The Potowmack Institute

The Militia

This is an official document that reflect the original militia consciousness. The militia clauses of the Constitution, the Second Amendment and the Militia Act of 1792 were about the disposition of military force in the early Republic. There was no mention of the civil rights of private individuals that expresses a consciousness that supports what gun rights advocates today seek as a Second Amendment right.

The constitutional objection here is no help for contemporary gun rights ideologies.

The American State Papers Military Affairs are now available on the Library of Congress website.

The "turn to image" box roughly corresponds to the page numbers in the papers. Enter numbers in the image box or change the last number in URL to get to certain pages.

Secretary of War Henry Knox's 1790 militia proposal to Congress, "Organization of the Militia," is No. 2 in the ASPMA.

Besides No. 57, the only other mention we could find of anything remotedly related to constitutional militia rights of the people is in ASPMA No. 98.

The inventory of militia resources called "Return of Militia" was authorized by the Militia Act of 1792. Presidents Washington and Adams had ingnored the Return of Militia but President Jefferson for ideological reasons wanted to emphasize the militia over the regular army and ordered the militia inventory be reported to him. The first "Return of Militia" was ASPMA No. 51 reported to Congress March 1, 1803. ASPMA No. 52, reported to Congress March 22, 1804 for the years 1802 and 1803 was more complete. It is on the Potowmack Institute website at
and on Library of Congress website:
ASPMA No. 51.

ASPMA No. 52.

Other militia returns running through the 1820s can be found in the INDEX of ASPMA and located through the page numbers.

No. 57


Mr. VARNUM, from the committee to whom was referred so much of the message of the President of the United States, of the 3rd of December, as relates to the organization and classification of the militia, and to the augmentation of the land forces, made the following report, in part:

In relation to a classification and new organization of the militia. The most extensive view of this part of the subject which has occurred to the committee is, a division of the militia into four classes, in the following manner, viz. those between eighteen and twenty-one years of age to compose one class; those between twenty-one and twenty-six to compose a second class; those between twenty-six and thirty-five to compose a third class; and those between thirty-five and forty five to compose the fourth class; each class to be under a separate organization, and to be commanded by separate corps of officer. To this kind of organization, as it relates to the first class, we are met by a constitutional objection. By the Constitution of the United States, Congress are empowered "to provide for the organizing, arming, and disciplining the militia1 reserving to the States, respectively, the appointment of the officers."

By some of the State Constitutions it is provided, that the captains and subalterns of the militia shall be chosen by such of the persons who compose the respective companies as are upwards of twenty-one years of age, so that there is a constitutional provision by which such States can appoint offices to command a class of the militia composed of minors.

Knowledge or tactics, and an acquaintance with subordination and discipline, are acquirements of such importance to our national defence, that, the promotion of them among the militia ought to be a Primary object with the Government, and, no doubt, is exceedingly desirable in the minds of the individual citizens. But such means ought to be adopted by the Government as are best calculated to effect the object, with as little, fatigue and expense to individuals as the nature or the case will admit. It is conceived. that the fatigue and expense of military discipline is, in a very great degree, proportionate to the population of the different parts of the country where the duty is performed, or, in other words, it is proportionate to the distance each individual composing the different corps is compelled to travel to reach his place of parade. Under the present organization of the militia, this idea is fully verified— the difference in the expense of militia meetings, in those parts of the country where the inhabitants are the most dispersed, when compared with similar meetings in the more populous parts, a very apparent; and besides, the nature of the case compels us to believe, that the same cause will produce a similar disparity in military acquirement.

These, however, are evils which grow out of the nature of the case, and cannot be remedied, but by the increase of population, because the principles of the organization are calculated to render the formation of the different corps as compact as is consistent with proper military arrangements.

By the organization and classification of the militia, in the manner which has been named, the limits of each corps must be extended over four times the quantity of territory it now occupies, and, consequently, would burden the citizens with a proportionate additional expense in the acquisition of a competent portion of military information or operate as a prportionate preventive to such acquisition. The subject has been viewed in another point of light, that is, to call on the two senior classes to exercise but once in a year, so as to proportion the quantum of exercise to the extension of the corps. In this case, all the evils attendant on the extension of the different corps over additional territory will attach to the junior classes which could attach to them in the other case, and the consequent hazard of a failure in discipline will remain.

Military knowledge, like that of every other science, without practice, is soon forgotten, and, although it is not probable that the whole of the militia will be needed in the field at any one time, yet, in case of invasion, it is very possible that all who are in the vicinity of the assailants may be necessary, and, as it is uncertain at what point an enemy may make his attack, all should be prepared to meet such an event; but, from a deficiency in discipline, or the want of a competent knowledge in tactics, in the two senior classes only, an important opportunity for a speedy extermination of an enemy might be lost, and the lives of many valuable citizens put in jeopardy. It is, therefore, believed that this experiment is inadmissible.

Another view of this subject has suggested a classification of the militia by ages, under the existing organization, for the sole purpose of designating those ocrsons who are under twenty-six years of age as the only proper objects of militia duty in the field, except in cases of great emergency, and in their particular vicinage. From eighteen to twenty-one years of age is a period of life in which the young men of the United States are employed in completing an education, in pursuit of mechanical information, or in acquiring a necessary acquaintance with some other branch of business, occupation, or profession, on the improvement of which they calculate to obtain a subsistence. From twenty-one to twenty-six, they are improving their previous acquirements in their various occupations and professions, and thereby laying a foundation for a decent support of themselves and families through life: this is a period, also, at which the young men of the United States generally engage in matrimony, and become chargeable with families all which renders their time as dear to them, from eighteen to twenty-six years of age, as at any other period of life.

It would seem, therefore, that an arrangement which would compel this class of our citizens to bear the principal part of the burthen of national defence might justly be departure from that principle of distributive justice which ought to be a paramount characteristic of the Government of the United States.

That young men would better endure the fatigues of a long campaign than those more advanced in life is not doubted; but whether on a sudden emergency, they would be more useful in repulsing an enemy than an equal number of enrolled militia, on an average from eighteen to forty-five, is a question of doubt; if, however, it should be considered that the advantage is in favor of the young men, it is confidently believed, that the advantage in that case to the public would not be of a sufficient magnitude to justify the Government in imposing on them such an unequal burden.

It the proposed system should be adopted; the total derangement of the existing organization of the militia must be the consequence. It may be proper here again to remark, that by the Constitution of the United States is vested in the General Government the power "to provide for organizing, arming, and disciplining the militia and for governing such part of them as may be employed in the service of the United States;" but the same article of the constitution is express in "reserving to the States, respectively, the appointment of the officers, and the authority of training the militia, according to the disciplimie prescribed by Congress." By this arrangement in the constitution, the powers necessary to produce an efficient militia are divided between the General Government and the State governments. In pursuance of the power vested in the General Government on this subject, Congress did, is the year 1799, pass an act to establish an uniform militia throughout the United States, which act seems to embrace all the principles in the case delegated to Congress. Soon after the passage of that law by Congress, a consideration of the subject was assumed by the Legislatures ut all the States, and laws have been passed by all the States for carrying that system into effect, so that, by the co-operation of the General Government and the State governments, the militia are now completely organized and officered throughout the Union. It is now thirteen years since this system has been in operation; the people practiced under it have, in a great degree, become acquainted with it, and attached to it; and, in many parts of the Union, military discipline is rapidly progressing under it, and it cannot with propriety be doubted, that the militia of the United States, under the existing organization, are amply competent to a defence against the intrusion of any invading enemy. To derange this system, then, and introduce one totally new and untried, one in which it is not certain that the State Legislatures will concur and which is of doubtful aspect as it relates to the approbation of the body of the People, would, in the opinion of the committee, at this important crisis of our national affairs, be putting too much at risk.

They therefore recommend the following resolution:

Resolved: That it is inexpedient to adopt measures for the classification or new organization of the militia.

[PotowmackForum], interactive posting
[US v. Emerson PAGE]
[NRA v. Reno (July, 2000)]
[Printz and Mack PAGE]
[US v. Lopez PAGE]
[ARCHIVE]. Potowmack Institute Files
[RESOURCES]. Newspaper, magazine, journal articles, books, links

© Potowmack Institute