Conscription in the U.S.

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Military Conscription, or the draft, has been a factor in most of the major U.S. wars since the colonial era. The U.S. also instituted a peacetime draft between 1940-41 and 1948-1973. Congress suspended the draft in 1973 but all men over the age of 18 are still required to register. The U.S. Congress has never considered the conscription of women.

Colonial and Early National Periods

Colonial militia laws--and after independence those of the United States and the various states--required able-bodied males to enroll in the militia, to undergo a minimum of military training, and to serve for limited periods of time in war or emergency. This earliest form of conscription involved selective drafts of militiamen for service in particular campaigns. Following this system in its essentials, the Continental Congress in 1778 recommended that the states draft men from their militias for one year's service in the Continental army; this first national conscription was irregularly applied and failed to fill the Continental ranks. In 1814, President James Madison proposed conscription of 40,000 men for the army, but the War of 1812 ended before Congress took any action.

Civil War

Although both North and South resorted to conscription during the Civil War, in neither nation did the system work effectively. The Confederate congress on Apr. 16, 1862, passed an act requiring military service for three years from all males aged eighteen to thirty-five not legally exempt, and it later extended the obligation. The U.S. Congress followed on July 17, 1862, with an act authorizing a militia draft within a state when it could not meet its quota with volunteers. This state-administered system failed in practice and on Mar. 3, 1863, Congress passed the first genuine national conscription law, setting up under the Union army an elaborate machinery for enrolling and drafting men between twenty and forty-five years of age. Quotas were assigned in each state, the deficiencies in volunteers to be met by conscription. But men drafted could provide substitutes or, until mid-1864, avoid service by paying commutation money. Many eligibles pooled their money to cover the cost of anyone drafted. Families used the substitute provision to select which man should go into the army and which should stay home. There was much evasion and overt resistance to the draft, especially in Catholic areas. The great draft riot in New York City in July 1863 involved Irish men who had been signed up as citizens to swell the machine vote, not realizing it made them liable for the draft. Of the 168,649 men procured for the Union through the draft, 117,986 were substitutes, leaving only 50,663 who had their personal services conscripted.

The problem of Confederate desertion was aggravated by the inequitable inclinations of conscription officers and local judges. The three conscription acts of the Confederacy exempted certain categories, most notably the planter class, and enrolling officers and local judges often practiced favoritism, sometimes accepting bribes. Attempts to effectively deal with the issue were frustrated by conflict between state and local governments on the one hand and the national government of the Confederacy.[1]

World War I

In 1917 the administration of Woodrow Wilson decided to rely primarily on conscription, rather than voluntary enlistment, to raise military manpower for World War I. An important motivation was to head off ex-president Theodore Roosevelt who proposed to raise volunteer division, which would upstage Wilson. The Selective Service Act of May 18, 1917, was carefully drawn to remedy the defects in the Civil War system and--by allowing exemptions for dependency, essential occupations, and religious scruples--to place each man in his proper niche in a national war effort. The act established a "liability for military service of all male citizens"; authorized a selective draft of all those between twenty-one and thirty-one years of age (later from eighteen to forty-five); and prohibited all forms of bounties, substitutions, or purchase of exemptions. Administration was entrusted to local boards composed of leading civilians in each community. These boards issued draft calls in order of numbers drawn in a national lottery and determined exemptions. In 1917 and 1918 some 24 million men were registered and nearly 3 million inducted into the military services, with little of the resistance that characterized the Civil War.[2]

The draft was for men only and included blacks on the same terms as whites (although all branches of the services practiced racial segregation and the officer corps of all branches and the entire Marine Corps were white only). In all 367,710 blacks were drafted (13.0% of the total number of drafted men) compared to 2,442,586 whites (86.9%). Keith (2000) discusses the reasons behind Southern farmers' resistance to the draft. Along with a general opposition to American involvement in a foreign conflict, Southern farmers objected to unfair conscription practices that exempted members of the upper class and industrial workers. Draft boards were localized and based their decisions on social class: the poorest were the most often conscripted because they were considered the most expendable at home. African Americans in particular were often disproportionately drafted, though they generally were conscripted as laborers and rarely assigned to combat units in order to avoid the tensions that would arise from mixing races in military units. Forms of draft resistance ranged from peaceful protest to violent demonstrations and from humble letter-writing campaigns asking for mercy to radical newspapers demanding reform. The most common tactics were dodging and desertion, and many communities sheltered and defended their draft dodgers as political heroes.

Ford (1997) shows that nearly half a million immigrants were drafted, forcing the military to develop training procedures that took ethnic differences into account. Military leaders invited Progressive reformers and ethnic group leaders to assist in formulating new military policies. The military attempted to socialize and Americanize young immigrant recruits, not by forcing "anglo-conformity," but by showing remarkable sensitivity and respect for ethnic values and traditions and a concern for the morale of immigrant troops. Sports activities, keeping immigrant groups together, newspapers in various languages, the assistance of bilingual officers, and ethnic entertainment programs were all employed.

World War II

The World War I system served as a model for that of World War II. The Selective Service and Training Act of Sept. 14, 1940, instituted national conscription in peacetime, requiring registration of all men between twenty-one and forty-five, with selection for one year's service by a national lottery. The term of service was extended by one year in August 1941. After Pearl Harbor the Selective Service Act was further amended (December 19, 1941), extending the term of service to the duration of the war and six months and requiring the registration of all men eighteen to sixty-four years of age. In the massive draft of World War II, 50 million men from eighteen to forty-five were registered, 36 million classified, and 10 million inducted. The World War II draft expired in March 1947, but conscription was revived in 1948 and for more than two decades of intermittent peace and limited war became an established American institution. The Universal Military Training and Service Act of 1951 theoretically placed a military obligation on all men between the ages of eighteen and a half and twenty-six for a total of eight years of combined active and reserve military duty. The act was extended and variously amended at four-year intervals--in 1955, 1959, 1963, and 1967--and provided options of various types of reserve service for the basic two years of active duty required of those conscripted. In actual practice only enough draftees were called each year to fill military ranks (primarily the army) to their allotted strengths when not enough men volunteered, and thus, many physically fit youths escaped service altogether. Various deferments for educational and other reasons were provided for, as well as exemptions that were subject to some abuse. Opposition to operations of the Selective Service System was a central feature of the movement against the Vietnam War. With Congress and the public increasingly critical, the draft law was renewed for only two years in 1971. Meanwhile, President Richard M. Nixon in 1969 restored the system of selection by lottery. In June 1973, with congressional consent, he ended the draft entirely and reverted to the all-volunteer forces of pre-World War II America.


  • Jack F. Leach, Conscription in the United States: Historical Background. (Rutland, Vt., 1952)

American Revolution

  • Dougherty, Keith L. Collective Action under the Articles of Confederation. Cambridge U. Press, 2001. 211 pp.

Civil War

  • Bernstein, Iver. The New York City Draft Riots: Their Significance for American Society and Politics in the Age of the Civil War (1990). online edition
  • Cruz,Barbara C. and Jennifer Marques Patterson. "'In the Midst of Strange and Terrible Times': The New York City Draft Riots of 1863. Social Education. v. 69#1 2005. pp 10+, with teacher's guide and URL's. online version
  • Geary, James W. We Need Men: The Union Draft in the Civil War (1991) 264pp
  • Geary, James W. "Civil War Conscription in the North: A Historiographical Review," Civil War History 32 (1986): 208-28,
  • Hilderman, Walter C., III. They Went into the Fight Cheering! Confederate Conscription in North Carolina. Boone, N.C.: Parkway, 2005. 272 pp.
  • Hyman, Harold M. A More Perfect Union: The Impact of the Civil War and Reconstruction on the Constitution. (1973), ch 13. online edition
  • Levine, Peter. "Draft Evasion in the North during the Civil War, 1863-1865," Journal of American History 67 (1981): 816-34 online edition
  • Albert Burton Moore. Conscription and Conflict in the Confederacy 1924 online edition
  • Eugene C. Murdock, One Million Men: The Civil War Draft in the North (1971).
  • Kenneth H. Wheeler. "Local Autonomy and Civil War Draft Resistance: Holmes County, Ohio." Civil War History. v.45#2 1999. pp 147+ online edition

World War I

  • John Whiteclay Chambers II, To Raise an Army: The Draft Comes to Modern America (1987), comprehensive look at the national level.
  • Ford, Nancy Gentile. "'Mindful of the Traditions of His Race': Dual Identity and Foreign-born Soldiers in the First World War American Army." Journal of American Ethnic History 1997 16(2): 35-57. Issn: 0278-5927 Fulltext: in Ebsco
  • K. Walter Hickel. "'Justice and the Highest Kind of Equality Require Discrimination': Citizenship, Dependency, and Conscription in the South, 1917-1919." Journal of Southern History. v. 66#4 2000. pp 749+ online version
  • Keith, Jeanette. "The Politics of Southern Draft Resistance, 1917-1918: Class, Race, and Conscription in the Rural South." Journal of American History 2000 87(4): 1335-1361. Issn: 0021-8723 Fulltext: in Jstor and Ebsco
  • Jeanette Keith. Rich Man's War, Poor Man's Fight: Race, Class, and Power in the Rural South during the First World War. 2004. 260pp.
  • David M. Kennedy. Over Here: The First Worm War and American Society (1980), ch 3 online edition
  • Gerald E. Shenk, "Race, Manhood, and Manpower: Mobilizing Rural Georgia for World War I," Georgia Historical Quarterly, 81 (Fall 1997), 622-62
  • C. Vann Woodward, Tom Watson, Agrarian Rebel (1938), pp 451-63.
  • Sieger, Susan. "She Didn't Raise Her Boy to Be a Slacker: Motherhood, Conscription, and the Culture of the First World War." Feminist Studies. v.22#1 1996. pp 7+ online edition

World War II

  • Flynn, George Q. The Draft, 1940-1973. Lawrence: University Press of Kansas, 1993; the standard history
  • Clifford J. Garry, and Samuel R. Spencer Jr. The First Peacetime Draft. 1986.
  • Rachel Waltner Goossen; Women against the Good War: Conscientious Objection and Gender on the American Home Front, 1941-1947 1997 online edition
  • Robert Westbrook, "'I Want a Girl Just Like the Girl That Married Harry James': American Women and the Problem of Political Obligation in WWII," American Quarterly 42 (December 1990 ): 587-614; online in JSTOR

Cold War

  • Flynn, George Q. The Draft, 1940-1973. Lawrence: University Press of Kansas, 1993; the standard history


  • Warner, John T. and Beth J. Asch. "The Record and Prospects of the All-volunteer Military in the United States." Journal of Economic Perspectives 2001 15(2): 169-192. Issn: 0895-3309 Fulltext: in Jstor and Ebsco
  • Evan M. Wooten; "Banging on the Backdoor Draft: The Constitutional Validity of Stop-Loss in the Military," William and Mary Law Review, Vol. 47, 2005 online version

Primary sources

  • John Whiteclay Chambers II, ed. Draftees or Volunteers: A Documentary History of the Debate over Military Conscription in the United States, 1787-1973, (1975)

International Perpectives

  • Flynn, George Q. "Conscription and Equity in Western Democracies, 1940-75." Journal of Contemporary History 1998 33(1): 5-20. Issn: 0022-0094 Fulltext: in Jstor and Ebsco
  • Flynn, George Q. Conscription and Democracy: The Draft in France, Great Britain, and the United States. Greenwood, 2001. 303 pp.
  • Levi, Margaret. "The Institution of Conscription." Social Science History 1996 20(1): 133-167. Issn: 0145-5532 Fulltext: in Swetswise and Jstor; looks at WW1 in different countries
  • Levi, Margaret. Consent, Dissent, and Patriotism (1997) looks at citizens' responses to military conscription in several democracies since the French Revolution
  • Lars Mjoset and Stephen Van Holde, eds. The Comparative Study of Conscription in the Armed Forces. Amsterdam, JAI Press/Elsevier Science Ltd., 2002, 424 pages.
  • Stevenson, Michael D. Canada's Greatest Wartime Muddle: National Selective Service and the Mobilization of Human Resouces during World War II. McGill-Queen's U. Press, 2001. 235 pp.


  1. Moore 1924
  2. Chambers (1987)