Sunday, February 25, 2018

"A Well Regulated Militia" - part 1

From Renaissance Florence to The Constitution of the United States

This essay was inspired by Andrew Fletcher’s 1698 "A Discourse of Government with Relation to Militias,"[1] from which, it seems, we get the phrase “a well regulated militia.” But why was Fletcher writing about the militia? And how did that phrase end up in the US Constitution?

That history, I found, runs from Machiavelli in the Italian Renaissance, through Fletcher’s Scotland, to the British colonies in the New World, and finally to the United States, the first modern republic.

In the early 16ᵗʰ century, Machiavelli argued for a citizen militia based on the Roman model.[2] He attempted to put this theory into practice in Florence. Failure or success is debatable; the militia of Machiavelli’s Florentine Republic was overwhelmed by vastly superior forces. Yet the idea of a military of the people, rather than a royal force that kings used to impose unjust policies, was attractive and became an ideal of classical republicanism.

In Scotland, nearly a century later, Fletcher proposed a “well-regulated militia” which would include the entire young able-bodied manhood of Scotland, eschewing both mercenaries and selective conscription. Finally, in the new United States of America, again, nearly a century later, Fletcher’s ideals came to fruition, and were made into law in the Second Amendment to the Constitution and the Militia Acts of 1792.

That law was mostly honored in the breach. In his 1801 Presidential inauguration speech, Thomas Jefferson said, “a well disciplined militia, our best reliance in peace, and for the first moments of war, till regulars may relieve them,”[3] placing the militia in a secondary position, a backstop to regular military. That sentiment, this statement, reduced the role of the militia to domestic peacekeeping and first line home defense, and there, mostly, it stayed. Yet the ideal of the militia persists, and the Second Amendment remains a source of controversy.

Let us examine the details.

Notes on Part 1

[1] Andrew Fletcher. 1698. A Discourse of Government with Relation to Militias. Edinburgh.

[2] Machiavelli, Niccolò. The Art of War, 1521. Translated by Peter Whitehorne, 1521.

[3] Jefferson, Thomas. 2016. “First Inaugural Address, 4 March 1801.” Founders Online: III.

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