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War and the Military

When Should We Call Out the Militia?

Texas Gov. Rick Perry plans to send National Guard troops to the Texas border. The move comes amid continuing disagreement about what to do about thousands of children who have crossed the border illegally. It also raises questions about how the National Guard should be used and who should command it.

Federal law calls the National Guard “an integral part of the first line defenses of the United States.” The Guard is the successor to the colonial militias dating back to the Jamestown settlement. Like the Revolutionary militias, the Guard’s “citizen soldiers” tend to live at home and hold regular jobs but can be called on by the president or any governor in case of emergency.

Militias played a key role during the Revolution. Most famously, in April 1775, when British forces tried to seize a powder magazine in Concord, Massachusetts, armed farmers forced the British to flee back to Boston. The farmers called themselves “Minute Men,” since they were prepared to fight on just a few minutes’ notice.

In 1794, when farmers in Pennsylvania rose up in opposition to a whiskey tax, President Washington –after securing the approval of Supreme Court Justice James Wilson – called up the militia. Washington took command of the 13,000 troops, the first and only time a president has done so in a military situation. The display of military might led to the collapse of the Whiskey Rebellion.

Washington was renowned as a citizen soldier and often compared to Cincinnatus, the Roman hero who returned to his farm after saving the Republic. But even with Washington in command, many feared the Whiskey Rebellion might lead to replacing the militia with a permanent army. Among these was Jefferson, who wrote that an “insurrection was announced and proclaimed and armed against, but could never be found.”

Perry is not the first Texas governor to send the National Guard to the Mexican border. In 2006 President Bush ordered the Guard to build fences and operate surveillance equipment. But unlike Bush, Perry has not sought federal authorization, raising questions about who will pay for the deployment. It will cost about $12 million a month.

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