What does ‘a well-regulated militia’ really mean?

By Bill Federer


In Sept. of 1774, Dr. Joseph Warren wrote the Suffolk Resolves. British statesman Edmund Burke cited the Suffolk Resolves as a major development in colonial animosity, which eventually led to the Declaration of Independence.

The Suffolk Resolves stated: “That it is an indispensable duty which we owe to God, our country, ourselves and posterity, by all lawful ways and means in our power to maintain, defend and preserve those civil and religious rights and liberties, for which many of our fathers fought, bled and died, and to hand them down entire to future generations … and that the inhabitants of those towns and districts … do use their utmost diligence to acquaint themselves with the art of war as soon as possible, and do, for that purpose, appear under arms at least once every week.”

On Oct. 26, 1774, the Provincial Congress of Massachusetts reorganized their defenses with one-third of their regiments being “Minutemen,” ready to fight at a minute’s notice.

This followed the example of the earliest-known militia in history – ancient Israel, where every man was armed and always ready to defend his community.

Denver University Law Review, July 15, 2013 published an article, “Ancient Hebrew Militia Law,” by David B. Kopel, in which he wrote: “New Englanders intensely self-identified with ancient Israel – from the first days of settlement in early 17th century (Israel in the wilderness) to the days of the American Revolution, when New England’s ‘black regiment’ of clergymen incited the Revolution as a religious duty, and described the thirteen American colonies as the modern version of the twelve confederate tribes of Israel. Thus, ancient Hebrew militia law is part of the intellectual background of the American militia system, and of the Second Amendment. … Every male ‘from the age of twenty years up, all those in Israel who are able to bear arms’ … were obliged to fight, to go forth ‘armed to battle.’ Men who failed this duty ‘sinned against the Lord.’ Although God may work miracles … the righteous … may never force God’s hand by demanding a miracle-putting good people in danger and expecting God to protecting them. …”

David B. Kopel continued: “Israel’s military system was ‘based on the duty of every able-bodied male to bear arms and serve.’ Israel relied on a militia, in which citizen soldiers would spend most of their time cultivating their farms, or engaged in other economic production, and would fight only for limited periods (ideally, after the harvest), and only when necessary. Similarly, during the American Revolution, most men served in their state militias, rather than the Continental Army. Thus, they were most able to keep their farms in production, and other economic activity in progress. This was an important reason why the United States was able to economically sustain a war that lasted eight years. …”

David B. Kopel continued in his article “Ancient Hebrew Militia Law” (Denver University Law Review, July 15, 2013): “Another purpose of the Hebrew militia system was the decentralization of power, for the preservation of liberty. The Etz Hayim, (a modern Conservative Jewish version of the Pentateuch with commentary), explains: ‘Deuteronomy does not intend that the Israelites maintain a standing army… Instead, they are to have a civilian army, or militia, mobilized at times of need… Reliance on a militia rather than a standing army for military needs is another example of Deuteronomy’s dispersal of power among different officials.'”

David B. Kopel concluded: “In Battles of the Bible, Chaim Herzog (a former President of Israel) and Mordechai Gichon (a professor of military history at Tel Aviv University) summarized how the militia system preserved popular participation in the government: ‘The people in arms formed the national assembly of initially sovereign peoples. … Ancient Jewish society … never gave way to absolutism. The ‘people’ always remained … a body with influence on the affairs of state.

“This fact was instrumental not only in the preservation of the people in arms as the mainstay of the Israelite armed forces until the destruction of the First Temple (586 BC) … but also in the apparent readiness of the Israelites to bear the constant burden of military preparedness.’ … If Western Civilization can be said to be founded on two pillars of ‘Athens and Jerusalem,’ the Jewish pillar matches the Greek pillar in recognizing the importance of an armed people in preserving liberty through service in a militia of all free and able-bodied men.”

Massachusetts citizen soldiers drilled on the parade ground, many times led by a deacon or pastor, then went to church for exhortation and prayer.

The Massachusetts Provincial Congress charged: “You … are placed by Providence in the post of honor, because it is the post of danger. … The eyes not only of North America and the whole British Empire, but of all Europe, are upon you. Let us be, therefore, altogether solicitous that no disorderly behavior, nothing unbecoming our character as Americans, as citizens and Christians, be justly chargeable to us.”

The Provincial Congress issued a resolution to Massachusetts Bay, 1774: “Resistance to tyranny becomes the Christian and social duty of each individual. … Continue steadfast, and with a proper sense of your dependence on God, nobly defend those rights which heaven gave, and no man ought to take from us.”

On July 6, 1775, the Continental Congress passed “The Declaration of the Causes and Necessity for Taking Up Arms,” composed by Thomas Jefferson, to explain to the British the presence of militiamen from several colonies gathering near Boston: “We most solemnly, before God and the world, declare, that, exerting the utmost energy of those powers, which our beneficent Creator hath graciously bestowed upon us, the arms we have been compelled by our enemies to assume, we will, in defiance of every hazard … employ for the preservation of our liberties; being with one mind resolved to die freemen rather than to live slaves. … With a humble confidence in the mercies of the Supreme and impartial
God and Ruler of the Universe, we most devoutly implore His divine goodness to protect us happily through this great conflict.”

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Boston patriot Josiah Quincy stated: “Under God, we are determined that wheresoever, whensoever, or howsoever we shall be called to make our exit, we will die free men.”

On June 17, 1775, John Adams wrote to his wife about the Continental Congress’ decision to declare a day of public humiliation, fasting, and prayer: “We have appointed a Continental fast. Millions will be upon their knees at once before their great Creator, imploring His forgiveness and blessing; His smiles on American Council and arms.”

The South Carolina Constitution stated March 26, 1776: “The colonists were therefore driven to the necessity of taking up arms, to repel force by force, and to defend themselves and their properties against lawless invasions and depredations.”

Georgia Rules and Regulations, 1776, stated: “Whereas, the unwise and iniquitous system of administration obstinately persisted in by the British Parliament and Ministry against the good people of America hath at length driven the latter to take up arms as their last resource for the preservation of their rights and liberties which God and the Constitution gave them.”

New York Constitution, April 20, 1777, stated: “Every man who enjoys the protection of society to be prepared … to defend it … the militia … at all times … shall be armed … and in readiness for service. That all such of the inhabitants of this state being of the people called Quakers as, from scruples of conscience, may be averse to the bearing of arms, be there from excused by the legislature; and do pay to the state such sums of money, in lieu of their personal service.”

Rhode Island and Providence Plantations, May 29, 1790, stated: “All men, have an equal, natural and unalienable right to the free exercise of religion. … That the people have a right peaceably to assemble together. … That the people have a right to freedom of speech and of writing, and publishing their sentiments. … That the people have a right to keep and bear arms.”

Vermont Constitution, July 4, 1786, stated: “That the people have a right to bear arms, for the defense of themselves and the state.”

President James Monroe stated: “Of the liberty of conscience in matters of religious faith, of speech and of the press; of the trial by jury of the vicinage (neighborhood) in civil and criminal cases; of the benefit of the writ of habeas corpus; of the right to keep and bear arms. … If these rights are well defined, and secured against encroachments, it is impossible that government should ever degenerate into tyranny.”

America’s founders went to great lengths to craft the Constitution to “secure the blessings of liberty to ourselves and our posterity.”

There are two ways to change the Constitution.

One is tedious, requiring the majority will of the people, as outlined in Article 5:

… whenever two thirds of both Houses shall deem it necessary, shall propose Amendments to this Constitution, or … the Legislatures of two thirds of the several States, shall call a Convention for proposing Amendments, which, in either Case … when ratified by the Legislatures of three fourths of the several States, or by Conventions in three fourths thereof. …

The other way to change to Constitution is easy – simply get activist judges to change the definitions of words in the Constitution and Bill of Rights.

There are efforts to change the definition of words in the Second Amendment, which reads: “A well-regulated militia, being necessary to the security of a free state, the right of the people to keep and bear arms, shall not be infringed.”

The ACLU argued that the term “the people” should be redefined to mean “the state militia,” as it posted on its website section “Gun Control” (3/4/02): “We believe that the constitutional right to bear arms is primarily a collective one, intended mainly to protect the right of the states to maintain militias. … The ACLU therefore believes that the Second Amendment does not confer an unlimited right upon individuals to own guns.”

If the ACLU succeeded in redefining of “the people” to mean “the state militia,” the Second Amendment would read: “A well-regulated militia, being necessary to the security of a free state, the right of (the people) ‘the state militia’ to keep and bear arms, shall not be infringed.”

The unreasonableness of this redefinition is revealed when applied to the rest of the Constitution and Bill of Rights:

Preamble: We (the people) “the state militias” of the United States, in order to form a more perfect union … establish this Constitution. …

Article 1, Section 2: The House of Representatives shall be composed of Members chosen every second year by (the people) “the state militias.” …

First Amendment: Congress shall make no law … abridging … the right of (the people) “the state militias” peaceably to assemble. …

Fourth Amendment: The right of (the people) “the state militias” to be secure in their persons, houses, papers, and effects, against unreasonable searches and seizures, shall not be violated. …

Fifth Amendment: No (person) “state militia” shall be held to answer for a capital, or otherwise infamous crime, unless on a presentment of indictment of a grand jury. …

Ninth Amendment: The enumeration in the Constitution, of certain rights, shall not be construed to deny or disparage others retained by (the people) “the state militias.” …

10th Amendment: The powers not delegated to the United States by the Constitution, nor prohibited by it to the States, are reserved to the States respectively, or to (the people) “the state militias.”

18th Amendment: The Senate of the United States shall be composed of two Senators from each State, elected by (the people) “the state militias.”

Clearly, the ACLU’s redefinition of “the people” to mean “the state militia” is untenable.

Justice William J. Brennan Jr., explained in U.S. v. Verdugo-Urquidez (494 U.S. 247, 288, 1990), that “the people” means “the people”: “The term ‘the people’ is better understood as a rhetorical counterpoint ‘to the government’ … that rights that were reserved to ‘the people’ were to protect all those subject to ‘the government.’ … The Bill of Rights did not purport to ‘create’ rights. Rather, they designed the Bill of Rights to prohibit our government from infringing rights and liberties presumed to be pre-existing.”

In U.S. v. Verdugo-Urquidez (1990), the Supreme Court wrote: “‘The people’ protected by the Fourth Amendment, and by the First and Second Amendments, and to whom rights and powers are reserved in the Ninth and Tenth Amendments, refers to a class of persons who are part of a national community. … The Fourth Amendment’s drafting history shows that its purpose was to protect the people of the United States against arbitrary action by their own government.”

The U.S. Constitution mentions “militias” in Article 1, Section 8. Samuel Adams explained at the Massachusetts Convention to ratify the U.S. Constitution, 1788: “And that the said Constitution be never construed to authorize Congress to infringe the just liberty of the press, or the rights of conscience; or to prevent the people of the United States, who are peaceable citizens, from keeping their own arms.”

James Madison wrote in Federalist No. 46, published in the New York Packet, Jan. 29, 1788: “The ultimate authority … resides in the people alone. … The advantage of being armed, which the Americans possess over the people of almost every other nation … forms a barrier against the enterprises of ambition. … In the several kingdoms of Europe … the governments are afraid to trust the people with arms.”

Attempts of activist judges to redefine words was warned against by Thomas Jefferson in a letter to Supreme Court Justice William Johnson, June 12, 1823: “On every question of construction, carry ourselves back to the time when the Constitution was adopted, recollect the spirit manifested in the debates, and instead of trying what meaning may be squeezed out of the text, or invented against it, conform to the probable one in which it was passed.”

The individual citizen’s right to be armed was acknowledged in the Supreme Court recent cases of McDonald v. Chicago, 561 U.S. 742 (2010), and District of Columbia v. Heller, 554 U.S. 570 (2008), in which the Court stated: “The Second Amendment protects an individual right to possess a firearm unconnected with service in a militia, and to use that arm for traditionally lawful purposes, such as self-defense within the home. (Pp. 2-53)”; “The operative clause’s text and history demonstrate that it connotes an individual right to keep and bear arms. (Pp. 2-22)”; “The Antifederalists feared that the Federal Government would disarm the people in order to disable this citizens’ militia, enabling a politicized standing army or a select militia to rule. The response was to deny Congress power to abridge the ancient right of individuals to keep and bear arms, so that the ideal of a citizens’ militia would be preserved. (Pp. 22-28).”

From the time of America’s Revolution, generations of oppressed peoples throughout the world looked to the people of America to maintain freedom. In 1967, after 14 years in a Communist prison in Romania, Rev. Richard Wurmbrand stated: “America is the hope of every enslaved man, because it is the last bastion of freedom in the world. Only America has the power and spiritual resources to stand as a barrier between militant Communism and the people of the world. It is the last ‘dike’ holding back the rampaging flood waters of militant Communism. If it crumples, there is no other dike, no other dam; no other line of defense to fall back upon. …”

Rev. Wurmbrand ended: “America is the last hope of millions of enslaved peoples. They look to it as their second fatherland. In it lies their hopes and prayers. I have seen fellow-prisoners in Communist prisons beaten, tortured, with 50 pounds of chains on their legs – praying for America … that the dike will not crumple; that it will remain free.”

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