generation that fought the AmericanRevolution considered the use of soldiers tomaintain law and order a grave threat to free-dom: “[The colonists’] fear was not simply of armies, but of
, a phrase thathad distinctive connotations . . . the colonistsuniversally agreed that ‘unhappy nations havelost that precious jewel
. . . [because]their necessities or indiscretion have permit-ted a standing army to be kept amongst them.’There was, they knew, no ‘worse state of thrall-dom than a military power in any government,unchecked and uncontrolled by the civilpower.’”
That fear was reinforced by one of theepochal events of the Revolutionary period:the Boston Massacre. In March 1770 a civil-ian mob started to taunt British soldiers whohad been sent to Boston to reinforce the localcolonial government. Under threat from thecrowd, the troops opened fire, woundingeight and killing five, including Crispus Attucks, a runaway slave who had been work-ing as a seaman and day laborer.
Later,Boston was placed under military rule, andthe Intolerable Acts passed in 1774 in thewake of the Boston Tea Party provided forquartering of troops in private houses. American hostility toward militarized law enforcement, born in republican politicaltheory and stoked by the experiences of theRevolutionary period, found expression inthe Declaration of Independence’s bill of par-ticulars against King George III: “He has keptamong us, in times of peace, Standing Armies, without the consent of our legisla-tures. He has affected to render the Military independent of and superior to the Civilpower.”Seven years after the Revolutionary War, America adopted a Constitution that autho-rized Congress to raise an army.
So great wasthe fear that a standing army might be usedto oppress the people, however, that themovement for a Bill of Rights included callsfor safeguarding the right to keep and beararms so as to ensure that an armed populacewould be able to resist abuses of power. TheConstitution authorizes the federal govern-ment to suppress insurrections and restoreorder but identifies the militia, not the regu-lar army, as the force to be used for suchtasks.
In fact, there is no explicit constitu-tional authority for use of the Army to sup-press domestic violence.
Later, following the struggles of theReconstruction period, Congress passed thePosse Comitatus Act, which made it a crimi-nal offense to use the Army to “execute thelaws.” As one federal judge has written, the actexpresses “the inherited antipathy of the American to the use of troops for civil pur-poses.”
However, along with the American tradi-tion of hostility toward domestic militariza-tion has come a series of bloody departuresfrom that tradition, both before and after thepassage of the Posse Comitatus Act. Through-out American history, presidents havedeployed troops against civilians, often withtragic results. Here are just a few of the abusesthat have occurred when presidents have disre-garded the bedrock principle that the military should not intervene in civilian affairs:
In the years leading up to the Civil War,efforts to enforce the odious FugitiveSlave Laws often met with forceful resis-tance in the North. In response, the feder-al government repeatedly used federaltroops to disperse abolitionist protestorsand forcibly return escaped slaves tobondage. In 1851, for example, 300 armedfederal deputies and soldiers led a 17-year-old escaped slave named Thomas Simsfrom a Boston courthouse to the Navy yard, where 250 more Army regulars wait-ed to put him on a ship heading South.
In the late 19th century, the federal gov-ernment repeatedly and illegally usedtroops to intervene in labor disputes.Particularly egregious was the Army’ssuppression of the 1899 miners’ strikein Coeur d’Alene, Idaho. Army regularsengaged in house-to-house searches andassisted in more than a thousandarrests. Troops arrested every adult malein the area and jailed the men without
Along withthe Americantradition of hostility towarddomestic militari-zation has come aseries of bloody departures fromthat tradition.