Civil Disorder and the US Army
By Dick Martin
There has been a lot of talk recently about President Trump using the US Army to suppress domestic disorders. Restraint is required when dealing with unruly protesters. The Army is trained to bring maximum force to bear, not restraint. Given that, although the US Army did not like the idea, it has been called upon in the past to quell domestic disorders.
The men who wrote the Constitution were practical men and surmised that there were times when the Army would be necessary domestically to support the law. Consequently, they made circumscribed provisions for its domestic use. The Constitution addresses domestic disorder in three places. The preamble commits to “insure domestic tranquility,” Section 8 of Article 1 stipulates Congress will have the power to call “forth the militia to execute the laws of the union, suppress Insurrections and repel invasions,” while also acknowledging local or state militia may be thus “employed in the service of the United States,” and finally Section 4 of Article 14 adds the US will protect each state from “domestic violence” upon the application of the legislature, or of the executive (of that state). Clearly, the president of the United States has constitutional authority to use the US Army to quell domestic unrest and restore law and order.
In 1786-1787, the US Army was used to put down Shays’ Rebellion, a backwoods Massachusetts defiance of debts, taxes, law, and property rights. In 1791-1794, President Washington, with certain limitations, brought in the federal militia to extinguish the Whiskey Rebellion. The US Army was brought in again to put down the Fries Rebellion, the Burr Conspiracy, the Embargo of 1807 Enforcement, Nat Turner’s slave revolt, the 1834 Chesapeake and Ohio Canal riots, the 1837 Patriot Revolt, the 1832-1834 Nullification Crisis, and the Civil War and Reconstruction themselves.
With the end of Reconstruction came the Posse Comitatus Act of 1878 which returned the army to pre-1850 constraints with respect to participation in domestic disorders; ie, subordinate to civilian authority.
The US Army has been used to quell violent labor disputes. From 1877 to 1945, the US Army was drawn into assist local authorities at least 125 times. More recently, the US Army has been asked to manage plants, mines, and other infrastructure. In the 1950s and 1960s, the US Army was used to enforce integration and other civil rights issues.
Ideally, the Army would be tucked inside an inter-agency federal team. However, if there is no substitute for the disciplined manpower and robust security the Army brings, it may reluctantly, at the direction of the president, take to the streets to restore law and order.
Summarized and edited from an article in the November 2020 issue of Army Magazine entitled “Army Isn’t New to Quelling Civil Unrest” by Brig Gen John Brown
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