When I first started this genealogy project, I was thrilled to find our ancestors David WING, John COLEMAN and Seth RICHARSON “marched on the alarm of April 19, 1775” celebrated today as the civic holiday Patriots’ Day in Massachusetts and Maine.
The rebellion’s leaders, Samuel Adams and John Hancock made a stop at our ancestor Francis WYMAN’S home on the outskirts of Woburn, now part of Burlington on their flight from Lexington, ahead of the British troops, but that’s a different story.
As I continued the project I found more and more relatives who also “marched on the alarm of April 19.” So far the count is up to 27 ancestors, sons and grandsons who “dropped their plows in their furoughs” and rushed to Lexington and Concord. Maybe having minutemen in your family tree isn’t so unusual. Maybe everyone from a hundred miles around rallied to surround Boston.
See my post Minutemen – April 19, 1775
I had a mental picture of a single company of Patriots meeting a regiment of redcoats at Lexington Green. Indeed, the engagement at Lexington was a minor skirmish. As the regulars’ advance guard under Pitcairn entered Lexington at sunrise on April 19, 1775, 77 Lexington militiamen emerged from Buckman Tavern and stood in ranks on the village common watching them. Their leader was Captain John Parker, a veteran of the French and Indian War. Of the militiamen who lined up, nine had the surname Harrington, seven Munroe (including the company’s orderly sergeant, William Munroe), four Parker, three Tidd, three Locke, and three Reed; fully one quarter of them were related to Captain Parker in some way. This group of militiamen was part of Lexington’s “training band”, a way of organizing local militias dating back to the Puritans, and not what was styled a minuteman company.
There were 77 militiamen at Lexington, 400 at Concord and 3,800 at the end of Battle. By the next morning, Boston was surrounded by a huge militia army, numbering over 15,000, which had marched from throughout New England.
There are several versions of the text of the Second Amendment, each with capitalization or punctuation differences. Differences exist between the drafted and ratified copies, the signed copies on display, and various published transcriptions. The importance (or lack thereof) of these differences has been the source of debate regarding the meaning and interpretation of amendment, particularly regarding the importance of the prefatory clause, especially since the first clause implies a collective right and the second clause implies an individual right.
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.
My genealogical insight is that in Colonial times, there wasn’t much of a distinction between the collective and individual rights to keep and bear arms.
Freeman – Initially, anyone first entering into a colony, or just recently having become a member of one of the local churches, was formally not free. Such persons were never forced to work for another individual, per se, but their movements were carefully observed, and if they veered from the Puritanical ideal, they were asked to leave the colony. If they stayed or later returned to the colony, they were put to death.There was an unstated probationary period that the prospective “freeman” needed to go through, and if he did pass this probationary period of time – usually one to two years – he was allowed his freedom.
Initially, all persons seeking to be free needed to take the Oath of a Freeman, in which they vowed to defend the Commonwealth and not to conspire to overthrow the government.
Captain- Each town contained a company of soldiers. The soldiers of each town chose their own Captain and subalterns by a majority vote. The officers, when chosen, were installed into their place by the Major of the regiment. The Court order, that all the souldiers belonging to the twenty-six bands in the Mattachusetts government, shall be exercised and drilled eight daies in a yeare, and whosoever should absent himself, except it were upon unavoidable occasions, should pay 5s. for every daie’s neglect. Each regiment is to be exercised once a year.
Trainbands – Companies of militia, first organized in the 16th century and dissolved in the 18th. In the early American colonies the trainband was the most basic tactical unit. However, no standard company size ever existed and variations were wide. As population grew these companies were organized into regiments to allow better management. But trainbands were not combat units. Generally, upon reaching a certain age a man was required to join the local trainband in which he received periodic training for the next couple of decades. In wartime military forces were formed by selecting men from trainbands on an individual basis and then forming them into a fighting. The exact derivation and usage is not clear. The issue is whether the men “received training” in the modern sense, or whether they were “in the train” or retinue or were otherwise organized around a military “train” as in horse-drawn artillery.
At 16, males became eligible for military duty and were also considered adults for legal purposes, such as standing trial for crimes. Age 21 was the youngest at which a male could become a freeman, though for practical purposes this occurred sometime in a man’s mid-twenties. Service was mandatory until age 60. Genealogists use these dates to calculate birth years by counting backwards sixty years from when some one was excused from military service.
Lexington and Concord
The ride of Revere, Dawes, and Prescott triggered a flexible system of “alarm and muster” that had been carefully developed months before, in reaction to the colonists’ impotent response to the Powder Alarm. This system was an improved version of an old network of widespread notification and fast deployment of local militia forces in times of emergency. The colonists had periodically used this system all the way back to the early years of Indian wars in the colony, before it fell into disuse in the French and Indian War. In addition to other express riders delivering messages, bells, drums, alarm guns, bonfires and a trumpet were used for rapid communication from town to town, notifying the rebels in dozens of eastern Massachusetts villages that they should muster their militias because the regulars in numbers greater than 500 were leaving Boston, with possible hostile intentions. This system was so effective that people in towns 25 miles from Boston were aware of the army’s movements while they were still unloading boats in Cambridge. These early warnings played a crucial role in assembling a sufficient number of colonial militia to inflict heavy damage on the British regulars later in the day.
In the morning, Boston was surrounded by a huge militia army, numbering over 15,000, which had marched from throughout New England.
History of the Second Amendment
There was substantial opposition to the new Constitution, because it moved the power to arm the state militias from the states to the federal government. This created a fear that the federal government, by neglecting the upkeep of the militia, could have overwhelming military force at its disposal through its power to maintain a standing army and navy, leading to a confrontation with the states, encroaching on the states’ reserved powers and even engaging in a military takeover.
James Madison’s initial proposal for a bill of rights was brought to the floor of the House of Representatives on June 8, 1789, during the first session of Congress. The initial proposed passage relating to arms was:
1. The right of the people to keep and bear arms shall not be infringed; a well armed and well regulated militia being the best security of a free country but no person religiously scrupulous of bearing arms shall be compelled to render military service in person.
On July 21, Madison again raised the issue of his Bill and proposed a select committee be created to report on it. The House voted in favor of Madison’s motion, and the Bill of Rights entered committee for review. The committee returned to the House a reworded version of the Second Amendment on July 28. On August 17, that version was read into the Journal:
2. A well regulated militia, composed of the body of the people, being the best security of a free State, the right of the people to keep and bear arms shall not be infringed; but no person religiously scrupulous shall be compelled to bear arms.
The Second Amendment was debated and modified during sessions of the House in late August 1789. These debates revolved primarily around risk of “mal-administration of the government” using the “religiously scrupulous” clause to destroy the militia as Great Britain had attempted to destroy the militia at the commencement of the American Revolution. These concerns were addressed by modifying the final clause, and on August 24, the House sent the following version to the Senate:
3. A well regulated militia, composed of the body of the people, being the best security of a free state, the right of the people to keep and bear arms shall not be infringed; but no one religiously scrupulous of bearing arms shall be compelled to render military service in person.
The next day, August 25, the Senate received the Amendment from the House and entered it into the Senate Journal. However, the Senate scribe added a comma before “shall not be infringed” and changed the semicolon separating that phrase from the religious exemption portion to a comma, as highlighted in green below:
4. A well regulated militia, composed of the body of the people, being the best security of a free state, the right of the people to keep and bear arms, shall not be infringed, but no one religiously scrupulous of bearing arms shall be compelled to render military service in person.
By this time, the proposed right to keep and bear arms was in a separate amendment, instead of being in a single amendment together with other proposed rights such as the due process right. As a Representative explained, this change allowed each amendment to “be passed upon distinctly by the States.” On Sep 4, the Senate voted to change the language of the Second Amendment by removing the definition of militia, and striking the conscientious objector clause:
5. A well regulated militia, being the best security of a free state, the right of the people to keep and bear arms, shall not be infringed.
The Senate returned to this amendment for a final time on September 9. A proposal to insert the words “for the common defence” next to the words “bear arms” was defeated. An extraneous comma added on August 25 was also removed. The Senate then slightly modified the language and voted to return the Bill of Rights to the House. The final version passed by the Senate was:
6. A well regulated militia being the security of a free state, the right of the people to keep and bear arms shall not be infringed.
The House voted on September 21, 1789 to accept the changes made by the Senate, but the amendment as finally entered into the House journal contained the additional words “necessary to”:
7. 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.
On Dec 15, 1791, the Bill of Rights was adopted, having been ratified by three-fourths of the States.
In the 21st century, a debate centered on whether the prefatory clause (“A well regulated militia being necessary to the security of a free State”) declared the amendment’s only purpose or merely announced a purpose to introduce the operative clause (“the right of the People to keep and bear arms shall not be infringed”).
The question of a collective right versus an individual right was progressively resolved with the Fifth Circuit ruling in United States v. Emerson (2001), along with the Supreme Court’s rulings in District of Columbia v. Heller (2008), and McDonald v. Chicago (2010). These rulings upheld the individual rights model when interpreting the Second Amendment. In Heller, the Supreme Court upheld the Second Amendment as protecting an individual right Although the Second Amendment is the only Constitutional amendment with a prefatory clause, such constructions were widely used elsewhere.
The majority opinion in Heller held that the amendment’s prefatory clause (referencing the “militia”) serves to clarify the operative clause (referencing “the people”), but does not limit the scope of the operative clause, because “the ‘militia’ in colonial America consisted of a subset of ‘the people’….”
The term “well regulated” means “disciplined” or “trained”. In Heller, the U.S. Supreme Court stated that “[t]he adjective ‘well-regulated’ implies nothing more than the imposition of proper discipline and training.” Alexander Hamilton wrote “A tolerable expertness in military movements is a business that requires time and practice. It is not a day, or even a week, that will suffice for the attainment of it. To oblige the great body of the yeomanry, and of the other classes of the citizens, to be under arms for the purpose of going through military exercises and evolutions, as often as might be necessary to acquire the degree of perfection which would entitle them to the character of a well-regulated militia, would be a real grievance to the people, and a serious public inconvenience and loss.”
Nowhere else in the Constitution does a “right of the people” refer to anything other than an individual right. What is more, in all six other provisions of the Constitution that mention “the people,” the term unambiguously refers to all members of the political community, not an unspecified subset. .
The “militia” comprised all males physically capable of acting in concert for the common defense. The Antifederalists feared that the Federal Government would disarm the people in order to disable this citizens’ militia, enabling a politicized standing army or a select militia to rule. The response was to deny Congress power to abridge the ancient right of individuals to keep and bear arms, so that the ideal of a citizens’ militia would be preserved.