American Culture

A deep dive into the possible meanings of the phrase “well-regulated militia”

There are 21 senses and subsenses of the adverb “well,” not all of which can apply to the phrase “well-regulated militia.” Which ones apply and why?

The Second Amendment (image credit: tenthamendmentcenter.com)

As we learned in a recent Words Matter essay, adverbs modify verbs, adjectives, and other adverbs to make them more specific and, in so doing, restrict the word being modified. And because the adverb restricts the modified word, the restriction necessarily creates a logical opposite – red vs. not-red, big vs. not big, well vs. not-well.

The purpose of that essay was to provide the foundation for this deeper look into the adverb “well.” Especially “well” when it modifies the verb “regulate,” specifically in the context of a “well-regulated militia.”

Per the Merriam-Webster dictionary, there are 21 different senses and subsenses of the adverb “well.” I’ve summarized them below, but by all means review the primary source.

  • 1a: in a good or proper manner – justly, rightly
  • 1b: satisfactorily with respect to conduct or action
  • 2: in a kindly or friendly manner
  • 3a: with skill or aptitude – expertly, excellently
  • 3b: satisfactorily
  • 3c: with good appearance or effect – elegantly
  • 4: with careful or close attention – attentively
  • 5: to a high degree
  • 6: fully, quite
  • 7a: in a way appropriate to the facts or circumstances – fittingly, rightly
  • 7b: in a prudent manner : sensibly —used with do
  • 8: in accordance with the occasion or circumstances – with propriety or good reason
  • 9a: as one could wish – pleasingly
  • 9b: with material success – advantageously
  • 10a: easily, readily
  • 10b: in all likelihood – indeed
  • 11: in a prosperous or affluent manner
  • 12: to an extent approaching completeness – thoroughly
  • 13: without doubt or question – clearly
  • 14: in a familiar manner
  • 15: to a large extent or degree – considerably, far

Let’s rewrite the phrase “well-regulated militia” according to each of the applicable senses of “well” and let’s assume that sense 2 of the word “regulate” (“to bring order, method, or uniformity to”) is the most applicable of the three senses. (To see why this assumption is reasonable, please read “Well-regulated militias and gun control.”)

First, let’s separate out the senses that don’t apply to a militia (although some of them would be quite amusing if they did):

  • 2: A militia that is brought to order, method or uniformity in a friendly or kindly manner
  • 3c: A militia that is brought to order, method or uniformity with good appearance or effect. Or a militia that is elegantly brought to order, method or uniformity.
  • 7a: A militia that is brought to order, method or uniformity in a way appropriate to the facts or circumstances. Or a militia that is brought to order, method or uniformity fittingly. Or a militia that is brought to order, method or uniformity rightly.
  • 7b: A militia that is brought to order, method or uniformity in a prudent manner. Or a militia that is sensibly brought to order, method or uniformity.
  • 9a: A militia that is brought to order, method or uniformity as one could wish.
  • 9b: A militia that is brought to order, method or uniformity with material success. Or a militia that is brought to order, method or uniformity advantageously.
  • 10b: A militia that is indeed brought to order, method or uniformity. Or a militia that is brought to order, method or uniformity in all likelihood.
  • 11: A militia that is indeed brought to order, method or uniformity in a prosperous or affluent manner.
  • 14: A militia that is brought to order, method or uniformity in a familiar manner.

That leaves the following senses that might apply to a militia:

  • 1a: A militia that is brought to order, method, or uniformity in a good or proper manner. Or a militia that is rightly brought to order, method or uniformity. Or a militia that is justly brought to order, method or uniformity.
  • 1b: A militia that is satisfactorily brought to order, method, or uniformity with respect to it’s conduct or action.
  • 3a: A militia that is brought to order, method or uniformity with skill or aptitude. Or a militia that is excellently brought to order, method or uniformity. Or a militia that is expertly brought to order, method or uniformity
  • 3b: A a militia that is brought to order, method or uniformity satisfactorily.
  • 4: A militia that is brought to order, method or uniformity with careful or close attention.
  • 5: A militia that is brought to a high degree of order, method or uniformity.
  • 6: A militia that is brought fully to order, method or uniformity. Or a militia that is quite brought to order, method or uniformity.
  • 8: A militia that is brought to order, method or uniformity in accordance with the occasion or circumstances. Or a militia that is brought to order, method or uniformity with propriety. Or a militia that is brought to order, method or uniformity with good reason.
  • 10a: A militia that is easily brought to order, method or uniformity. Or a militia that is readily brought to order, method or uniformity.
  • 12: A militia that is brought thoroughly to order, method or uniformity. Or a militia that is brought to order, method or uniformity to an extent approaching completeness.
  • 13: A militia that is without doubt or question brought to order, method or uniformity. Or a militia that is clearly brought to order, method or uniformity.
  • 15: A militia that is brought considerably to order, method or uniformity. Or a militia that is brought to order, method or uniformity to a large extent or degree.

We can narrow these 12 senses and subsenses further by noting that several of them would apply to the people who are bringing the militia to order rather than to the militia itself. This applies to senses 1a, 3a, and 4, so we can remove those. Senses 5 and 13 apply to an observer of the militia who concludes that the militia has been brought to order, rather than to the militia itself, and so we can remove those as well. Adding “being necessary to the security of a free state” makes it clear that sense 10a doesn’t work in the greater context of the Second Amendment. And the word “propriety” gives us a clue that sense 8 can be removed as well, as “propriety” in this context means “conformity to what is socially acceptable in conduct or speech.”

This leaves us with five senses that we need to dig into deeper.

  • 1b: A militia that is satisfactorily brought to order, method, or uniformity with respect to it’s conduct or action.
  • 5: A militia that is brought to a high degree of order, method or uniformity.
  • 6: A militia that is brought fully to order, method or uniformity. Or a militia that is quite brought to order, method or uniformity.
  • 12: A militia that is brought thoroughly to order, method or uniformity. Or a militia that is brought to order, method or uniformity to an extent approaching completeness.
  • 15: A militia that is brought considerably to order, method or uniformity. Or a militia that is brought to order, method or uniformity to a large extent or degree.

Any of these five senses could be what is intended by “A well-regulated militia, being necessary for the security of a free state.” None of them have to be the intent, and we can’t further reduce the list without additional information that puts them in context.

That said, four of the five remaining senses relate to the level of order, method, or uniformity to which a militia may be brought. I’ve reordered them from the least to the most amount of order.

  • 15: A militia that is brought considerably to order, method or uniformity. Or a militia that is brought to order, method or uniformity to a large extent or degree.
  • 5: A militia that is brought to a high degree of order, method or uniformity.
  • 12: A militia that is brought thoroughly to order, method or uniformity. Or a militia that is brought to order, method or uniformity to an extent approaching completeness.
  • 6: A militia that is brought fully to order, method or uniformity. Or a militia that is quite brought to order, method or uniformity.

Since the analysis of each of these four uses of “well” will be the same, let’s choose 5 as representative of all four senses:

5: A militia that is brought to a high degree of order, method or uniformity.

What do we know about the militia from this phrase? We know it exists, that it is brought into order, method, or uniformity, and we know that there are at least two degrees to which it can be brought – a high degree or a not-high degree (aka a low degree). We also know that there must be some criteria, defined by someone or something, that differentiates between a high degree of order, method, or uniformity and a not-high degree. That is the black line between the two regions in the Venn diagram above.

Given “well-regulated” can mean at least four different degrees of “wellness,” it’s probably fair to say that these senses of “well” could be combined, at least pictorially in a Venn diagram, by using a fuzzy black line to divide “well-regulated” from “not-well-regulated” instead of a sharp black line. This Venn diagram does that in an attempt to demonstrate the vagueness of the word “well.”

This leaves just one sense to dig into:

1b: A militia that is satisfactorily brought to order, method, or uniformity with respect to it’s conduct or action.

From this phrase, we know that the militia exists, that it is brought to order, method or uniformity, that the method of being brought to order can be done either satisfactorily or unsatisfactorily, and that the characteristics being applied to define that order is the militia’s conduct or action, aka it’s training. And again, we also know that there is some standard, defined by someone or something unknown, for what differentiates between satisfactory and unsatisfactory.

Which of these possible uses of “well-regulated militia” is the correct one? So far as I can tell from my research into the historical definitions of “well-regulated militia,” the historical context points strongly toward 1b. For example, this brief discussion from the Constitution Society uses examples that point to definition 1b, and so does this discussion from the Constitution Center. A more in-depth textual and historical analysis published the conservative American Enterprise Institute suggests again that “well-regulated militia” meant a trained, properly outfitted group of men equipped with “arms.”

So what have we learned through this? We’ve learned that the historical meaning of the phrase “well-regulated militia” most likely means a militia that has been satisfactorily brought to order with respect to it’s conduct. For this definition to be true the militia would have to have a satisfactory degree and uniformity of training, be equipped in an orderly manner, and have some external standard against which to measure what is satisfactory.

We’ll look at who or what sets that standard in an upcoming essay.

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