Palmer et al on the Second Militia Act of 1792

If you follow pop culture, today's hot topic in the conservative mass media has been the Second Militia Act of 1792. This act is said to form the basis of a precedent for the compulsory purchase of health insurance by virtue of having compelled all males of a certain age to purchase firearms for their involuntary militia duty. This has something to do with what is derided as "Romneycare."

We'll stay out of those political weeds except to quote Maj. James Groark's Politics and the Evolution of the Army Reserve. He notes that
The Militia Act required all able-bodied men ages 18-45 to serve in the state militia. Each man enrolling in the state militia had the responsibility maintain his own weapon and equipment. Congress authorized no federal dollars for this purpose. The Militia Act did not include how states were going to enforce the enrollment. Thus, many states failed to ensure these “able-bodied men” met their service obligation. In addition, “the Militia Act offered no means of assuring that citizens would comply with the requirement that they furnish their own arms and accoutrements at personal expense."
Groark is quoting (at the end) Russell Weigley's Towards an American Army.

This is a snapshot of the act and we turn now to matters military.

What is interesting is that it was sponsored by Col. Jeremiah Wadsworth of Connecticut, ancestor to Civil War General James Wadsworth and to 20th Century military reformer Senator James Wolcott Wadsworth, who used some of the principles in the Second Militia Act to craft the National Defense Act of 1920. His collaborator in this was Col. John McAuley Palmer, organizational theorist extraordinaire, and grandson of the Civil War's Gen. John McAuley Palmer.

And so we come to Palmer-the-younger's writing on the Second Militia Act in his book America in Arms.

For the sake of the reader, let me compress Palmer's views up to this point. Pardon my violence done to details.

1) Washington had distinct views on national defense and despite the view that he despised the militia, as president he placed the militia at the very center of his national system. Washington wanted to reform the milita as it was.

2) Washington's constructive views on the militia were embodied in legislation sponsored by Henry Knox. The public in Palemer's time and today do not understand Washington's views. Knox's bill was rejected by Congress at the end of Washington's second term.

3) Col. Wadsworth's militia bill attempted to revive the best parts of the Knox-Washington vision. Congress adjourned before his bill reached the floor.

4) In March, 1792, the bill was reintroduced and acted upon by the House and (per Palmer) "every constructive feature was amended out of it." "As amended, the bill no longer contained even the slightest germ of Washington's well-organized militia." Palmer is blunt: "Its passage actually made our military system worse than it was before the bill was introduced. The old militia organization, with its phony regiments and divisions now had Federal sanction and was made uniformly bad throughout the nation."

5) Jefferson and his supporters were unwilling to have a federally controlled militia, a more effective militia, in the hands of a Hamiltonian administration.

Palmer's views on the militia, the ACW, and military reform, will be reviewed in a future post. Meanwhile, perhaps we can agree on the shock value of encountering the Second Militia Act in a modern news cycle. And yet the Revolutionary War, and its aftermath, will persist just as the Civil War persists.