How do constitutional militia activists use the word "militia"?

The meaning of the word is discussed in more detail in Militia v. Inimicitia. But we can summarize the etymology of the word through time and examine how activists are using it:

The term "militia" is derived from Latin roots:

  • miles /miːles/ : soldier 1

  • -itia /iːtia/ : a state, activity, quality or condition of being 2 3

  • militia /mil:iːtia/: Military service 4

In English, the word "militia" dates to 1590 when it was recorded in a book by Sir John Smythe, Certain Discourses Military with the meanings: a military force; a body of soldiers and military affairs; a body of military discipline 5

The original meaning of the Latin word is "military activity", or, since the ancient Romans had the same people fight crime or respond to disasters, "defense activity". In the idiom of English during the 18th century, the same word would often be used for an activity and for those who engage in it, so "militia" could mean either defense activity or those who engage in it, whether as individuals or in concert with others. 6

Some confusion arises from the English idiom, which goes back to Anglo-Saxon and got carried over to the adoption of foreign words, of using the same word for an activity and for those engaged in it, with the meaning as activity originally being primary, but slipping into more frequent use of the word in its secondary sense of those engaged in it. Examples of such words include service, assembly, movement, wedding, viking, congregation, aggregation, delegation, march, ministry, court, jury, and hunt.

Most of the leading Founding Fathers were Latin-literate, so they would have known the original Latin meaning, and used it when they read or wrote in Latin. 7 8

We can see in their writings and speeches that they often used the word prepended with an article, “a" or “the", to refer to those engaged in the activity, but at other times they use it without the article. Modern readers are likely to understand that as using the word as its own plural, but the plural of militia is militiae, and if the Latin-literate Founders had meant it that way, they would have said militiae. They were, in that usage, meaning the activity.

The reason this distinction is important is because if the word means only those engaged in the activity, and is always plural, then militia can only consist of two or more persons, and never just one. However, understood as an activity, then is it clear that one individual can engage in militia, and it follows that self-defense is a militia call-up issued to oneself, to which oneself responds, to enforce the law. When all self-defense is cast into an act of law enforcement, then the legal framework is transformed into what the militia concept requires.

This meaning also comes up in discussing other countries with a militia tradition, especially Switzerland, which the Founders viewed as a model for the kind of militia system they wanted to establish. The militia clauses of the Swiss Federal Constitution are contained in Art. 59, where it is referred to as "military service" (English), "Militärdienst" (German), "service militaire" (French), "servizio militare" (Italian), "servetsch militar" (Romansch), and translated into "servicio militar" (Spanish and Portuguese), all synonyms for "militia" in Latin.

These discuss militia and Switzerland:

Armée Suisse. This book is issued annually by the Swiss government and is sold in most book stores. It contains all things that a citizen-soldier in Switzerland must know. It discusses their rights and privileges, strategy and tactics, equipment and organization and the role of the individual citizen-soldier. The photographs of current equipment are interesting and the accompanying text is fully descriptive. The 1988 edition contains 372 pages of fine print text. Soldiers must buy this booklet out of their own funds.

For all of these reasons, some leading activists urge the use of the word consistently only as an activity, asking other activists to test every usage by substituting “defense activity" in the sentence to see if the grammar works. Not all activists are accepting that usage consistently, but as more of them come to appreciate the importance of it, it is likely they will, and the original usage will emerge into common use among the rest of the public.

1Charlton T. Lewis, An Elementary Latin Dictionary, p. 505, Oxford U. Pr., 1997.

3John B. Van Sickle, Roots of Style: A Guide to Latin & Greek Elements in English, Brooklyn College, City University of New York.

4Charlton T. Lewis, An Elementary Latin Dictionary, p. 505, Oxford U. Pr., 1997.

5Oxford English Dictionary, March 2002. Oxford University Press.

6Baker, J.H., “The Three Languages of the Common Law," in The Common Law Tradition: Lawyers, Books and the Law (2000) (KD671.B35 2000).

7The Classical Education of the Founding Fathers, by Martin Cothran, Classical Teacher, Spring 2007

8Education of the Founding Fathers of the Republic: Scholasticism in the Colonial Colleges, by James J. Walsh; Fordham University Press, 1935. Chapter One: The Education of the Fathers