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Militias and citizenship: the eighteenth century and today

Citizenship is central to our political discourse in Britain today. From John Major’s ‘Citizen’s Charter’ to New Labour’s introduction of citizenship classes for schoolchildren – and citizenship tests for immigrants – it is a preoccupation that spans the political spectrum. Citizenship suggests membership of the national community, membership that comes with both rights and responsibilities. In David Cameron’s ‘big society’, for example, community-minded citizens are expected to rush in to fill the gaps left by the retreat of the state.

As a historian, I have long been interested in the theme of citizenship. My work has tried to think about the importance of masculinity in the spheres of politics and war – areas where men were so ubiquitous that their role was (and is) taken for granted. Citizenship is about the role of the individual in the community, and how that individual is defined in social terms, so it is a very good ‘way in’ to these fields for historians of gender.

I first got into the militia debates of the Seven Years War when I was studying the early days of British radical politics in the 1760s. It struck me that the militia enthusiasts talked about citizenship in much the same way as radical politicians like John Wilkes. This was an opportunity for patriotic, propertied men to serve their country and defend what was dear to them as husbands, fathers, and householders. Indeed, the militia debates occurred a decade before Wilkes started using these arguments at his famous elections for Middlesex, and used language that was remarkably inclusive in social (if not gender) terms: national defence was a way for all men to earn their citizenship.

John Wilkes statue, photo by Martin Addison. CC BY-SA 2.0 via Wikimedia Commons.
Image credit: John Wilkes statue by Martin Addison. CC BY-SA 2.0 via Wikimedia Commons.

Martial capability was therefore a specifically masculine way of thinking about citizenship. It had long been thus. Roman men earned their citizenship through military service and classical political theory located the republic’s power in its citizenry of male householders. Machiavelli revived these ideas in the renaissance, and during the English Civil War James Harrington argued that a citizenry of armed, substantial householders could never be overawed by a despot. Entrusting national defence to a militia was therefore politically safer than a standing army that could be turned against the people. The citizenry have to maintain their masculine martial virtues if their liberties are to be protected against internal and external threats.

Georgians famously revered the classics and discussions about the militia in the eighteenth century were conducted in recognisably classical terms. But this equation of citizenship with martial masculinity took on a new significance in the period of the Enlightenment. At a time when the bases of the political and social order were being rethought, the exclusion of women – and certain sorts of men – from political power was being reasserted and justified in new ways.

When I got interested in the Georgian militia, then, I was preoccupied with the theme of political citizenship. It may seem odd that I wasn’t a military historian, but then relatively few historians of the English militia are. Possibly because it never faced the large-scale invasion that it was created to repel, it holds relatively little interest for operational military historians. Most historians who have studied the militia in detail (and there aren’t many) were interested in the politics or the social history of the institution.

This relationship between the militia and citizenship has puzzled the militia’s historians. The usual line of argument is that the militia ideal bore no relation to reality: once the Militia Act passed into law in 1757, it became a quasi-conscript force subject to martial law, an adjunct to the regular army and a prop of the establishment.

As a cultural historian, though, I’m not so sure that ideal and reality can be separated quite so easily. By focusing both on representations of the militia and men’s experience of it in practice, I have tried to make a qualified case for militia service as a form of citizenship. The heady masculine rhetoric of the 1750s militia reformers may not have been reflected in the daily realities of service. But the sense of serving the nation, pride in wearing a county uniform, participation in national ritual and postings around the UK fostered feelings of national belonging and individual agency. It certainly broadened the political horizons of many men who were not citizens in an electoral sense.

This relatively benign reading of a militia movement may seem incongruous. Nowadays we tend to associate ‘militias’ with political extremism, be they Islamist militias in Africa and the Middle East, or the militia movement that is currently on the rise in Obama’s America. The rightwing ‘militia’ that recently occupied the wildlife sanctuary in Oregon emphasised their patriotism, their liberties and their opposition to central government – arguments that would be very familiar to Georgian Britons.

Certainly there is much about the Georgian militia that would be out of place in Britain today: the masculinism and xenophobia of its rhetoric, or the argument that civilians require arms to protect themselves against overmighty governments and foreign invasion. On the other hand, the Georgian militia enthusiasts’ ideal of citizenship had much to recommend it. They argued that people should be vigilant, active, community-minded, public spirited and wary of their governors – ideals that are still relevant to citizenship today.

Headline image credit: Battle of Bunker Hill by Howard Pyle, c. 1897. Public domain via Wikimedia Commons.

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