Posse Comitatus Act (1878)

An Ancient English Doctrine: Posse Comitatus

An ancient English doctrine produced during the American reconstruction era is the word Posse Comitatus, which translates to "force of the country." The US army conducted judiciary and policing duties in the 1860s, so the army oversaw city governments and even dealt with numerous domestic abuse problems (Brinkerhoff, 2002).

Army's Role in Defending Citizens

Before the civil war, the militia-controlled territorial disorders under state rule, but no powerful militia remained in the southern states during the restoration era. As a consequence, the army took on the task of defending citizens, particularly the slaves who were freed. The application of the army had previously been validated by the 1866 Civil Act rights whereby, the US marshals were given the power to seek assistance from the naval forces and militia of other counties (Brinkerhoff, 2002).

Establishment of the Posse Comitatus Doctrine

However, things changed after the southern states decided to rejoin the union in 1868 and as a result, it was unclear on how the marshals and the sheriffs would the seek assistance. With the aim of settling the problem, a posse comitatus doctrine was established. The doctrine allowed both the marshals and county sheriffs to seek aid from the federal soldiers, Marines, civilians as well as the militia from their respective districts. Consequently, there were numerous requests for troops which were then used in law enforcement (Young, 2003).

Resistance and Revision of the Doctrine

After its institution, the doctrine faced resistance from the army because it had been placed outside the command chain; moreover, the troops felt that they had greater obligations to their military body as well as to the commander in chief as compared to the sheriffs and marshals. Another shortcoming of the doctrine is the fact that federal troops served as possess to assist the sheriffs and marshals without reference to the commander in chief (Brinkerhoff, 2002). As a result, the US Congress revisited the doctrine; thus the Posse Comitatus Act of 1978 was established to solve existing disputes over the application of federal troop in the southern states by the marshals. The 1978 Posse Comitatus Act prohibited the use of military troops by the marshals as well as the sheriffs as domestic police force. However, the act did not preclude the use military troops under the authorization of the Congress or the commander in chief (Young, 2003).

Difficulties in Establishing a Standing Military

The Framers of the US constitution found it extremely hard to establish a standing military due to concerns over the dangers of military power. During the Philadelphia convention, the issues of power, as well as power control, came into sharp focus during the debates on military matters (Murray & Sinnreich, 2006).

Fears of Military Power

Concerning this, previous threats by the continental officers had to a great extent strengthened the fear; particularly among members of Congress, that the army could be used as an instrument of despotism or to coerce states. These fears were as a result of the English experience with the military dictatorship of General Oliver Cromwell during the 17th century. Therefore, many considered the establishment of a large standing army in a peaceful society as "dangerous to the liberties of a country" (Hornberger, 2013).

Suspicion and Mistrust

The widespread suspicion of the then existing central government by most of the congressmen resulted in fear of government military powers. Most of the individuals that mistrusted the "powerful government" contested the issue of granting authority to the government in not only matters of taxation but also in military matters (Stewart, 2005). Even individuals such as Hamilton; who were in support of granting the government power in handling the military, were wary of standing enemies in the government. Thus, they were concerned over the potential use of military force by officeholder as a weapon for perpetuating their personal power.

Financial Constraints

When developing the constitution, the founding fathers also struggled to establish a strong and standing army due to financial constraints. During the 1780s, a standing army would be a burdensome expense for the US, and according to many people, America was, "too poor to maintain a standing army adequate for defense" (Stewart, 2005). As a result, plagued by financial constraints, the US government had to pare its expenditures to the bone which hindered the establishment of a standing army. Another difficulty faced in the establishment of a standing army was the reluctance of the American citizens to serve in the army both as volunteers and regulars; only a few agreed to join the army for brief a period (Murray & Sinnreich, 2006). During this period, at no time was the American government able to recruit enough men; hence, an army that strong enough to protect the country.

Diminished Military Threats

Lastly, there was diminished military threats from foreign nations and powerful nations such as Spain and Britain. During this period, Britain had no desire to reconquer lost colonies while the US had already signed treaties with Spain; therefore, efforts in the creation of a standing army were seen as pointless by most people (Stewart, 2005). Conclusively, in view of these drawbacks, the creation of a large standing army was not feasible.

The Whiskey Rebellion

In an effort to pay off massive debts accumulated during the American Revolution, the US Congress instituted a tax on distilled liquor in 1791 (Anonymous, 2011). While it started off as tax, it steadily resulted in the Western insurrection commonly termed as the 1794 Whiskey Rebellion. During the rebellion, protestors applied both intimidation and violence to prevent the federal officials from enforcing the tax legislation.

Historical Significance

The whiskey rebellion is of great importance in the US in a historical context due to a number of reasons. One of the reasons is that the rebellion raised questions on types of protests permissible under the US constitution and as a result, radical protests actions which had been permissible throughout the American Revolution became illegitimate (Anonymous, 2011). The rebellion also established the American citizens as a "collective Sovereign," which paved way to the idea of "collective right" whereby, people could change as well as challenge the national government through what can be considered as extra-constitutional means.

Power of the National Government

The whiskey rebellion is also significant as Washington's administration suppression of the rebellion demonstrated the power of the national government as well as its ability and willingness to suppress any violent resistance to its legislation. The rebellion was also Washington's first test on the US government's response to protest; as a result, the rebellion paved the way for the application of force particularly the federal troops to counter protests which indicated the power of the US government. During the rebellion, a statue was established authorizing the American federal government to call up state militia for federal purposes. Moreover, the two primary roles of the military force were also established which included overcoming existing armed opposition and countenancing as well as supporting civil officers, thus in executing laws (From Alexander Hamilton to Henry Lee, 4 October [1794], 2017).

US Homeland Security vs. Homeland Defense


There exists a narrow line between the homeland defense and homeland security particularly in these post- 9/11 times. One of the similarities of the two agencies is the fact that they are both tasked with the responsibility of ensuring the safety of the American citizens by confronting vulnerabilities and maximizing on strengths that ensure the prosperity, protection, freedom as well as sovereignty for which America stands (Goss, 2006). The goal of maintaining national security for both the homeland security and homeland defense overlaps in many areas as outlined by the former US president Barack Obama. Some of these areas include how both organizations identify and interdict threats, their abilities to operate within the US territories, and their role in maintaining effective control over all the existing physical borders belonging to the US territory (Obama, 2010). Moreover, both organizations are operated under lead federal agencies; homeland security is under the Department of Homeland Security (DHS) while homeland defense is under the Department of Defense (DoD).


In conclusion, despite the similarities, there are notable differences between homeland security and homeland defense. One of the differences is embedded in their primary role; regarding this, homeland defense protects America's sovereignty, territory, critical infrastructure as well as its domestic population from both external aggression and threats. On the other hand, homeland security protects the US from internal threats such as terrorist attacks and also reduces the country's vulnerability to threats (Goss, 2006). Another notable difference is that the department of homeland security was established under the Homeland Security Act of 2002 in November 2002 after the 9/11 attacks. However, homeland defense; the predecessor of the National Military Establishment, was created approximately 50 years prior to the formation of homeland security, thus in 1947 under the National Security Act of 1947. Furthermore, homeland security comprises of combined efforts from a predominantly non-military national team consisting of Federal, State as well as Local entities (Goss, 2006). On the other hand, homeland defense comprises of military entities which include all the branches of the armed services; thus the Navy, Marines, Army, and the Air Force.


Anonymous. (2011). Whiskey Rebellion. Retrieved From: https://www.saylor.org/site/wp-content/uploads/2011/03/Whiskey-Rebellion.pdf

Brinkerhoff, J. R. (2002). The Posse Comitatus Act and Homeland Security. Journal of Homeland Security, 7.

From Alexander Hamilton to Henry Lee, 4 October [1794]. (2017). Founders Online, National Archives. Retrieved From: http://founders.archives.gov/documents/Hamilton/01-17-02-0278. [Original source: The Papers of Alexander Hamilton, vol. 17, August 1794–December 1794, ed. Harold C. Syrett. New York: Columbia University Press, 1972, pp. 302–303.]

Goss, T. (2006). "Who's in Charge?" New Challenges in Homeland Defense and Homeland Security. Homeland Security Affairs, 2(1).

Hornberger, G. J. (2013). The Dangers of a Standing Army. The future Freedom Foundation. Retrieved From: https://www.fff.org/2013/03/04/gun-control-and-the-dangers-of-a-standing-army/

Murray, W. & Sinnreich, R.H.(2006). The Past as Prologue: The Importance of History to the Military Profession. Cambridge University Press.

Obama, B. (2010). National Security Strategy. Washington, DC: White House.

Stewart, R. W. (2005). American Military History, Vol. 1: The United States Army and the Forging of a Nation, 1775–1917. Military Studies Press.

Young, E.S. (2003). The Posse Comitatus Act of 1878: A Documentary History. W.S. Hein.

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