The militia, one of the most important institutions of American life for centuries, is today almost totally absent from American life. Throughout the colonial and early national America, the militia formed the largest and often only means of defense. Regular military forces did not appear regularly until British regulars arrived during the French and Indian War, and even after the creation of the Continental and late US Army, militia forces greatly outnumbered them.
For much of American history, the militia was thought to be not only more useful but also more virtuous. Formed of the people themselves the militia represented the power of citizens that underlay the creation of the American Republic. Obligatory participation in the militia provided citizens not only with a means of defense but a critical role in the institutions of the state. At its peak, the militia may have comprised as much as 10% of the US population, compared to well under 1% of the population that serves in the National Guard today (the descendent of the militia).
This new exhibit will explore this often misunderstood institution from its formation in the colonial period through its decline in the early 19th century. Despite being central to debates over the Constitution and American identity, the militia never truly represented all of “the people” and had a mixed record in military campaigns throughout our history. Learning about the development of the American militia allows us to go beyond battles and campaigns and reflect on what our nation values, the obligations and benefits of citizenship, and who participates in American society.
Funding for this exhibit is made possible in part by John Ben Snow Memorial Trust; International Paper Foundation; and Society of Colonial Wars in the State of New York. Museum cataloging is made possible in part through the Institute of Museum and Library Services.