I was asked today, How do you define a “well regulated militia”?, in the context of the ACLU insisting that the Second Amendment to the US Constitution applies to the National Guard. How can we really know what the Founders meant? was the gist of the argument.
Fortunately, the Constitution comes with Cliff’s Notes, the Federalist Papers. Here’s what Madison had to say on the issue of the Federal military usurping power from the States (to the people of New York, specifically) in Federalist #46:
Let a regular army, fully equal to the resources of the country, be formed; and let it be entirely at the devotion of the federal government; still it would not be going too far to say, that the State governments, with the people on their side, would be able to repel the danger. The highest number to which, according to the best computation, a standing army can be carried in any country, does not exceed one hundredth part of the whole number of souls; or one twenty-fifth part of the number able to bear arms. This proportion would not yield, in the United States, an army of more than twenty-five or thirty thousand men. To these would be opposed a militia amounting to near half a million of citizens with arms in their hands, officered by men chosen from among themselves, fighting for their common liberties, and united and conducted by governments possessing their affections and confidence.
I’m not sure Madison could have been more clear on what a ‘militia’ meant in 1789, nor what its purpose was. For the Supreme Court or the ACLU to ignore the relevant historical context is simply activism in disguise.
Satisfied by the definition of a militia, having been shown the historical context, the discussion turned to the meaning of ‘well-regulated’. Surely that must mean state-controlled?” the questioner continued.
Again, historical context is crucial, as meanings can change over time. In 1789, ‘well-regulated’ referred to something that was properly functioning, such as a well-regulated clock that kept good time, a well-regulated harpsichord in proper tune, or a well-regulated mind, which was a sound one. In context, a well-regulated militia is one that can do its job of defending the citizenry from an oppressive government. So, remember to support your local shooting range, as ensuring that you have this right ensures it’ll never need to be used.