The militia, one of the most important institutions of American life for centuries, is today almost totally absent from American life. Throughout 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 more useful and 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 with a means of defense and 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 serving in the National Guard today (the descendant of the militia).
This new exhibit explores 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; Society of Colonial Wars in the State of New York; Society of Colonial Wars in the Commonwealth of Massachusetts; and General Society of Colonial Wars. Museum cataloging is made possible in part through the Institute of Museum and Library Services.