On a previous thread about the Second Amendment, I promised to comment further on the notion that the Framers had of a militia made up of a well-armed citizenry.
I got to thinking about it because of this column in The Wall Street Journal on Friday. It’s purpose was to argue, on that conflict’s bicentennial, that the War of 1812 was more important than many people believe. It did so ably enough. An excerpt:
First, the war validated American independence. The new republic had been buffeted between the two great powers of the age. Great Britain had accepted the fact of American independence only grudgingly…
Thus historians have sometimes called the War of 1812 the second war of American independence.
Second, it called into question the utopian approach to international relations. As president, Thomas Jefferson had rejected Federalist Party calls for a robust military establishment. He argued that the U.S. could achieve its goals by strictly peaceful means, and that if those failed, he could force the European powers to respect American rights by withholding U.S. trade.
Jefferson’s second term demonstrated the serious shortcomings of his thinking… As a result of the War of 1812, American statesmen realized that to survive in a hostile world, the U.S. would have to adopt measures, including the use of military power and traditional diplomacy, that doctrinaire republicanism abhorred.
Third, the conduct of the war exploded the republican myth of the civilian militia’s superiority to a professional military. Thus, during the three decades after the War of 1812, the Army would adopt generally recognized standards of training, discipline and doctrine. It would create branch schools, e.g., schools of infantry, cavalry and artillery.
It’s that third item that I call y’all’s attention to in particular.
The Jeffersonians, among whom we for most purposes can count leading Framer James Madison, had an image in their minds of what government in general should be, which in a word one would say minimal. It was close to the ideal that libertarians still embrace today. We were to be a nation of independent yeoman farmers, each of whom looked after himself, and should the need for national defense arise, these doughty free men would come together spontaneously to drive away the invader.
Consequently, Jefferson opposed both a standing army and a navy, for anything other than coastal defense.
It is in that context that the Second Amendment makes the most sense. If those citizens were to be any use in a militia, they needed to be armed, and to have some personal experience with firearms.
But it didn’t take long at all for history to teach us the utter inadequacy of the Jeffersonian ideal of an armed citizenry being the only defense we needed. In Jefferson’s own time as president, he discovered the need to project power far beyond our coast, against the Barbary pirates. Our young Navy and its Marine contingent came in very handy in that instance.
But it took the War of 1812, “Mr. Madison’s War,” to demonstrate how useless untrained or lightly trained militia, with an unprofessional officer corps, was against the army of a superpower.
We got spanked by the redcoats, in one land encounter after another. The Brits burned Washington. Until the Battle of New Orleans — which unbeknownst to the combatants occurred after the war was over — the irregular American troops were humiliated time and again. If not for the occasionally sea victory, in single-frigate-versus-single-frigate actions (which, until Philip Broke’s big win off Boston Harbor, totally demoralized the Royal Navy, accustomed as it was to dominating the French), there would have been little to give heart to Americans during most of the course of the war.
Being reminded of all this led me to an interesting train of thought, as follows: The constitutional justification for universal gun ownership, a well-regulated militia, was shown within a generation to be a deeply flawed model of national defense.
From then on, American history saw a fairly steady march toward maintaining professional military forces, led by a professional officers. The notion of the citizen-soldier is far from dead, but it’s highly amended. We created a mighty force out of the civilian population in World War II, but they were trained up to effectiveness by a core of experienced professionals. And today’s National Guard contains some of the most thoroughly trained individuals in our overall defense establishment. Technology has made warfighting such a specialized enterprise that no one expects anyone to be an effective soldier just because he owned a rifle growing up.
Oh, one footnote, from that same column. I thought the South Carolina angle intriguing:
Many of these military reforms were the work of John C. Calhoun, who proved to be one of the most innovative and effective secretaries of war (which was the title of the cabinet officer before 1947, when it was changed to secretary of defense).