The Chinese University of Hong Kong Department of History Department of History
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Research Grants/Awards

Title of Project:
Militia Mania: Weapons and Citizenship in the Early Modern Atlantic World

Total Fund Awarded:
HK$404,600

Principal Investigator:
Professor Noah SHUSTERMAN, Department of History, The Chinese University of Hong Kong

Funding Source:
RGC General Research Fund 2015/16

Abstract of Research:
        This is a multi-year research project focused on the history of citizen soldiers and armed citizenries in the early modern Atlantic world. In it, I attempt to put the Second Amendment to the United States Constitution into a broad historical perspective. I do this by looking at the history of attempts to arm citizens in Colonial America, but also in England and France during the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries. In these different phases of the project, I will look at the major events that transformed those societies – the English Civil War, and the American and French Revolutions. In all of those events, the control over the weapons and organized armed groups was crucial to the movements' success – something that the participants realized at the time. In each place, participants took an active role in military and quasi-military activities. They all advocated some form of militias, wherein the line between citizens and soldiers was lessened, if not erased. Militias were viewed as a counterweight to the potentially despotic state power. What I emphasize, though, is that these militias also played key roles in strengthening the power of dominant groups within the societies. In each case, militia membership (and civilian weapons access) was encouraged, if not required, for members of dominant groups. It was discouraged, if not prohibited, for members of dominated groups. In the English case this played out on religious and national lines: Protestants were to be armed, Catholics disarmed; English were to be armed, Scots disarmed; or on both, as in the case of Ireland. In the French case, this played out on class lines, as men in the bourgeoisie were to be armed, and the poor disarmed. In the American case, it played out primarily on racial lines, with whites armed, but the indigenous population excluded from the militias and the African American population (both free and enslaved) both excluded from the militia and disarmed.

        The outcome of this project will be one book (in English), two journal articles (one in English, one in either English or French), as well as conference presentations. If funding is available, I hope to also host a conference that would look at the history of militias in other geographical and chronological contexts.

        The project hopes should have implications for a wide range of scholars, and for people outside of academia as well. Among scholars, the study's wide geographical scope should earn attention from scholars of England, France, and the United States. It should also earn attention from scholars working on issues of gun violence. But my larger goal is to be able to influence political discussions and debates about the origins and functions of current policies on gun rights and gun control, especially – but not only – in the United States. More specifically, my goal is to make sure that any discussion of the history of militias in the Atlantic World pays sufficient attention to those militias' roles within society in maintaining inequality, rather than only paying attention to the ways that militias could serve as counterbalances to the central state.