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Disobedience, Discipline, and the Contest for Order in the Early National New England Militia

  • Author(s): Bray, Christopher Alan
  • Advisor(s): Waugh, Joan;
  • Meranze, Michael
  • et al.

This dissertation examines conflict and discipline in the militias of five New England states during the years 1792 to 1826, describing local contests for order during a period of postrevolutionary testing and negotiation. While historians have argued that the model of universal white male militia service failed in the early republic because of legislative neglect and administrative inattention, this study argues that the men subject to militia service shaped the institution to a substantial degree through their willingness to dissent and disobey. They engaged in ordered disobedience, signaling their values and placing authority within the limits they made by their local action. Further, militia discipline eroded the boundaries between military affairs and social relations, making a state institution subject to broad sources of conflict and tension. Military character and social identity were inextricably intertwined. These conflicts in the militia were not conflicts between order and disorder, as they are often depicted, but rather were competitions between competing conceptions of order.

The first chapter examines state courts martial as structured social trials, "conversations with verdicts." The second chapter examines contests over political and institutional boundaries, many of which related to questions of court martial jurisdiction and the limits of military authority, as when militia officers were tried by military courts for off-duty political speech. The third chapter examines contests over social honor that took place before state military courts, as militia officers stood accused of eccentricity, licentiousness, and other forms of poor character. The fourth and final chapter examines contests over the election of militia officers, particularly in Massachusetts, finding that the establishment of military authority in local militia units was often hampered by social conflict and disputes over the nature of proper authority.

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