Well regulated currency
The ordinariness of “well regulated” in eighteenth-century America
The following is a quick, representative list of American newspapers before and after the Revolutionary War explicitly recommending, or reminding of the need for, a “well regulated currency”:
- New England Weekly Journal (Boston, Mass.) February 4, 1734. Issue CCCLVIII, page 1. “Money well regulated and established is the measure of all other things.”
- Boston Gazette, or Weekly Journal. June 4, 1751. Issue 1629, page 1. A “fixed invariable currency” is linked to “well regulated” trade.
- Boston Evening Post. January 4, 1762. Issue 1375, page 2. Brief historical argument says a well-regulated currency was one of the goals of the court (American) since 1650. The same piece goes on to say, pointedly, that “they were under no great fears of offending the government in England” in so moving.
- The New-London (Connecticut) Gazette. March 8, 1771. Vol. VIII, issue 382, page 1. A well regulated currency is contrasted to the evils of counterfeit.
- The Providence (Rhode Island) Gazette and Country Journal. August 25, 1787. Vol. XXIV, issue 1234, page 2. Also contrasts well regulated currency with counterfeit.
- New York Daily Advertiser. March 19, 1819. Vol. II, issue 601, page 2. Declaims on “well regulated currency,” brings in “Asiatic countries.”
- Richmond (Virginia) Enquirer. December 5, 1833. Vol. XXX, issue 61, page 2. Importance of a safe and well regulated currency.
- Richmond Enquirer. Dec. 27, 1833. Vol. XXX, issue 70, page 4. Same.
It is in this light that the words of the Second Amendment should be read: “A well regulated militia, being necessary to the security of a free state . . .” The founders knew that an ersatz, inconsistent, unregulated version of money would destroy a nation’s economy.
There should be little surprise here: Currency aside, a quick search of American newspapers around the time of the Revolutionary War shows the wide popularity of the term “well regulated.” Far from being archival or fine print, the phrase was as ubiquitous in the federal period as it is lacking in the public discourse of our time. It was as emphasized in the American states of the eighteenth century as it is submerged today. To call something well regulated–commerce, currency, a militia–was praise, but it was more than merely praise; it was a much-used trope, a common-sense reminder, an exhortation that such-and-such was needed in order to bring us to that fundamental equilibrium, that bedrock stability and protection of being well regulated.
Probably the praise was bestowed more often than it was deserved; a real estate advertisement in a couple of 1763 New York papers mentions a nearby “well regulated” tannery, and other real estate listings refer to farms and other property as well regulated. “A well regulated theatre” justified either the existence of playhouses or some types of control of same in newspapers from Charleston, S. C., to Boston, in the 1780’s and 1790’s. But it was over-bestowed because it was high praise. Thus one prominent preacher was eulogized as having a “well regulated zeal” for the Deity, among other virtues.
It would be oversimplification to read this as a convenient top-down invitation to knuckle under. For one thing, the emphasis was on voluntary virtue, not regulation by others; on social self-restraint as a recognition of an ancient and rational distinction of meum and tuum linking individuals in a just society, not setting one against everyone else.
For another thing, it was often used in pre-Revolutionary reminders to the English king. Thus we get pointed mentions of “a well regulated monarchy” in The Providence Gazette of Nov. 1, 1766; “a well regulated state” in the Aug. 24, 1767, Boston Gazette; and “well regulated laws” in the Oct. 30, 1767, Connecticut Journal. These are bottom-up, not top-down. The reminders do not tend to get less forceful as 1776 draws nearer. References to “a well regulated state” in Boston papers of January 1773 oppose the well regulated to tyrannous acts. The Connecticut Journal, again, of Feb. 4, 1774, opposes “a well regulated society” to favoritism (by the English government) that results in “impunity” for serious offenders. The New London, Conn., Gazette of March 31, 1775, opposes “a well regulated city” to martial law (and quartering of troops). The common denominator here is the distinction between tyranny and the well regulated. Being well regulated is not the hallmark of tyranny; quite the contrary.
As with ‘well regulated’ theaters, schools, cities, states, societies, currency, commerce, emotions, and even thermometers, militias were also frequently referred to as “well regulated” in the argot of the time.
Not that they started that way. The earliest mentions of ‘militia’ in American newspapers occurred in 1704, never in conjunction with ‘well regulated’ or any other kind of ‘regulated’. But then they were all foreign. The ten references to a militia in 1704–when apparently the word became fashionable in reporting–all pertain to armed forces deployed in service to the crowned heads of Europe. None are colonial forces in the New World. As those bruisers at the Oxford English Dictionary remind us, the very term militia in the modern sense was relatively new in the eighteenth century. Its modern meaning was codified in a dictionary, Phillips’s New World of Words, only in 1706:
“Militia, a certain Number of the Inhabitants of the City and Country formed into Regular Bodies, and train’d up in the Art of War, for the Defence and Security of the Kingdom.”
This sense of the term remained constant up through the time of Adam Smith, in his famous Inquiry into the Wealth of Nations in 1776:
“It [the state] may . . . oblige either all the citizens of the military age, or a certain number of them, to join in some measure the trade of a soldier to whatever other trade or profession they may happen to carry on… Its military force is [then] said to consist in a militia.” (II. v. i. 300, quoted in O.E.D.)
After the term militia came into vogue, the term well regulated militia got to be thick on the ground in American print. Only partly was it a defense and justification, to the English governors, for having local troops. It was more an accurate reflection of the way sensible, self-directed people in the American Colonies would have felt, from early on, about an unregulated assortment of pseudo-soldiers, the mentally ill or drunk, or self-promoting chiselers, armed to the teeth with military-style hardware.