What is Martial Law?

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A Brief History

On June 12, 1775, British General Thomas Gage declared martial law in the Massachusetts Bay Colony.  Gage offered amnesty and a pardon to all rebels that would lay down their arms, except Samuel Adams and John Hancock, who were deemed traitors that would be hanged if captured.  The American Revolution had already had a de facto beginning by this point, with the Boston Massacre (1770), the burning of the Gaspee in Rhode Island (a British customs schooner, 1772), the Boston Tea Party (1773), and the Battles of Lexington and Concord on April 19, 1775.  Fearing an outright rebellion in the American colonies, General Gage took control of Massachusetts away from the colonial government and the British Army was now in charge, or so they thought!

Digging Deeper

The declaration of martial law is a highly emotionally and politically charged event, sure to generate satisfaction on one side and intense distrust, resentment and anger on the other side.  In a nutshell, martial law is a situation where the military takes over all or most government functions away from civilian authorities, often in an occupied foreign territory, especially policing functions and the setting of curfews and other social controls, such as limiting the right to assemble, protest, or demonstrate.  People can often be held without being formally charged with a crime during martial law (suspension of habeas corpus) and harsh penalties may be imposed for “offenses” against rules laid out by the military. In imposing martial law, it is not uncommon for military courts to replace civilian courts in dealing with criminals, especially political “criminals” and violators of martial law rules.  Sometimes the military courts follow established military court procedures, while at other times arbitrary tribunals may be set up without a rigid set of guidelines.

Dunmore’s Proclamation declaring Martial law in the proclaimed May 27, 1775, several months after the beginning of the American Revolutionary War.  Written by John Murray, 4th Earl Dunmore.

Martial law is often imposed as a reaction to civil unrest or rebellion in which the military has been called in to restore order.  Severe rioting may sometimes induce a government to declare martial law when the police can no longer deal with the extent of the violence generated by the rioting.  Other reasons for declaring martial law include natural disasters during which civil authorities are overwhelmed and the military is brought in to temporarily maintain order and oversee relief operations.  Martial law may also be declared as part of a coup attempt in which the newly inserted government uses the military to consolidate its hold on government functions.  A newly won revolution may result in martial law until civil government can be established.  Also, invading forces may declare martial law on conquered territory to keep order in the manner that best serves the invaders rather than allow the native government any control over civil functions.

Even the term or phrase, “martial law,” is charged with intense emotional baggage, causing some countries to use a euphemism such as “emergency powers” or “state of emergency” instead.  In the United States there have been many examples of the imposition of martial law, which the Constitution recognizes may be necessary at times, noting that the writ of habeas corpus may be suspended “when in Cases of Rebellion or Invasion the public Safety may require it.”  Some instances when the US military, whether it be the National Guard, State Militia, or active duty armed forces have been called in to restore or maintain order include The Whiskey Rebellion (1791-1794), New Orleans during the War of 1812, The Mormon War in Illinois (1838), The Utah War (1857-1858, again concerning the Mormons), The Great Chicago Fire of 1871, The San Francisco Earthquake of 1906,  Suppression of the Bonus Marchers in Washington DC (1932), The West Coast Waterfront Strike (1934), Hawaii after the Pearl Harbor Sneak Attack (1941-1942), and during the Civil Rights Era riots, demonstrations, and imposition of Integration during the 1950’s and 1960’s.  During the United States Civil War, 1861-1865, President Lincoln declared a suspension of habeas corpus and reconquered Southern cities often had Union forces ruling in instances of martial law.  (The preceding list is not all inclusive.  Other instances include times of labor strife, especially in the mining industry.)

Hawaii was put under martial law after the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor.  Photograph retouched by Mmxx.

In a clear effort to limit the imposition of martial law in the United States, in 1878, Congress passed the Posse Comitatus Act, a law requiring Congressional approval of the use of the American military within the United States during a crisis.  When the US decides to use the military to maintain or retain order, there is not necessarily a cessation of civil court functions and other civilian government functions.  While the use of the military in our own territory may in some ways appear to meet the definition of martial law, the deployment of the military within our borders does not automatically mean that martial law is declared, and the military may be deployed with rigid limits to their authority.  In 2006, H.R. 5122 (becoming Public Law 109-364), known as the John Warner National Defense Authorization Act for Fiscal Year 2007, was passed by Congress to allow the President the power to take charge of the National Guard of any state without the state Governor’s consent and for the President to be able to declare martial law in response to an emergency.  The law also provided for the funding of the US military in 2007.

Questions for Students (and others): Have you ever personally been present during a declaration of martial law?  Do you believe the US government should ever declare martial law?  Were you aware of the time the US used the military to maintain order?  Please let us know in the comments section below this article.

President George W. Bush signs into law H.R. 5122, the John Warner National Defense Authorization Act for Fiscal Year 2007 in the Oval Office at the White House. Joining him are, from left: Vice President Dick Cheney, Rep. Duncan Hunter of California, Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld, Sen. John Warner of Virginia, and General Peter Pace, Chairman of Joint Chiefs of Staff.  The original uploader was Dhwani1989 at English Wikipedia.  White House photograph by Eric Draper.

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Historical Evidence

For more information, please see…

Clinger, Trevor. The History of Martial Law in the United States. Trevor Clinger, 2015.

Scheiber, Harry and Jane. Bayonets in Paradise: Martial Law in Hawai‘i during World War II. University of Hawaii Press, 2016.

Warshauer, Matthew. Andrew Jackson and the Politics of Martial Law: Nationalism, Civil Liberties, and Partisanship. Univ Tennessee Press, 2007.

Williams, Ronald. Martial Law Survival Guide: A Step-By-Step Beginner’s Guide On How To Protect Yourself and Your Family During Martial Law. Independently published, 2017.

The featured image in this article, a photograph by Chemical Engineer of an English Heritage Blue Plaque on 41 Portland Place, London, has been release into the public domain worldwide by the copyright holder of this work.


About Author

Major Dan

Major Dan is a retired veteran of the United States Marine Corps. He served during the Cold War and has traveled to many countries around the world. Prior to his military service, he graduated from Cleveland State University, having majored in sociology. Following his military service, he worked as a police officer eventually earning the rank of captain prior to his retirement.