America’s Private Militias of the 19th Century
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
Over 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.
Although 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.
The Local Militias of the Nineteenth Century
What’s 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.
But 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
These 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
They 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.
As a 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:
The 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 business.”6
Members 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 community-sanctioned group of armed men.
Although 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 t
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