Leg history of Militia Act of 1792
The Militia Act of 1792 (in effect until 1903) required essentially every male of military age to own a musket or rifle and ammunition. I recently found some of its legislative history (beginning in 1790) and it is interesting. Major themes were (1) what to do about people too poor to own a gun? (2) If we have the federal government just give issue them guns, wouldn't that let the federal government disarm them at a later date? (3) Various States let Quakers out of militia service if they pay a fee. Should we let them off the fee, or would that be a benefit to one religion (they neither serve nor pay), and how do we make up the lost revenue? Here's a few samples (From 2 Jos. Gales, Debates and Proceedings in the Congress of the US (1834) p. 1851 ff:
Mr. Parker observed ... it must be well known that there are many persons who are so poor that that it is impossible they should comply with the law. He conceived, therefore, that provision should be made for arming such persons at the expense of the United States....
Mr. Fitzsimmons [objected to a provision requiring drill 4-5 times annually] As far as the whole body of the people are necessary to the general defense, they ought to be armed, but the law ought not to require more than is necessary; for that would be a just cause of complaint.
Mr. Jackson said, that he was of the opinion that the people of America would never consent to be deprived of the privilege of bearing arms. Though it may prove burdensome to some individuals to be obliged to arm themselves, yet it would not be so considered when the advantages are justly considered. Original institutions of this nature are highly important. The Swiss Cantons owed their emancipation to their militia establishment....
Mr. Parker said, that in Virginia there is a law, which provides that poor persons, not able to arm themselves, should be equipped at the expense of the State. In every State there are doubtless many persons, who ought to be provided for by the General Government; and if they are not the law is rendered impractical....
Mr. Sherman said, ... There are so few freemen in the United States who are not able to provide themselves with arms and acoutrements, that any provision on the part of the United States is unnecessary and improper.
Mr. Vining ... asked by what means minors were to provide themselves with the requisite articles? Many of them are apprentices. If you put arms into their hands, they will make good soldiers, but how are they to procure them?....
Mr. Wordsworth ... asked the gentlemen who favorered the motion what was the extent of their wishes? The motion appeared at first to be in favor of poor men, who are unable to purchase a firelock; but now it seems minors and apprentices are to be provided for. Is there a man in this House who would wish to see so large a portion of the community, perhaps one-third, armed by the United States, and liable to be disarmed by them? Nothing would tend more to excite suspicion and arouse a jealousy dangerous to the Union.
[Motion to amend act to change "provide himself" with arms to "shall be provided." Objection that it would "leave it optional with the States, or individuals, whether the militia should be armed or not. The motion was lost by a great majority."]
[Motion to strike section requiring conscientious objects to pay a penalty]
Mr. Burke ... This, he said, was called the land of liberty ... and yet we are going to make a respectable class of citizens pay for aright to a free exercise of their religious principles...
Mr. Wilkinson [asks] ... but who are the militia? Such men, he presumes, as are declared to be so by the laws of the particular States, and on this principle he was led to suppose that the militia ought to consist of the whole body of citizens without exception ... he did not anticipate an abuse in the power of exemption on the part of the States....
Mr. Burke [proposes exempting Quakers, those religiously scrupulous, stage-drivers, and teachers] "but their pupils, the students in colleges and seminaries of learning, should not be exempt; youth is the proper time to acquire military knowledge."
Mr. Jackson ... averted to the exemption of Quakers provided in the bill. He said that the operation of this privilege would make the whole community Quakers ... He enlarged upon the obligations which every man owes to society to afford his personal services to assist and defend the community; protection and service are reciprocal. Those who are exempted ought to pay a full equivalent on every principle of justice and equity...."
“That a well regulated militia, composed of the body of the people, trained to arms, is the proper, natural and safe defense of a free state…” These are the words of the Virginia Bill of Rights in July 1776. “
The first State of Virginia Militia Act of 1777 states, “If any soldier be certified to the court martial to be so poor that he cannot purchase such arms, the said court shall cause them to be procured at the expense of the publick, to be reimbursed out of the fines on the delinquents of the county, which arms shall be delivered to such poor person to be used at musters, but shall continue the property of the county; and if any soldier shall sell or conceal such arms, the seller or concealer, and purchaser, shall each of them forfeit the sum of six pounds. And on the death of such poor soldier, or his removal out of the county, such arms shall be delivered to his captain, who shall make report thereof to the next court martial, and deliver the same to such other poor soldier as they shall order.”
"The great object is, that every man be armed. But can the people afford to pay for double sets of arms, &c.? Every one Who is able may have a gun. But we have learned, by experience, that, necessary as it is to have arms, and though our Assembly has, by a succession of laws for many years, endeavored to have the militia completely armed, it is still far from being the case."- Patrick Henry, Virginia Debates on the Federal Constitution, 1788.
No system can be perfect, so to argue that the deed should not be done or that there is danger that poor people would be given arms only to have them taken away is a specious argument. Arms are no good to anyone unless the people are “trained to arms.” I know of not a single person who can properly handle a firearm or accurately shoot one without first having done so in real life. It is a skill. It must be learned.
The argument that a well regulated militia would trample upon religious freedom is at odds with those patriots who argued for one. " The people are not to be disarmed of their weapons. They are left in full possession of them. The government is administered by the representatives of the people, voluntarily and freely chosen. Under these circumstances, should any one attempt to establish their own system, in prejudice of the rest, they would be universally detested and opposed, and easily frustrated. This is a principle which secures religious liberty most firmly. The government will depend on the assistance of the people in the day of distress. " - Zachariah Johnson, Virginia Debates on the Federal Constitution, 1788.
“It may be laid down as a primary position, and the basis of our system, that every Citizen who enjoys the protection of a free Government, owes not only a proportion of his property, but even of his personal services to the defence of it…” George Washington, 1783. Cowardice is not a religion and those who preach and practice it defy the first law of nature, self-defense.
Posted by: Rudy DiGiacinto at August 5, 2005 10:04 PM
David, Thank you much for posting this material. It is interesting to note that Federal gun laws used to require the ownership of a military grade rifle by all citizens, and now our gun laws are tending toward just the opposite.
Posted by: RKV at August 7, 2005 10:29 AM
The concern noted regarding affordability of firearms seems specious. Surely, a basic rifle could be had for not too great an expense and could be viewed as a small but essential tax, with the important benefit of limiting further, out-of-control taxation.
Posted by: Dave Duringer at August 7, 2005 06:53 PM
The Militia of the 18th and early 19th century required that every person have a musket. Muskets, especially the Brown Bess, was not a hunting weapon; it had no sights, and was really only good for Militia service. It was used to mass firepower and fire by ranks or volley fire. Rifles on the other hand were excellent hunting weapons, but very poor militia weapons as the black powder fowling rendered them useless after two or three shots. Most people would have had to purchase two firearms, one for militia service and one for their own hunting.
Posted by: Rudy DiGiacinto at August 7, 2005 09:02 PM
Your description of the musket and its use is not quite correct.
While the musket had no rear sight, it did have a front sight; not usable for long-range accuracy shooting, but quite adequate for typical hunting ranges, particularly in heavily-wooded New England, where typical sightlines for medium game, such as deer, were well within the capabilities of a musket firing a round ball.
In addition to this, and probably more important for civilian use, the musket is smoothbore, and can just as easily be loaded with buck- or bird-shot, and used as a shotgun. And they were.
Surviving records of factors from the period show that so-called trade guns sold for daily use in the northern colonies were very popular, and affordable. Trade guns differed little from the military musket of the period, being usually a little shorter and lighter, and not having a bayonet lug soldered on the barrel.
The smoothbore was favored in the Northeast colonies, while small- to medium-caliber rifles were preferred in the southern ones, as conditions and most commonly hunted game were different.
Posted by: steveH at August 8, 2005 12:08 PM
One other thing Rudy: The militia act required the possession of a musket OR a rifle, plus either ready rolled cartridges with ball and powder, or a powder horn and balls.
Posted by: Vane Rhead at March 12, 2009 05:21 PM
The comment re: individuals undergoing firearm training is important. The Congress approved Director of Civilian Marksmanship program of the 50s and 60s provided, for example, NRA gun clubs, rifles and handguns, plus ammunition, in order to promote firearm training without the individuals having to undergo costs which he or she may not have been able to afford. This program created, in effect, a civilian 'force' which would meet, if necessary, the objectives of having a trained militia composed of civilians not enrolled in a military reserve unit, but who would have the capability of effective firearm use.
Posted by: Joe Chernicoff at March 27, 2012 08:48 AM
The musket did NOT have a front site. What STEVEH incorrectly calls a front site is actually a lug for a socket bayonet.
Posted by: John Maass at August 20, 2012 08:58 AM