The Militia and Civic Community in Colonial New Brunswick: Part I, 1786-1816

Service militaire, citoyenneté et culture politique : études des milices au Canada atlantique

Nous vous présentons le premier texte d’une série de contributions qui seront publiées au cours des prochaines années par des membres d’un nouveau groupe de recherche en histoire des milices au Canada atlantique. Réuni autour d’un projet de recherche subventionné par le Conseil de recherche en sciences humaines du Canada, le groupe souhaite approfondir nos connaissances sur les apports pluriels des milices en temps de guerre et de paix, de l’époque coloniale à nos jours. Largement négligés de la production historiographique, les milices et les débats entourant leurs activités, formes et mobilisations n’ont pas pour le moins été déterminants à l’édification du Canada et à l’histoire de l’Amérique du Nord. Nonobstant cette lacune, le Canada atlantique, par sa mosaïque de communautés culturelles – Autochtones, Acadiens, Irlandais, etc. – et la diversité de son aménagement territorial – tant rural qu’urbain – constitue un laboratoire stimulant pour étudier les milices à partir d’un ensemble de perspectives. Tablant sur ces avantages, les membres du groupe de recherche se sont engagés à collaborer de façon régulière aux blogues d’Acadiensis et de Borealia. Qu’il s’agisse de billets, de notes de recherche, de commentaires de document ou d’articles de fond, les membres du groupe feront ainsi périodiquement part de leurs travaux et réflexions sur ces plateformes. N’hésitez pas à joindre Gregory Kennedy, directeur scientifique de l’Institut d’études acadiennes de l’Université de Moncton, pour toute question concernant le projet à

Contribution produite dans le cadre du projet « Service militaire, citoyenneté et culture politique : études des milices au Canada atlantique ».

Military Service, Citizenship and Political Culture: Militia Studies in Atlantic Canada

This is the first text in a series of contributions to be published over the coming years by members of a new research group on militia history in Atlantic Canada. Assembled through a research project funded by the Social Sciences and Humanities Council of Canada, the group wishes to broaden our knowledge on the many contributions of the militia in times of war and peace, from colonial times to the present. Widely overlooked in the historiography, militias and the debates surrounding their activities, forms and mobilizations were decisive in the shaping of Canada and North American history. Notwithstanding this gap, Atlantic Canada, with its mosaic of cultural communities – First Nations, Acadians, Irish, etc. – and the diversity of its territorial planning – both rural and urban – constitutes a stimulating laboratory for studying the militia from different perspectives. Building on these advantages, members of the research group have committed themselves to collaborating regularly on Acadiensis and Borealia blogs. Whether it be short essay, research notes, document commentary or traditional articles, group members will periodically share their work and thoughts on these platforms. Any questions about the project can be sent to Gregory Kennedy, Research Director of the Acadian Studies Institute at the Université de Moncton at

Contribution produced within the framework of the project “Military Service, Citizenship, and Political Culture: Studies of Militias in Atlantic Canada”.

The Militia and Civic Community in Colonial New Brunswick: Part I, 1786-1816

Elizabeth Mancke and Abbie MacPherson

No provincial institution in pre-Confederation British North America brought more people under its purview as did militias, notwithstanding exclusions, most particularly older men, women, and children.[1] A provincial militia was more inclusive than religion or ethnicity, more comprehensive than the political community defined by the franchise. Men who could not vote still mustered for militia training. Denominational adversaries marched together for militia training but would not share a church pew. Linguistic antagonists and racialized peoples found common cause in a militia regiment. For these reasons, militias were more important for defining and shaping the civic culture of pre-Confederation British North America than we have appreciated.

This short essay reflects on the militia and civic society in early New Brunswick through a preliminary analysis of militia legislation from 1786 to 1816, which was surprisingly expressive of civic values. In its first thirty years, the assembly passed nine successive militia laws, and a further six amending bills. In the first eight, the assembly shrewdly included sunset clauses, initially five years for peacetime legislation (1787, 1792, and 1802), and “during the present war, and no longer,” for the first two wartime militia laws (1794 and 1805).[2] Through sunset clauses, the assembly committed itself to regularly review and renew provincial militia policies, as well as ensure that the militia remained a provincial rather than imperial institution. Indeed, during the Napoleonic Wars, the New Brunswick assembly resisted metropolitan British attempts to bring colonial militias under imperial military authority.[3] The assembly also limited the governor’s fiscal discretion over militia officers by setting compensation caps for adjutants, who the governor paid.[4] In its frequent renewals and revisions, the assembly also modified terms of inclusion, thus offering periodic glimpses into New Brunswickers’ understandings of the intersection of military preparedness and civic obligations.

Header from the opening page of Acts of the General Assembly of His Majesty’s Province of New-Brunswick passed in the year 1787 (Saint John, NB: J. Ryan, 1787), 136.

During its second sitting in 1787, the assembly enacted the first militia law, “An Act for establishing a Militia, in the Province of New-Brunswick, and for regulating the same.” It called for “every person residing within this province, from sixteen to fifty years of age … [to] inlist himself with the Captain … in the town or parish, or of the regimental company of foot where he dwells.” In times of “alarm, invasion, insurrection or rebellion,” men between fifty and sixty were also to “appear under arms.” The term “person” meant only men, as reflected in the use of the pronoun “himself”; women did not serve in militias, at least not with the knowledge of officers, although they surely played crucial roles as auxiliaries, supplying support during training, maintaining the upkeep of uniforms, and maintaining households when men were away on duty. If someone’s age was questioned – for either being under or over the age range – they (along with a parent or witness) were to swear an oath, provided in the legislation, to the local militia captain that they were the age they claimed to be: “I do swear, upon the Holy Evangelist of Almighty God, that                  summoned before Captain                 in order to be inlisted, is ____ years old, and no more according to the best of my knowledge. So help me God.”[5]

The 1787 legislation had an expiration date of March 1, 1792, so when the assembly met in January 1792, it prepared a new militia bill, incorporating and editing parts of the 1787 act. It changed “person” to “male inhabitant” and removed the emergency reserve of men between the ages of fifty and sixty.[6] Although the 1792 legislation had a five-year sunset clause, the outbreak of the French Revolutionary War (1792-1802) and Britain’s entry into it in late 1792 prompted the assembly to enact wartime militia legislation when it next met in January 1794.[7] As the new law’s preamble noted, “in times of imminent danger either by invasion or sudden attack,” the militia might be “ordered into active service” and “the law now in force is inadequate.”[8]

From the Frontispiece of Journal of the Votes and Proceedings of the House of Assembly of the Province of New-Brunswick. Brookville, NB: Christopher Sower, Printer, 1794.

The 1794 law distinguished militia service by race and from then until 1813 wartime militia legislation did the same (1794, 1805, 1808, 1810, and 1813), while peacetime legislation did not (1787, 1792, and 1802). The wartime militia legislation required “every male white inhabitant or resident . . . from sixteen to sixty years of age” to enlist, both expanding the age range of men who must enlist and specifying whites, while the 1792 and 1802 peacetime legislation only required “every male Inhabitant” to serve. The wartime inclusion of the qualifier “resident” suggests all able-bodied men, permanent inhabitants and sojourners residing in the province, had to be prepared to protect the colony.[9] The 1794 legislation required that “all the Free-male-blacks or People of Colour between sixteen and fifty years of age, [are] to be formed into companies, as nearly as may be, of the same strength with the regimented companies in the country.” In the 1805 and 1808 legislation, the hyphens modifying Blacks were removed to indicate that free applied to both “Blacks and people of Colour.” These references to “free male Blacks and people of Colour” in the 1794, 1805, and 1808 militia legislation are the only known instances in New Brunswick’s statute law that imply, but do not explicitly state, that slavery existed in the province. There would be no need to qualify “male Blacks and people of Colour” with the adjective free unless there were unfree or enslaved Blacks in the province.[10] The 1810 legislation referred simply to “all the male Blacks, and people of Colour,” omitting the adjective “free”, as did the 1813 and 1816 legislation.[11] The use of the term “Black” rather than “Negro,” which was more associated with slavery, is worth noting, though its broader significance can only be established as more evidence becomes available. The meaning of “people of Colour” as used by the assembly is also unclear. At the time, it generally referred to people of both African ancestry and European or Indigenous American ancestry. It probably did not refer to a person associated with one of the Indigenous nations in the province.

Evidence of Black inclusion in the militia adds to the fragmented history of Blacks in New Brunswick, and the assembly’s careful use of language and its differentiation of peacetime and wartime militia legislation makes possible further contextualization. In the wartime legislation, the reference to “every male white inhabitant or resident” occurred in either the first or second article, i.e., at the beginning. The reference to “male Blacks or People of Colour” occurred in an article nearer the end and stipulated that they would serve “as pioneers with the Militia,” thus be engaged in construction duties, often near the front and in dangerous positions.[12] This separate article in the legislation served multiple purposes. It unequivocally included “blacks and people of colour” as active members of the civic community. It implicitly recognized racism in the province by specifically including them, and in turn was racist by limiting the involvement of free Blacks to manual labour. By designating their role as pioneers, the legislation not only precluded local officers from excluding Blacks and people of colour, but it also precluded disagreements over whether free Blacks could serve shoulder to shoulder with whites in the New Brunswick militia. The civic role allocated to them in the militia was highly constricted by comparison to the diverse roles that white militia members could hold, but the legislation legally guaranteed Blacks a civic identity.

The centrality of the militia in the civic imagination of late eighteenth- and early nineteenth-century New Brunswickers can be seen in who was exempt from militia duty:

Members of His Majesty’s Council, Members of the Assembly, established Clergymen, and licensed Ministers of the Gospel, all persons exercising Commissions civil or military under His Majesty, Officers on Half-Pay, Supernumerary Militia Officers now in Commission, Officers of His Majesty’s Customs, Revenue and Naval Officers, Physicians and Surgeons, one Miller to each Grist Mill, and one Ferryman to each established Ferry.[13]

Also exempt were members of the Saint John fire department.[14] These different categories of people had professions that dedicated them to the civic community. Until 1810, physicians and surgeons were subject to militia call-ups, but exempt from being “armed and accoutred as is required of persons serving in the Militia.”[15] Quakers were also exempt from militia training and duty, provided they delivered a certificate verifying that they had been of that religious “persuasion” for over one year. Beginning in 1810, Quakers could be subject to a militia “draught’ designed to select men randomly for militia duty. If their name was drawn, Quakers were still exempt from serving, but had to pay for a substitute.[16]

Header on the first page of Acts of the General Assembly of His Majesty’s Province of New-Brunswick passed in the year 1808 (Saint John, NB: Jacob Mott, 1808), 7.

In 1816, the New Brunswick assembly passed a new militia law that incorporated most aspects of the prior wartime practices, even though the peace negotiations for the Napoleonic Wars had concluded in Vienna in 1815, and the Treaty of Ghent ending the War of 1812 with the United States was finalized on Christmas Eve, 1814. New Brunswick militia units had not been overly taxed during those wars, especially not in comparison to the Canadian militias during the War of 1812. As well, the 1816 militia legislation had no sunset clause, unlike all prior militia legislation, suggesting that over the previous three decades, New Brunswickers had become sufficiently comfortable with their understanding of the place of militias within their civic culture that the regular requirements for review built into earlier legislation was no longer necessary.[17]

Throughout the late eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries, New Brunswick’s militia was part of an active conversation about civic obligation and belonging within the province. How the assembly shaped and adjusted boundaries around racial, religious, and ethnic identities in militia legislation reflected shifts in civic culture. For some, the militia represented an important bridge between local and provincial society, while for others it granted a kind of inclusion that expanded the definition of civic status to include others previously deemed to be outside the civic community. Analysis of the New Brunswick militia legislation renders the intersections of the colonial state with race, religion, and gender visible to historians of early Canada, and demonstrates how a British North American settler society developed a distinct colonial response to larger imperial necessities. The New Brunswick assembly’s frequent revisions to its militia laws were indicative of the malleable state of belonging within settler society and provide scholars with tools to gauge the emergence of a distinct provincial civic culture as reflected through expectations of militia service.


Elizabeth Mancke is Professor of History and Canada Research Chair in Atlantic Canada at the University of New Brunswick, and Abbie MacPherson is majoring in Sociology and Gender and Women’s Studies, with a minor in History, at UNB.

[1] Newfoundland is the exception, which did not have a militia.

[2] Quotes from 27 George III Chapter 1, Acts of the General Assembly of His Majesty’s Province of New-Brunswick passed in the year 1787. (Saint John, NB: J. Ryan, 1787,) 136; and 34 George III Chapter 1, Acts of the General Assembly of His Majesty’s Province of New-Brunswick passed in the year 1794 (Brookville: Christopher Sower, 1794), 303. All the legislation is available on the British North America Legislative Database ( We have used the database to access all the legislation, but we are using the page numbers from the original published legislation, also available on the database, for the citations.

[3] Elizabeth Mancke, David Bent, and Mark J. McLaughlin, “‘their unalienable right and privilege’: New Brunswick’s Challenge to the Militarization of the British Empire, 1807-1814,” Acadiensis 46, no. 1 (2017): 61, 67-68.

[4] Each regiment had an appointed adjutant to assist the colonel or commanding officer in maintaining military standards, including “to inspect their arms, ammunition and accoutrements, to superintend their exercise and manoeuvres and introduce a proper system of military discipline,” 34 George III Chapter 1, Article V (1794), 296. The 1794 militia law allowed adjutants to earn up to £20 per year, but the 1805 law set limits by county ranging from £5-£10. See 45 George III Chapter 1, Article V, Acts of the General Assembly of His Majesty’s Province of New-Brunswick passed in the year 1805 (Saint John, NB: John Ryan, 1805), 335-336.

[5] 27 George III Chapter 1 (1787), Article I, 129-130.

[6] 32 George III, Chapter 1, “An Act for continuing the establishment of a Militia and for Regulating the same,” Acts of the General Assembly of His Majesty’s Province of New-Brunswick passed in the year 1792 (Fredericton, NB: Christopher Sower, 1792), 240-243.

[7] The assembly did not convene in 1793.

[8] 34 George III Chapter 1, Preamble (1794), 294.

[9] 34 George III Chapter 1, Article II (1794), 295; and 42 George III Chapter 1, “An Act for Regulating the Militia,” Acts of the General Assembly of His Majesty’s Province of New-Brunswick passed in the year 1802 (Saint John, NB: John Ryan, 1802), 452.

[10] 34 George III Chapter 1, Article XXI (1794), 302; 45 George III, Chapter 1, Article XXI (1805), 343-344; 48 George III Chapter 1, “An Act for the greater securing of this Province by the better regulating the Militia thereof,” Acts of the General Assembly of His Majesty’s Province of New-Brunswick passed in the year 1808 (Saint John, NB: Jacob Mott, 1808), 7. It is unclear if Indigenous people were included under the term “People of Colour,” an issue that deserves further research.

[11] 50 George III Chapter 9, “An Act for better regulating the Militia in this Province,” Acts of the General Assembly of His Majesty’s Province of New-Brunswick passed in the year 1810 (Saint John, NB: Jacob Mott, 1810), 23-39; 53 George III Chapter 1, “An Act for regulating the Militia,” Acts of the General Assembly of His Majesty’s Province of New-Brunswick passed in the year 1813 (Saint John, NB: Jacob Mott, 1813), 3-21; 56 George III Chapter 6, “An Act for the organization and regulation of the Militia of this Province,” Acts of the General Assembly of His Majesty’s Province of New-Brunswick passed in the year 1816 (Fredericton, NB: George K. Lugrin, 1816), 8-24.

[12] 1794—Article 21 of 24; 1805—Article 21 of 24; 1808—Article 32 of 34; 1810—Article 36 of 46; 1813—Article 37 of 51; 1816—Article 37 of 54.

[13] This text is from 50 George III Chapter 9, Article II (1810), 23-24.

[14] See, for example, 26 George III Chapter 47, Article III, “An Act for the better extinguishing Fires that may happen within the City of St John,” Acts of the General Assembly of His Majesty’s Province of New-Brunswick passed in the year 1786 (Saint John, NB: J. Ryan, 1786), 103. This exemption preceded the first militia act in 1787 and was continued in subsequent revisions of legislation for fire control in the Saint John.

[15] 48 George III Chapter 1 (1808), 7.

[16] 50 George III Chapter 9 (1810), 23, 33-34.

[17] 56 George III Chapter 6 (1816), 24.


Featured Image: From the Frontispiece of Journal of the Votes and Proceedings of the House of Assembly of the Province of New-Brunswick (Brookville, NB: Christopher Sower, Printer, 1794).

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