America's early military traditions were heavily influenced by Great Britain's, and included a predisposition toward militia organization and a distrust of centralized standing peacetime forces. The militias—military organizations composed of civilians enrolled and trained as defensive forces against invaders—developed from medieval notions of the duty of all free men to help the king defend the realm. The colonists, threatened by Native Americans and rival colonial powers, organized as citizen‐soldiers in order to protect themselves and their interests.
When troops were needed for a campaign, legislatures assigned quotas to local militia districts. Local officials then called for volunteers and could draft men when necessary. Thus, the militia—in theory composed of all able‐bodied free white men—served as the mobilization base for the colonies, with volunteers, usually called provincials, providing the troops for campaigning. A considerable proportion of the citizenry was exempted from service by over 200 militia laws. For instance, the Massachusetts Militia Act of 1647 exempted officers, fellows, and students of Harvard College; church elders and deacons; schoolmasters; physicians; surgeons; captains of ships over twenty tons; fishermen employed year‐round; people with physical problems; and many others. When the militia failed to produce a sufficiently large number of volunteers, or when legislative calls for additional volunteers failed to expand the force sufficiently, men could be drafted, or impressed. During the colonial period, impressment was rarely successful, and avoided in most provinces because of its potential to create desertion or even riot. For this reason, impressed men were always given the option of paying a fine or hiring substitutes to serve in their stead.
During the Revolutionary War, the Continental Congress allocated manpower quotas for the Continental army to the states, and left conscription policy up to them. At the conclusion of the war, George Washington urged Congress to accept the principle of universal national military obligation and establish a small peacetime army backed by a national militia. Congress declared that standing armies in times of peace were inconsistent with the principle of republican government, and discharged virtually the entire Continental army.
This tug‐of‐war between national military need and national thought on standing armies has influenced the whole of military history. One day after it had dismissed the Continental army, Congress requested that the states of Connecticut, New Jersey, New York, and Pennsylvania recruit a total of 700 militiamen for a year of service on the frontier. The term of frontier service was extended to three years, and then the militiamen were replaced by regular soldiers.
With the adoption of the Constitution, the federal government acquired the power to raise and support armies, to provide and maintain a navy, and to make rules for the regulation of the land and naval forces. The right of the states to control their militias was confirmed, and the state forces were to be the country's major land force in the event of a crisis.
A standing army did not fit naturally into the ideological landscape of the new republic. Necessary or not, the armed forces were typically kept small and often suffered from neglect. Soldiers were often untrained, poorly housed and fed, and not always paid. In 1812, as America faced a war, the regular army consisted of less than 7,000 men and was dispersed throughout the expanding country. Older regiments were commanded by aging revolutionary veterans, training was lax, and supply and staff were inadequate even in peacetime. The war effort was built upon volunteer companies and the amorphous state militias behind them. Congress approved enlistment bounties totaling $40 for regular recruits plus three months pay in advance and 160 acres of land. The next year, Congress invited members of volunteer militia organizations to join the regular army for one year. The actual turnout was disappointing. In order to raise necessary manpower in wartime, Congress created the U.S. Volunteers, locally raised troops for national service for the duration of a conflict.
Recruitment suffered from all the impediments to men leaving their homes for war. Popular indifference always hampered raising and supporting troops. In the early years of the republic, there was strong opposition to any exercise of armed force on the part of the United States—opposition that arose from the fear that the government would come to depend upon the force and from disagreement over whether the Constitution actually allowed it. Historically, the quality of men who would sign up with the army, in a country of expanding economic opportunities, was poor. Until the turn of the nineteenth century, visitors to army posts spoke of the men's low intelligence, loose morals, and habitual drunkenness, and described frontier posts as dirty, dusty, and remote. Desertion was common. The army was barely growing, promotion prospects were dismal, and there was no retirement system.
The patriotic angst that brought the Civil War fueled its armies as well, composed primarily of U.S. and Confederate volunteers. In a few weeks, nationalism produced the first mass armies in American history. The U.S. Army grew to twenty‐seven times its original strength in the four months following the capture of Fort Sumter (1861). Both Federal and Confederate forces swelled with volunteers in the early months—and both turned to conscription to augment their mass armies.
Conscription was rationalized on the grounds that the rights guaranteed to the individual by the government implied an obligation upon him to defend his rights by defending the government that assured them. Exemptions were commonplace and the hiring of substitutes remained lawful.
In 1916, with eyes on the war in Europe, Congress passed the National Defense Act, which provided for an expanded peacetime regular army—the National Guard—a reserve force, and a volunteer army to be raised in time of war. That summer, mobilization of the National Guard failed to recruit the Guard to full strength. This convinced the Wilson administration of the inadequacy of voluntary enlistments to raise an army for the Great War. A conscription bill, the Selective Service Act of 1917, was passed immediately after the declaration of war. The regular army and the National Guard continued to recruit volunteers, and the draft was held to remedy any deficiencies.
Having learned lessons from the Civil War, for World War I there were no substitutes and no bounties. Students under the age of twenty‐one, however, were able to defer service by enrolling in the Student Army Training Corps for three years. Otherwise, each eligible person was required to register as an obligation of citizenship or residence in the United States. Conscription was based on the principle of universal obligation to service. The World War I draft supplied close to 67 percent of the total force. It acted as a spur to voluntary enlistment, and the enlistment rate fluctuated with conscription policy. The draft lapsed at the end of the war, and precedents were set not only for a national draft and for student deferments but also for those deferments to expand into exemptions from service.
Although distinctly concerned by the onset of World War II, the Roosevelt administration hesitated to ask for conscription before a declaration of war for fear of arousing isolationist sentiment. In the summer of 1940, however, public and congressional sentiment outran President Franklin D. Roosevelt and conscription was enacted. Later that summer, a joint resolution called for mobilization of the National Guard and reserves.
With the end of World War II and the onset of the Cold War, the whole landscape changed. Neither life nor war would ever be the same again. Many Americans, including some in the armed forces, believed that an atomic monopoly had brought an end to the era of mass armies. Demobilization proceeded at great speed: by 1948, the army's combat effective strength was reduced to two and one‐third divisions. In June 1948, however, in response to growing tensions between the United States and the Soviet Union, Congress passed a new Selective Service Act, with a two‐year limit. The revival of the draft encouraged voluntary enlistments among men who wished to choose service and branch rather than to leave themselves at the mercy of local draft boards. The act was extended for the Korean War. As voluntary enlistment increased, inductions under Selective Service dropped, from more than a third of accessions during the mid‐1950s to less than 10 percent during the early 1960s.
Had it not been for the Vietnam War, the draft might have been phased out a decade earlier than it was. Opposition to the war and the draft, and the perceived inequities of Selective Service, contributed significantly to the advent of the All‐Volunteer Force in the early 1970s. Critics of the force warned that it would weaken patriotism, attract the economically disadvantaged, and attenuate the relationship between the armed forces and civilian society. In January 1973, peacetime conscription ended in the United States.
The resulting All‐Volunteer Force has surpassed all national concerns. Solely dependent upon volunteers, the force has attracted recruits from across a broad social spectrum, is well trained, well equipped, and well led. To paraphrase a contemporary recruiting slogan, it is all that it can be.
[See also Militia and National Guard; National Defense Acts; Naval Militia; Reserve Forces Act; Selective Draft Cases.]
Jerome Johnston and and Jerald G. Bachman , Young Men and Military Service, 1972.
John K. Mahon , History of the Militia and the National Guard, 1983.
John W. Chambers , To Raise an Army, 1987.
Christopher Duffy , The Military Experience in the Age of Reason, 1988.
Mark J. Eitelberg , Manpower for Military Occupations, 1988.
David R. Segal , Recruiting for Uncle Sam, 1989.
Martin Binkin , Who Will Fight the Next War? 1993.
Mark J. Eitelberg and Stephen L. Mehay, eds., Marching Toward the Twenty‐first Century, 1994.
"Recruitment." The Oxford Companion to American Military History. . Encyclopedia.com. (October 19, 2017). http://www.encyclopedia.com/history/encyclopedias-almanacs-transcripts-and-maps/recruitment
"Recruitment." The Oxford Companion to American Military History. . Retrieved October 19, 2017 from Encyclopedia.com: http://www.encyclopedia.com/history/encyclopedias-almanacs-transcripts-and-maps/recruitment
"recruitment." A Dictionary of Biology. . Encyclopedia.com. (October 19, 2017). http://www.encyclopedia.com/science/dictionaries-thesauruses-pictures-and-press-releases/recruitment
"recruitment." A Dictionary of Biology. . Retrieved October 19, 2017 from Encyclopedia.com: http://www.encyclopedia.com/science/dictionaries-thesauruses-pictures-and-press-releases/recruitment