An Armed Citizenry. In 1622 the Virginia House of Burgesses legislated that all men “go under Arms.” Likewise in 1628 the Massachusetts Bay charter allowed for the formation of a colonial militia: it would exist “to in-counter, expulse, repeli and resist by force of arms, as well by sea as by lands.” Like the earlier settlements at Jamestown, Plymouth, Massachusetts Bay, and elsewhere (except Pennsylvania due to Quaker pacifism), the other provinces acted upon English precedent in establishing militias. Men sent over to give military protection such as John Smith in Jamestown and Miles Standish in Plymouth were often veterans of English warfare. They were familiar with the English system of militia readiness and of necessity employed that system in the provinces. The ancient Anglo-Saxon tradition emphasized that every able-bodied adult male was obligated to render service if called upon. Though possibly an exaggerated account of militia readiness during the attack of the Spanish Armada (1588), the following nevertheless at least illustrates the English ideal if not altogether the fact: “the rugged miners poured to war from Mendip’s sunless caves... and the broad streams of pikes and flags rushed down each roaring [London] street.”
Transition. An important English precedent that transferred into the colonies was the short-term utilization of the militia. English law forbade the king to possess a professional standing army lest he use it as a tool of subjugation. Although on the eve of the American Revolutionary era the colonial militias were in transition to that status, prior to 1754 they were very much like their English predecessors. That transition was “evolutionary and subtle in nature, involving as it did the gradual appearance and development of semiprofessional military forces, which provided a transitional link between the seventeenth-century militia and the Revolutionary Continental Army.”
Differences. As there were similarities among the colonial militias themselves and with their English predecessors, there were also important differences. A key difference between the English and American militia was that the former was unified whereas the latter was diverse from colony to colony. “Let the New Yorkers defend themselves,” said a North Carolinian, “Why should I fight the Indians for them?” The differences were not so much in militia makeup as in the different demographic realities in which the militias existed. For example, in seventeenth-century Massachusetts dense manpower
and the cohesive nature of town communities provided a strong military defense for New England, whereas in Virginia the individual plantations and farms were much more susceptible to destruction. After English dominance in 1664, New York’s needs were vastly different from those in New England and Virginia. Its heterogeneous settlements and its relative lack of community cohesion made New York more dependent on its allied relationship with the Iroquois confederation than on a strong militia.
Protection. South Carolina, even as late as the 1730s, had such a scattered populace that the strongest possible militia could not possibly provide adequate protection. As that colony’s governor, William Bull, stated in 1738, an adequate militia defense was “Inconsistent with domestick or Country Life.” The presence of many slaves (more than any other mainland colony) also played a significant role in South Carolina’s militia duties. Slaves fought in the South Carolina militia during the Yamasee War. After the Stono Rebellion of 1739, however, with an ever-increasing ratio of blacks to whites, not only were slaves not allowed to fight, they became a major object
of the militia’s concern. Thus, the militia’s role in each of these colonies was different. Not only did spatial and demographic differences cause variation among militias, time did as well. As time progressed, militia needs changed. By early eighteenth century, even with the Indian concerns in South Carolina, the overall threat to most colonies came principally from the French and Spanish. Virginia, on the other hand, faced very little danger from any enemies, rendering a strong and active militia virtually unnecessary for almost fifty years. Time also effected change in the overall type of recruits that occupied the militias by the 1750s. The makeup of a seventeenth-century militia consisted mainly of men whose vested interests (usually land) depended on local protection. By mid eighteenth century that was much less the case.
Strollers. Colonial militias tended to attract the less geographically and socially established. The Virginia and Massachusetts lawmakers called them “strollers.” In 1755, when Virginia needed a stronger militia once again, it called for “such able bodied men, as do not follow or exercise any lawful calling or employment, or have not some other lawful and sufficient maintenance....” At the same time, anyone “who hath any vote in the election of a Burgess or Burgesses” was excused from service. During the Seven Years’ War (1756-1763) British officers disdained these stroller-type allies who made up this now semiprofessional American army. Their attitude would later come back to haunt them.
Don Higginbotham, “The Military Institutions of Colonial America: The Rhetoric and the Reality,” in his War and Society in Revolutionary America: The Wider Dimensions of Conflict (Columbia: University of South Carolina Press, 1988), pp. 19-41;
Louis Morton, “The Origins of American Military Policy,” Military Affairs,22 (1958): 75-82;
John Shy, A People Numerous and Armed: Reflections on the Military Struggle for American Independence (London: Oxford University Press, 1976).