The Militia Act of 1903 (32 Stat. 775), also known as the Efficiency in Militia Act of 1903 or the Dick Act, was legislation enacted by the United States Congress to create an early National Guard and which codified the circumstances under which the Guard could be federalised.
It also provided federal funds to pay for equipment and training, including annual summer encampments. The new National Guard was to organise units of similar form and quality to those of the regular Army, and intended to achieve the same training, education, and readiness requirements as active duty units.
During the 19th century, the militia in each US state and territory operated under the Militia Acts of 1792, which was extended by the Militia Act of 1795. The 1792 and 1795 acts left the question of state versus federal control of the militia unresolved. In consequence, the federal government could not consistently rely on the militias for national defence. For example, during the War of 1812, members of the New York militia refused to take part in operations against the British in Canada, arguing that their only responsibility was to defend their home state. On another occasion, the Governor of Vermont unsuccessfully attempted to recall his state’s militia from the defence of Plattsburgh, claiming that it was illegal for them to operate outside of Vermont.
As a result, starting in 1812, the federal government would create “volunteer” units when it needed to expand the size of the regular Army. These volunteer units were not militia, though often they would consist of whole militia units which had volunteered en masse, nor were they part of the regular Army. This solution was also employed during the Mexican-American War (1846-1848), and in the Union Army during the American Civil War (1861-1865).
During the Spanish-American War (1898) some volunteer units were organised, most notably the 1st United States Volunteer Cavalry Regiment, nicknamed “Rough Riders.” The federal government also mobilised several National Guard units which volunteered en masse and were accepted as volunteer units.
Root Reforms and Dick Act
Several problems were identified with the National Guard during the Spanish-American War, such as units suffering from low levels of training and readiness and a lack of standardisation in organisational structure, uniforms, equipment, leader qualifications and professional development. The Secretary of War Elihu Root and other military leaders took steps to reform the Army, including the National Guard. Root’s allies included Charles Dick, Congressman (later Senator) from Ohio and Chairman of the House Militia Affairs Committee, who also served as President of the National Guard Association of the United States. Dick was a veteran of the Spanish-American War and a long-time National Guard member who attained the rank of major general as commander of the Ohio National Guard.
Dick championed the Militia Act of 1903, which became known as the Dick Act. The 1903 act repealed the Militia Acts of 1795 and designated the militia (per Title 10 of the US Code, Section 311) as two classes: the Reserve Militia, which included all able-bodied men between ages 17 and 45, and the Organized Militia, comprising state militia (National Guard) units receiving federal support.
The Dick Act included $2 million for National Guard units to modernize equipment, and permitted states to use federal funds to pay for National Guard summer training encampments. The National Guard in each state was also required to carry out a uniform schedule of weekend or weeknight drills and annual summer training camps. In addition, the War Department agreed to fund the attendance of Guard officers at Army schools, and active Army officers would serve as inspectors and instructors of National Guard units. The War Department also agreed to organize joint Regular Army-National Guard exercises and training encampments.
In return, the federal government gained greater control over the National Guard. The President of the United States was empowered to call up the National Guard for up to nine months to repel invasion, suppress rebellion, or enforce federal laws. Guardsmen had to answer a presidential call or face court-martial. States had to organise, equip, and train their units in accordance with the policies and procedures of the Regular Army. If Guard units failed to meet Army standards, they would lose federal recognition and federal funding.
The Dick Act helped resolve the issue of when the United States government could mobilise the National Guard, but federal authorities were not permitted to order the National Guard to service outside the United States.
The Dick Act was amended several times. The Militia Act of 1908 removed the nine-month limit on federal service, giving the President the authority to set the length of federal service. The ban on National Guard units serving outside the United States was also dropped, though subsequently the United States Attorney General offered his opinion that ordering the National Guard to serve outside the United States was unconstitutional. In addition, the 1908 law stated that during a mobilisation the National Guard had to be federalised before the Army could organise volunteer units. The 1908 law also included the creation of the Division of Militia Affairs as the Army agency responsible for overseeing federal training and administrative requirements for the National Guard.
The National Defence Act of 1916, as part of the mobilisation prior to US entry into World War I, increased the number of required drill periods from 24 to 48 and the length of summer training camps from five days to 15. The War Department was authorised to centrally plan for the National Guard’s authorized strength, and the number and types of National Guard units in each state, and empowered it to implement uniform enlistment contracts and officer commissioning requirements for the National Guard. Guardsmen were required to take both state and federal enlistment oaths or oaths of office. The law replaced the federal subsidy with an annual budget to cover most Guard expenses, including drill pay. The Division of Militia Affairs was expanded to form the Militia Bureau (now National Guard Bureau). The 1916 law resolved the issues of deploying National Guardsmen overseas by stipulating that they would be discharged as members of the militia and then drafted into federal service, thus removing the National Guard from its status as the militia of the states when operating under federal authority. This provision was employed to call up the National Guard during the Pancho Villa Expedition, and again during World War I.
Other amendments were the National Defence Act of 1920, and the National Defence Act Amendments of 1933. The 1933 Act amended the National Defence Act of 1916 to create a separate reserve component of the United States Army called the National Guard of the United States. Since then, all National Guardsmen have been members of both their State National Guard and the National Guard of the United States.
The improvements to National Guard training and readiness and the resolution of the circumstances under which the National Guard could be federalised led to the call up of National Guard units for service on the Mexico-United States border during the Pancho Villa Expedition.
In addition, National Guard units were federalised and deployed overseas during World War I.
The improvements to the Army-National Guard relationship, the improvements to National Guard training and readiness, and the National Guard’s successful service during the Villa Expedition and the First World War brought about by the Dick Act and subsequent amendments enabled John McAuley Palmer and other National Guard advocates to defeat a 1920 effort to completely replace the National Guard with a federal-only reserve force.
Implementation in the Southern United States
According to Professor Kelley L. Ross of the Los Angeles Valley College, one aspect of the Militia Act of 1903 was a continuation of Jim Crow-era politics, designed primarily to strengthen racist segregation laws by disarming black US citizens, thus making it easier to oppress and subjugate them.
This view is supported by author Roger D. Cunningham in his essay “They are as Proud of their Uniform as any who Serve Virginia: African American Participation in the Virginia Volunteers, 1872–1899”, part of the book Brothers to the Buffalo Soldiers: Perspectives on the African American Militia and Volunteers, 1865-1917. According to Cunningham, southern white militia units of the 1890s and early 1900s refused to interact with black units from the north, and the governor refused to allow black militia units from Washington, D.C. to take part in commemorations and ceremonies which were held in Virginia.
African American units continued to serve where permitted, including the District of Columbia, Maryland, Connecticut, Massachusetts, Ohio, Illinois, and New York.
In Popular Culture
The Militia Act of 1903 is referenced in Jack London’s The Iron Heel as “rushed through Congress and the Senate secretly, with practically no discussion” and as introducing the draft for American citizens: “If you refused to go into the militia, or to obey after you were in, you would be tried by drumhead court martial and shot down like dogs.”