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Why Militias, Part of America’s Past, Are a Worry Today

Photographer: Seth Herald/Getty Images

The self-styled militia groups raising alarm in the U.S. today draw inspiration from the early days of the republic, when civilian militias served as local defense forces and some fought alongside George Washington’s Continental Army in the Revolutionary War. But today’s militias are associated with anti-government and (at times) White supremacist ideology, making noise during sometimes violent clashes with the authorities before receding from public view. One militia’s alleged plot to kidnap Michigan’s governor in response to coronavirus lockdown measures put the groups back in the spotlight weeks before a presidential election.

The word has meant very different things in different eras of American history. In the country’s early days, able-bodied men often served in state militias overseen by civilian authorities to supplement federal forces and provide local security when needed. As a check against tyranny, they were given special protection in the Second Amendment to the U.S. Constitution: “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.” Such state militias gradually ceded control to federal authorities and faded from existence, replaced by the U.S. National Guard and its mainly part-time reserve members overseen by state and federal officials. The word “militia” now describes loosely organized groups of civilians who usually share anti-government views and strongly support gun ownership. Some are even preparing for a new Civil War.