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<nettime> Chris Bray: What a 'Militia' Meant in Revolutionary America
Patrice Riemens on Wed, 6 Feb 2013 16:08:58 +0100 (CET)

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<nettime> Chris Bray: What a 'Militia' Meant in Revolutionary America

As far as I am concerned - and arms are not very high on my interests
list, though individual and collective rights are - this op-ed fairly well
closes the never ending discussion about 'armed individuals' in general
and the case with 'the right to keep and bear arms' in the United States
in particular, usually when yet another gruesome massacre by some lunatic
has taken place.

Individual citizens have the right to have and use (fire)arms in self-
defense, that is in defense of their house/ landed property. Individuals
do not have the liberty to use arms outside their houses/land unless
acting with other citizens, as a 'militia', in defense of their community
against criminals, invaders, or, yes, a 'tyrannic' government.

With other words, bearing arms is an _individual_ right that can only
_collectively_ be lawfully exercised outside the perimeter of one's own

Doesn't sound altogether irrational to me, unless you raise a priori
mistrust of the individual as constitutive of law.

original to:

What a 'Militia' Meant in Revolutionary America
The Kentish Guards were defined by a sense of community, not by their guns
or by government edict.

It's the discussion Americans can never settle: Does the Second Amendment
convey an individual right to bear arms, or does it only establish the
means to arm the state military institutions that the Founders knew as the
militia and we know as the National Guard?

Those stark choices shrink our history into cartoonish simplicity. The
real story is far more complex and illuminating. At the nation's
beginning, there was a variety of middle ways regarding militias, a set of
expectations and boundaries built in culture and enforced by community.

In a box at the Rhode Island Historical Society, a contract describes the
creation of a militia in Kent County during the crisis year of 1774. "We
the subscribers do unanimously join to establish and constitute a military
independent company," reads an agreement signed by dozens of local men.
"That on every Tuesday and Saturday in the afternoon for the future, or as
long as occasion require it shall be judg'd necessary or expedient a
Meeting to be held at the House of William Arnold in East Greenwich for
the Purpose aforesaid."

You and Bill and I hereby agree to make an army, and let's meet at Bill's
house to practice.

Formed by an agreement between armed individuals, the Kentish Guards
became a militia organization without being a government institution,
though the members would soon approach the colonial government of Rhode
Island for a charter. It was a "militia of association," built in equal
measure from multiple foundations. The men of the Kentish Guards weren't a
militia merely because they each owned guns, and they weren't a militia
because the government said they were. They became a militia when they
talked among themselves, agreed on rules and a shared purpose, and signed
a mutual contract. They were a militia as a community.

The agreement to make a militia empowered its members and restrained them
at the same time, allowing them to act but demanding that they act
together in considered ways. The early American militia was neither purely
individual nor purely governmental; rather, it was deeply rooted in a
particular place, making the militia a creature that stood with one foot
in government and one foot firmly in civil society.

In this social vision, government couldn't properly take guns from the men
who then made up political society, but those men couldn't properly use
guns in ways that transgressed community values and expectations. The
bearing of arms was a socially regulated act.

That mixed reality grew from a social world that looks nothing like our
own. The first few American police departments were still many decades in
the future, and the victims of crime could only shout for their neighbors.

Whole neighborhoods raced into the street in response to a cry for help,
and victims could personally bring the accused before a local magistrate.
Communities turned out to face military threats, neighbors joining
neighbors for mutual defense. Adulterers and wife-beaters were often
punished in the ritual called skimminton or charivari, bound to a fence
post and paraded in shame by their jeering neighbors.

With this kind of local experience, the bearing of arms was an individual
act undertaken in carefully shared and monitored ways. The historian T.H.
Breen has described the citizen-soldiers of colonial Massachusetts as
members of a "covenanted militia," bound by agreement.

Another historian, Steven Rosswurm, has described the negotiations between
Pennsylvania's Revolutionary government and the ordinary men, serving as
privates in the militia, who formed a "committee of privates" to present
the terms under which they would perform armed service. Government did not
just command; states and communities talked, bargained and agreed.
Individuals were both free to act and responsible to one another for their
actions, in a constantly debated balance.

In the predawn hours of April 19, 1775, militiamen of Lexington, Mass.,
gathered around their commander. Capt. John Parker greeted each man,
writes the historian David Hackett Fischer in his book "Paul Revere's
Ride," as "neighbor, kinsman, and friend," joining them to decide what
they would do about the British regulars marching toward their town. "The
men of Lexington . . . gathered around Captain Parker on the Common, and
held an impromptu town meeting in the open air." They had a commander, and
he joined them for discussion.

Today, we are presented with a false choice in which either the government
bans assault weapons or an unfettered individual right makes it possible
for a monster to spray bullets into schoolhouses. The forgotten middle
ways of our nation's earlier days, that world of mutuality, excluded more
people than it included, and its shortcomings are well known. But it also
had real strengths, and the benefits of a strong civil society are lost to
us when we expect government to address and solve our every problem.

Mr. Bray, a former Army infantry sergeant, is an adjunct assistant
professor at Pitzer College in Claremont, Calif.

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