The Chinese University of Hong Kong Department of History Department of History
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HIST5504 Special Topics in Modern World History: Guns and Militias

Semester 1 (2021-2022)

Lecture TimeTuesday 10:30am ‐ 12:15pm

VenueSB UG06


Lecturer Noah SHUSTERMAN (3943 1765 /

Teaching Assistant FOK Yeung Yeung, Jimmy (3943 1779 /

Course Description

How do you make sure that your nation is capable of defending its liberty in a way that allows the inhabitants of that nation to enjoy the fruits of that liberty? For many people in the early modern Atlantic world, the answer to that question was the militia, a military unit composed of full-time citizens who were also part-time soldiers. The citizen-soldier was considered an answer to many of the problems facing early modern society, and as a result the laws of that era guaranteed the ability of citizens’ access to weapons while limiting the ability of individual rulers to control armies. Nations that wrote many of their laws during the early modern era continue to live under many of those laws despite the intervening changes in both living conditions and weapons technology – a situation true for many nations but most noticeably for the United States.

This course will seek to understand the development of the ideas and ideals of the militia and the citizen-soldier in the early modern world, starting with the myths of the ancient world that became prevalent during the Renaissance, and then follow their adventures in the United States during the nineteenth and twentieth centuries, before ending with a look at the politics of weapons access in today’s America. Along the way, the course will look at many related topics, including the way that ancient and medieval societies served as a model for the early modern world; the rise of the republican tradition in Renaissance Italy and in seventeenth-century England; the impact of the English, American and French Revolutions; the impact of the American Civil War of the 1860s and the Civil Rights Movement of the 1960s; and developments in the contemporary United States. Thematically, it will look at the question of citizenship and its limitations; the relationship between weapons access and status, particularly as regards to social class, religious affiliation, and race; and the relationship between militias and codes of masculinity.

The majority of readings will be selections from primary texts. Students are encouraged, but not required, to read the secondary texts listed as “supplemental readings.” All readings will be available on-line, either as links to external content or as .pdf files on the course site. Although the primary goal of the course is to understand the history of militias and citizens’ access to weapons, a parallel goal will be to work on how to interpret primary texts as an historian would, by putting them into their historical context.



Week 1: Rulers, Subjects, and Soldiers – or Citizen-Soldiers?


Week 2: The Ancient Legacies: Sparta and the Roman Republic.

        Readings: Plutarch, “Lycurgus” and “Julius Caesar,” selections; Pericles’ Funeral Oration, from Thucydides, History of the Peloponnesian War; Livy, The History of Rome, selections from book 22 (The Second Punic War)


Week 3: Medieval Europe: Legends and Legacies

        Readings: Tacitus, Germania, selections; The Assize of Arms


Week 4: The Military Revolution and the Renaissance Rediscovery of the Ancient World

        Readings: Machiavelli, selections from The PrinceThe Discourses on Livy, and The Art of War

        Supplemental Readings: Roberts, “The Military Revolution”


Week 5: Divergent Trajectories: England and France in the Seventeenth Century

        Readings: Vindiciae contra tyrannos, selections; The Political Testament of Cardinal Richelieu, selections; Fletcher of Saltoun, “A Discourse of Government with Relation to Militias”; The English Bill of Rights of 1689


Week 6: The Colonization of North America and the Rise of the American Militia

        Readings: Selections form early colonials laws and regulations; Benjamin Franklin, “The Plain Truth.”       

        Supplemental Readings: Shy, “A New Look at the Colonial Militia”


Week 7: The American Revolution and the Road to the Second Amendment

        Readings: The Quartering Acts; Jefferson, Notes on the State of Virginia, selections; George Washington, Collected Works, selections; Selected texts on Shay’s Rebellion and on the Whisky Rebellion.


Week 8: The Aftermath of the American Revolution and the Ratification of the Bill of Rights

        Readings: The Federalist Papers, selections; The Anti-Federalist Papers, selections; The United States Constitution: Article I Section 8; Amendments 2,3.

        Supplemental Readings: The Amicus briefs to D.C. vs. Heller by Racove et. al (“Historians”)., Chemerinsky and Winkler, and Hard and Olson (“Academics for the Second Amendment”), and Virginia 1774


Week 9: The French Revolution and the Levée en masse (universal male conscription): Different Answers to the Same Questions I

        Readings: Rousseau, Considerations on the Constitution of Poland; descriptions of the Great Fear; “The Declaration of the Rights of Man and Citizen”; “An Answer to the Impertinent Question: What is a Sans-Culotte?”; “Decree Establishing the Levée en masse


Week 10: The French Revolution and the Levée en masse (universal male conscription): Different Answers to the Same Questions II

        The Readings for this week are the same as the readings for Week 9


Week 11: Race and Guns in America: From Slavery to Civil War to Civil Rights

        Readings: Selected texts on Slavery, the Civil War, and Reconstruction; Martin Luther King, Jr., “Letter from Birmingham Jail”; Eldridge Cleaver, Soul on Ice, selections; Mulford Act

        Supplemental Reading: Winkler, Gun Fight, chapters 5, 8; Amicus brief to D.C. vs.Heller by the Congress of Racial Equality; Waldstreicher, Slavery’s Constitution


Week 12: Waco, Oklahoma City, and the Rise of the self-declared militias in 1990s America

Readings: Selected Readings on Waco and the bombing of the Federal Building in Oklahoma City;

        Supplemental Readings: Stock, Rural Radicals, chapter 3


Week 13: Fear of a Black President: Sandy Hook, Stand Your Ground, and the Politics of the Second Amendment in Contemporary USA

        Readings: Scalia, Majority Opinion, DC vs. Heller; Stand Your Ground laws, selections. 

Assessment & Assignments

The course assessment scheme will be as follows:

30% Tests

There will be three brief tests/quizzes during the semester. None of these will take a full class period, each will be worth 10% of the final grade.


20% Questions

Each student is required to present five sets of questions over the course of the semester. Each set must include at least three questions, though the questions may overlap. Questions are due 1 hour before the start of class and must address that week’s readings. For students to receive credit for the questions, they must attend that week’s lecture as well. Students may choose which weeks they turn in the questions, although they may not turn them in for the weeks when there is an in-class test.


30% Final Paper

There will be a final paper for the course, the topic of which students must determine through conversations with the professor or the T.A.


20% Tutorial Participation

Each student is required to attend and participate in the tutorial sessions.


The details of tutorial arrangement will be updated in due course. 


See Syllabus.

Honesty in Academic Work

Attention is drawn to University policy and regulations on honesty in academic work, and to the disciplinary guidelines and procedures applicable to breaches of such policy and regulations. Details may be found at

With each assignment, students will be required to submit a signed declaration that they are aware of these policies, regulations, guidelines and procedures.

  • In the case of group projects, all members of the group should be asked to sign the declaration, each of whom is responsible and liable to disciplinary actions, irrespective of whether he/she has signed the declaration and whether he/she has contributed, directly or indirectly, to the problematic contents.
  • For assignments in the form of a computer-generated document that is principally text-based and submitted via VeriGuide, the statement, in the form of a receipt, will be issued by the system upon students’ uploading of the soft copy of the assignment.

Assignments without the properly signed declaration will not be graded by teachers.

Only the final version of the assignment should be submitted via VeriGuide.

The submission of a piece of work, or a part of a piece of work, for more than one purpose (e.g. to satisfy the requirements in two different courses) without declaration to this effect shall be regarded as having committed undeclared multiple submissions. It is common and acceptable to reuse a turn of phrase or a sentence or two from one’s own work; but wholesale reuse is problematic. In any case, agreement from the course teacher(s) concerned should be obtained prior to the submission of the piece of work.

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