. 217.
10.Briton Cooper Busch, (Washington,
DC: Potomac Books, 2006), p. 53.
11.Busch, p. 53.
12.Stentiford, p. 34.
13.Cunliffe (p. 89) notes that fire companies
in American cities were “linked with military companies” and provided
“ready-made recruits” for some militias. They were also closely linked with
partisan machine politics at the time.
Ryan W. McMaken is the editor of Mises Daily and The Austrian.
Send him mail.