Written by Will Porter.

In a modern era of global military empire, mass indiscriminate NSA data-grabbing, and unaccountable killer cops, an age-old issue vital to liberty is often overlooked or forgotten: that of conscription. On this Veterans’ Day, while most solemnly reflect on the valiant service of their fathers, uncles, and grandfathers in one of the many blood-soaked American military conflicts of the last century, let us not forget those given no choice in the matter.

In the United States, it’s only been about four short decades since the “draft”—i.e. total and outright government-mandated slavery—has been out of favor with the policy-crafting class. But for many decades in the US, and for thousands of years all around the world, politicians and war-makers have freely employed such slave labor, attained from any poor soul that was called upon to provide it.

Today, then, instead of spewing forth blind reverence and adoration for soldiers and veterans, let’s examine the institution of conscription, briefly review its history, and show its particular relevance to human liberty. The amount of suffering and loss that is attributable to conscription is likely incalculable, and, more importantly, its wane in popularity in the US may only be temporary in the face of the ongoing “perpetual war for perpetual peace”.

In China, the State of Qin instituted universal military service following the registration of every household.
In China, the State of Qin instituted universal military service following the registration of every household.

Moreover, I believe one can do no greater respect to the military than to critically examine, and, if need be, mercilessly condemn the actions and policies of the state-apparatus which so often sends them to die needless deaths in foreign lands.

Conscription in Antiquity

The practice of military conscription is an ancient one, documented as far back as 1791 BC in the Babylonian Empire, under the reign of Hammurabi. “Ilkum,” as the Babylonian system was called, involved mandatory service in the army during wartime, or some other form of labor for the state in times of peace. Conscripts were granted certain land rights, or perhaps more accurately, state-bestowed privileges, in return for their “service”.

While the Code of Hammurabi prohibited draftees from finding “substitutes,” later records document regular trading in Ilkum commitments. Clearly, then, even as early as this, conscripts were not exactly ecstatic at the prospect of forced military service.

In China, universal conscription stretches as far back as the State of Qin, the progenitor of the 221 BC Qin Empire. Indeed, an early model of China’s Great Wall began under Emperor Qin Shi Huang and involved the conscripted labor and military service of about 800,000 people, many of who died during the wall’s construction (contributing to its justly-earned title as “the longest cemetery on Earth”).

Europe in the medieval period saw various forms of conscripted military service as well, sometimes tied into land-ownership arrangements. Under feudalism, for instance, peasants were often expected to produce one male family member when called upon by a local landlord or king.

This is an example of the “levy,” a sort of decree which called all able-bodied men “to the colors”. In Anglo-Saxon England, a “fyrd,” or an army quickly mobilized to defend a town or shire, might involve the use of the conscription levy. For some time in France, too, the “arrière-ban” was in place, a type of general levy that allowed a king to summon his vassals (and their vassals) to war—however this wasn’t used quite like it would be later, under the more modern French nation-state.

The Revolutionary Wars of France gave rise to the “Levée en masse,” especially during the war of 1793. France’s newly-found Democratic Spirit led many to believe that with a less oppressive state, citizens should be called upon to satisfy new and greater obligations to that less oppressive state. In February of 1793, the new French government, in democratic fashion, decreed a levy of around 300,000 men.

Departure of the Conscripts of 1807 by Louis-Léopold Boilly
Departure of the Conscripts of 1807 by Louis-Léopold Boilly

By August of the same year, at war with Austria, Prussia, Britain, and Spain, and facing growing domestic discontent, the bungling French National Convention scrambled to issue a new, sweeping decree, announcing:

From this moment until such time as its enemies shall have been driven from the soil of the Republic, all Frenchmen are in permanent requisition for the services of the armies. The young men shall fight; the married men shall forge arms and transport provisions; the women shall make tents and clothes and shall serve in the hospitals; the children shall turn old lint into linen; the old men shall betake themselves to the public squares in order to arouse the courage of the warriors and preach hatred of kings and the unity of the Republic.

Needless to say, evasion and desertion became commonplace.

Conscription in the United States

The mass conscription used in the French Revolutionary War served to influence how national armies would be managed and manned in the future, contributing to the doctrine of “Total War” manifest in the savage atrocities of the two World Wars. As opposed to the model of the Ancien Régime, where armies were primarily manned by professional soldiers (only rarely by conscripts), the 20th century saw the rise of general mass conscription, allowing wars among nation-states to become grizzlier than ever before.

The United States’ experience with conscription begins in the colonial period, and during the Revolutionary War, although, like France, its use evolved over time. Militia laws in various colonies would occasionally require men to enroll in the militia, undergo basic training, and serve in times of war or emergency. A similar policy was in place during the Revolution, where state governments would draft men to serve in the militia or Continental Army units.

Nonetheless, conscription remained fairly unpopular during this time, with the first attempted national draft in 1778—more of a suggestion from the Continental Congress than a state-backed decree—failing to sufficiently man the ranks of the Continental Army.

Later, during the War of 1812, President James Madison and his War Secretary James Monroe tried, and failed, to institute a national draft of 40,000 men. This attempt was met with outrage and indignation by New Hampshire Congressman Daniel Webster, who, on the House floor in 1814, boomed:

The administration asserts the right to fill the ranks of the regular army by compulsion…Is this, sir, consistent with the character of a free government? Is this civil liberty? Is this the real character of our Constitution? No, sir, indeed it is not…Where is it written in the Constitution, in what article or section is it contained, that you may take children from their parents, and parents from their children, and compel them to fight the battles of any war, in which the folly or the wickedness of government may engage it? Under what concealment has this power lain hidden, which now for the first time comes forth, with a tremendous and baleful aspect, to trample down and destroy the dearest rights of personal liberty?

It wasn’t until decades later, during the American “Civil War” (more aptly titled the War on Southern Secession), that national conscription would make its debut in the US, although still to a fairly insignificant degree. The Confederate South also, due in part to its relatively scarce population, implemented its first conscription act in 1862 to bolster the ranks of its own military force.

The Union passed the Militia Act of 1862, allowing conscription only when states couldn’t meet their quota with volunteer soldiers. These arrangements generally met failure on both sides, though, leading the U.S. Congress to pass the 1863 Enrollment Act, which established the first true system of nation-wide conscription in the United States.

Federal Conscription Enacted

With each of these arrangements, substitution was permitted, and until a certain point mandatory service could be avoided altogether with a “commutation” payment. Of about 169,000 men drafted into the Union Army, around 118,000 were substitutes.

Still, there was strong resistance to these programs, perhaps culminating most overtly in the 1863 draft riots in New York City. Predominately executed by the working-class Irish, who could not afford the $300 commutation fee (almost $6,000 in 2014 dollars), this riot remains the largest civil insurrection in US history—aside from the Civil War itself, a colossal bloodbath in its own right. Others likened conscription to slavery, an institution still alive and well at the time.

The next major bout of conscription in America took place during World War 1, under the administration of Woodrow Wilson. Largely due to the unpopularity of the First World War, the first attempt to enlist men for voluntary military service only drew 73,000, a trivial number compared to the established target of 1 million.

This led to the Selective Service Act of 1917, a law carefully tailored to avoid the various pitfalls of the failed conscription systems of the Civil War. Substitution, bounties, and commutation payments were abolished in totality, and the act declared a “liability for military service for all male citizens,” at first from ages 21-31, later from 18-45. In American communities, influential civilian leaders would preside over local boards, which issued draft cards on the randomized basis of a lottery.


The 10 million men registered in 1917 was still thought inadequate, so exemptions were reduced, and age limits expanded, increasing the number of draftees to 24 million by 1918. Resistance to these measures, quite unlike the Civil War, was subdued, probably thanks to the huge government campaign to inspire support for the war, and the practice of censoring, even shutting down entirely, anti-war publications, newspapers, and magazines.

Those who refused to obey the WW1 draft were court-martialed and often given decades-long prison sentences. Some conscientious objectors were deemed “insincere” by a Board of Inquiry established by then-Secretary of War, Newton Baker, and of these, military tribunals sentenced 17 to death, 142 to life in prison, and 345 to forced labor in penal camps.

Between the World Wars, the general practice of conscription was still advocated, even though the draft officially ended in 1918 after the Allied victory in Europe. In 1926, a group of military officers led a drive to design another system of conscription, finally approved by congress in 1934, and codified into law in 1940. Although the new system differed slightly from the one used under Woodrow Wilson, World War 1 certainly furnished the model for general mass conscription in modern America.

Conscription made a comeback during World War 2, with one 1940 national survey finding a 71% support for “the immediate adoption of compulsory military training for all young men.” The 1940 Selective Training and Service Act (STSA) mandated national conscription during peacetime, where a national lottery would, again, determine who would be called upon for a year of military service. The STSA was the first writ of conscription during peacetime in America, and it also established the Selective Service System as an independent agency to manage and oversee the draft (the same system we have in place today).

After the Pearl Harbor attack, the STSA was amended to extend the length of mandatory service to the duration of the war, and to expand the maximum age limit from 45 to 64. In the end, 50 million men were registered in the draft of World War 2, with 10 million actually inducted to fight. This particular draft was effective from 1940 until 1947, when its legal authority expired and was not renewed. The Selective Service System, however, remained untouched.

Moving closer to the present, the Vietnam War saw America’s last bout of mass conscription, after which it was, at least for now, abolished. When President Kennedy made the decision to send military “advisors” (sound familiar?) to Vietnam, this signaled the Selective Service Director to begin planning a new draft.

From the very beginning, a growing counter-culture and anti-war movement among the American youth offered strong resistance to the Vietnam draft, and, indeed, to the war itself. Young men sought to avoid conscription by joining the National Guard or the Reserves, which only sent a small number of troops into the conflict, or by simply “dodging” it altogether. Despite the tradition in previous conflicts, where many Americans heralded “draft dodgers” as local heroes, those who fled the Vietnam draft are, to this day, looked down upon and condemned as cowards.


Of about 27 million candidates, 2.2 million were actually conscripted during the Vietnam War, although we can reasonably surmise that a substantial portion of men joined up “voluntarily,” figuring they’d be forced to either way. Despite the sweeping nature of this draft, a large number of men were exempted, deferred, or disqualified for educational or medical reasons, or due to a past criminal record; as many as 100,000 fled the country outright.

Richard Nixon, of all people, in his 1968 presidential campaign, was a prominent figure to push for the abolition of the military draft in the US. Some believe Nixon was motivated by a desire to dismantle the American anti-war movement, which he thought would lose steam after the affluent youth that comprised it were officially out of harm’s way.

Despite meeting opposition from both Congress and the Department of Defense, Nixon successfully campaigned, in part, on the idea of abolishing the draft. After the 15-member Gates Commission determined that military ranks could be maintained under a voluntary arrangement and a brief 2-year extension from 1971-1973, conscription was finally abolished in the United States. Following abolition, in order to incentivize voluntary recruitment, pay-hikes were implemented and the US Army began running T.V. ads encouraging enlistment. The last active-duty conscript retired in 2011.

Conscription & Its Significance Today

You thought that was it? Of course not; in the summer of 1980 President Jimmy Carter issued Presidential Proclamation 4771, which re-instated obligatory registration with the Selective Service System. As is known to many American men (because it is printed on the SSS registration form itself), failure to register with the Selective Service is a felony, punishable by up to 5 years in prison, and/or a $250,000 fine. In practice, however, it is quite rare that anyone is actually punished under this law.

Nevertheless, the very fact that conscription still exists today under any form ought to be a source of absolute outrage. Echoing the words of 19th century Congressmen Daniel Webster, how can a “free society” possibly tolerate the use of slave labor, or what’s more, slave labor in the service of an ever-expanding, aggressive military empire? While the draft has fortunately not been used in any of the recent (corrupt, fraudulent) US wars, it is difficult to imagine a justified use for it in any foreseeable conflict in the future.

Today, the Oval Office unilaterally starts wars with whomever they wish—Obama, as of yet, has bombed at least 7 countries—forcing the citizenry to bear the brunt of the economic standstill left in their wake. Compelled to work for many months solid out of every year just to comply with the always-increasing tax-load, dealing with rising inflation due to the preposterous expansion of the money supply (a practice which perpetuates the unhampered warfare state), and having to watch their naïve children willingly join the armed forces—the US citizen may as well be a permanent ward of the state anyway.

But what would it really take for outright conscription to return to America? Considering it was abolished initially on the basis of pragmatism, rather than morality, how well-insulated are we from the typical sophistry employed by power-grabbing state-agents? In a 1979 essay entitled “The Battle over Conscription,” Murray N. Rothbard, then a leading scholar and activist of the libertarian movement, posits three potential arguments which might be used by advocates of renewed, or intensified, conscription:

  1. The volunteer army isn’t working. We need a pool of trained men at the ready to defend Western Europe (or whatever).
  2. We don’t want an all-black or an all-poor army. We want an army that reflects a cross section of America.
  3. America needs an intelligent army; a volunteer army does not recruit educated and intelligent buck privates. Only a draft will force such an army into existence.

Adding to that the oft-used scare mongering—surrounding national security in general—that the US citizenry faces today, it isn’t impossible to see how this wicked practice might be again foisted upon us, if not for pure military reasons alone (voluntary enlistment is probably sufficient today), than for more nefarious ones, closer related to power and authority. The power to make war has already been usurped almost completely by the executive; it seems only a matter of time before they can get away with a renewed policy of conscription.

As Thomas Jefferson stressed, state-power has a tendency to grow, not diminish; the history of conscription itself, for the most part, illustrates this. While a conscripted soldiery is usually less eager to fight, less loyal to the state, and therefore more prone to desertion, it certainly does offer benefits to the would-be war-maker, like removing any limitation on military enlistment offered by public opinion.

Although by now a cliché, it remains true that the maintenance of liberty under any form of statism requires a keen vigilance. The fact that conscription doesn’t exist today is not any reason to assume it won’t tomorrow. With today’s bellicose, fickle, frankly schizophrenic foreign policy establishment, surprises should be hard to come by.

Time and again, we’ve witnessed uncross-able lines crossed; unbreakable promises broken; the single nation in human history championed as a truly limited, peaceful republic, now a bloodthirsty monster tearing across the globe, armed with the most terrifying arsenal of physical destruction ever known to mankind.

In truth, America’s short-lived experiment with peace and liberty is over. That quaint idea was long ago replaced by the doctrine of “full spectrum dominance,” or “benevolent global hegemony.” It’s high time we acknowledge that and start acting accordingly.

I close with a quotation, from the same 1979 essay referenced above, from the late, great Murray N. Rothbard, joyously ushering in a New Resistance to that Old Menace of conscription:

It is ours to take the lead in combating the slavery and murder of conscription. We are going to do so. We are going to lead the nation’s youth into a mighty struggle against the draft and against the pro-war foreign policy that sustains it. The powers that be have been smugly congratulating themselves that today’s generation of youth is indifferent and apathetic. They shall see how apathetic the New Resistance will be. They shall rue the day they ever provoked it into being.


If you enjoyed Will’s writing, you can find him at his blog, The Market Radical