views updated


Militia activism has been a part of the American political and social landscape since the beginning of the Republic. Beginning with the Anti-Federalists during the founding period, there has always been a group of Americans who believe that patriotism obliges them to guard our liberty against what they see as a corrupt federal government. Although the names of these citizen groups have changed over the years—Anti-Federalists, Minutemen, Militias—their belief in a government of limited powers has remained the same. There have been two periods in the twentieth century when militias have been brought under the scrutiny of popular opinion and academic analysis: the 1960s, when groups like the Order and the Posse Comitatus were formed against the background of the civil rights movement and Cold War narratives; and the 1990s, with events like the Ruby Ridge standoff in Idaho in 1992 and the bombing of the Federal Building in Oklahoma City in 1995.

Militia members claim their legitimacy from the Second Amendment to the Constitution and from an institutionalized historical tradition under which militias have operated at various times in American history. In the colonial period, the militia played an integral role in taming the land during the conflict with Native Americans. Because large standing armies were a symbol of oppression that caused many Americans to flee the old world, militias became the main line of defense for many. A fear of governmental corruption convinced many Americans to allow only a limited role for a professional army, which was seen as necessary only to guarantee secured seacoasts and to tame the frontier. The role of citizen-militias in defending America, however, was short-lived. Those who favored building an American empire began to use the Militia Act of 1792 as ammunition in their fight to establish a professional army solely under the control of the federal government. They criticized the militia as ineffective in the War of 1812 and pressured politicians to dissolve the militia or to place it under federal control.

The United States emerged from the Spanish-American War as a world power, and it soon became clear that a standing army was needed to maintain the empire. Because the National Guard performed so well during the Spanish-American War, its place in the American defense machine was secure. Citizen-militias were factored out of the American defense equation with the Militia Act of 1903, which segregated the militia into two classes. The Organized Militia became the National Guard formations, and the Reserve Militia became the non-enrolled citizen-militias. It was the National Defense Act of 1916, however, that sealed the fate of militias as a remnant of a bygone era. The Act placed the National Guard more firmly under federal control as the primary reserve force and created an enlisted reserve to supply the professional Army, which was enlarged. As the push towards professionalization grew, those involved in militias came to be looked upon as weekend warriors and gun-toting extremists eager to play war games. Removed from their place in the context of Anti-Federalist patriotism, militia groups in the twentieth century have been characterized in similar ways. While most people view them as a threat to the government, militia members view themselves as the original protectors of American liberty who have been relegated to the position of delinquents and aliens on their own soil.

The first significant moment in the twentieth century that spurred paramilitary groups into action was the civil rights movement in the 1960s. The strength of the left during this time disturbed the far right, which saw itself losing ground to forces seen as detrimental to the "American Way." Cold War narratives provided further impetus for groups like the Minutemen and militias to mobilize under the themes of resisting outside invasion and government corruption. Militia groups were convinced that America was being attacked by a Communist conspiracy both internally and externally; even as most Americans ceased to fear an imminent invasion from an external power, paramilitary groups shifted to the "enemy within." As social critic Harry Johnson noted in The Minutemen, "The emphasis shifted to the threat of an internal take-over of the country by the 'Communist-Socialist' conspiracy." Groups like the Posse Comitatus, founded in Portland, Oregon in 1969, demanded that public officials be arrested by citizens and lynched for their failure to defend their image of the American way of life.

In the 1990s, the Ruby Ridge standoff and the Oklahoma City bombing focused public attention on militia activity when government officials and the media made them out to be fringe groups with a penchant for violence that threatened to disrupt domestic tranquility. In the wake of these events, members of such groups as the Militia of Montana (M.O.M.) and the Michigan Militia were called to testify before the Senate about their activities. Although there was never a direct link established between specific militia groups and Ruby Ridge or Oklahoma City, it is widely reported that these are the types of events militia organizations would sponsor. It has not been uncommon for militia members to be arrested for plotting to attack the federal government without actually having carried out any such activities. Indeed, America's enemy in the late twentieth-century is the extreme right, often defined as militia activism. It is also interesting to note that Ronald Reagan's anti-government rhetoric in the 1980s helped ignite militia activism in the late twentieth century. Many people who felt disenfranchised from the political process found consolation in calls to patriotism and a restoration of the America that once was. Economic dislocation also caused many to look for extreme solutions to societal ills.

Analysts often link militia activism to groups such as the Freemen and the Posse Comitatus. The Posse Comitatus—Latin for "the power of the county"—believes that government at the county level is the only legitimate form of government. Although some militia members on the extremes of militia activism believe that the sheriff of a county is the ultimate authority figure in that jurisdiction, most are taxpaying citizens who believe in the need for a federal government and recognize its authority. Furthermore, unlike most militia groups in the late twentieth century, the Posse has an openly racist agenda. Members of the Posse agree that although they share common themes with militia groups, they differ greatly in ideological content.

Certainly, some fears of militias are warranted. Not all militia members, however, are extremists. Indeed, involvement in militias and commitment to their programs varies greatly. The tamer side of militia activism is represented by members who are still confident that the content and form of the American government are intact and are just in need of readjustment. In their eyes, it is their duty to hold government officials accountable to the people they serve and to motivate an apathetic populace to become involved in institutional politics, e.g., voting, lobbying politicians for desired change, and serving one's community through involvement in civic organizations.

Because of the loose-knit organization of militias for strategic and philosophical purposes, it is difficult to estimate the number of people involved in them. A report compiled by the Anti-Defamation League (ADL) in early 1995 stated that "militias are operating in at least 40 states, with membership reaching some 15,000." By April 25, 1995, the Center for Democratic Renewal (CDR) in Atlanta, Georgia, reported that "there are about 100,000 militia activists in the U.S. proving their ability to draw mainstream Americans into their movement. Militias are active in at least 30 states. No portion of the country is exempt." By April 22, 1996, the Southern Poverty Law Center "ha[d] identified 440 self-proclaimed antigovernment militias active in every state in the country." Membership in militias remains strong despite the fact that many analysts characterize militia activism as a passing fad. Because inexhaustible resentment fuels militia activism, they will remain a part of the American landscape for some time to come.

—Tim Seul

Further Reading:

"ADL Special Report: The Militia Movement in America." Anti-Defamation League Newsletter. 1995.

"An Analysis of Militias in America." Center for Democratic Renewal Newsletter. April, 1995.

Dees, Morris. Gathering Storm: America's Militia Threat. New York, Harper Collins, 1996.

Duncan, Christopher M. "Men of a Different Faith: The Anti-Federalist Ideal in Early American Political Thought." Polity. Vol. 26, 1994, 387-415.

Jones, J. Harry. The Minutemen. New York, Doubleday & Company, 1968.

Roy, Joe. "False Patriots: The Threat of AntiGovernment Extremists." Klanwatch Project of the Southern Poverty Law Center. 1996.

Spears, James R. H., and William J. Watt, editors. Indiana's Citizen Soldiers: The Militia and National Guard in Indiana History. Indianapolis, The Indiana State Armory Board, 1980.

Stern, Kenneth S. A Force Upon the Plain: The American Militia Movement and the Politics of Hate. New York, Simon & Schuster, 1996.

Storing, Herbert J. The Complete Anti-Federalist: What the Anti-Federalists Were For. Vol. 1. Chicago, The University of Chicago Press, 1981.