of the People to Bear Arms.
President Johnson has issued a very strange order, "disbanding and suppressing" the volunteer military organizations in the District of Columbia. This order is directed to General Grant, and is as follows:--
"I am reliably advised that there are within the District of Columbia a number of armed organizations, formed without authority of law, and for purposes which have not been communicated to the Government. Being at the present time unnecessary for the preservation of order or the protection of the civil authority, they have excited serious apprehensions as to their real design. You will, therefore, take official steps for promptly disbanding and suppressing all such illegal organizations."
This order is dated last Monday, the 4th instant, and applies to all armed military organizations, whether composed of negroes or white men. General Grant reports that besides the companies composed of colored men, there are four companies of white citizens whose organizations are likewise unauthorized. The order was transmitted, it seems, by General Grant to General Emory, the officer immediately in command in Washington, and he at once called attention to the fact that, the District being no longer under martial law, he did not see by what authority such an order could be carried into effect. This endorsement of General Emory was referred to the President, and there, for the present, the matter rests.
It is surely somewhat of a strange spectacle, yet a hopeful one, in this country, when a subordinate military officer hesitates to execute an order of the President, on the avowed ground of its commanding him to do an unlawful act. Yet General Emory is undoubtedly right. The President has no more authority to "disband and suppress" a volunteer military organization in the District of Columbia, than he would have to do so in the State of Pennsylvania. Such organizations require no sanction of law. They have existed all over this country ever since the formation of the Government. They are guaranteed by the express language of the Constitution, which provides that "the right of the people to keep and bear arms shall not be infringed." The people have thus an irreversible guarantee of the Constitution that they may keep and bear arms. That their voluntary organization as companies is illegal is absurd. People have as good a right to organize military companies as they have to organize base-ball clubs, or cricket clubs, or chess clubs, or any other kind of voluntary organizations. The President has just as muoh right to command General Grant to "disband and suppress" the base ball clubs of this city, as he has to command him to disband and suppress the volunteer military companies in Washington.
The language of this order smacks too much of French or Austrian absolutism to be tolerated by American citizens. It says these military organizations in the District of Columbia have been formed "for purposes which have not been communicated to the Government" as though citizens could not exercise their common constitutional rights without first communicating their "purposes" to the Government! This might do for France; it will not answer for the United States.
General Emory has done well to hesitate in executing this unlawful order. No command of a superior can authorize a military officer to commit an illegal act. Officers of the army are citizens, and are amenable to the laws as are other citizens. The peaceful meeting of a volunteer military company for purposes of drill, recreation, exercise, or what not, is a lawful assemblage, and the officer who should attempt to disperse it would himself be guilty of a breach of the peace, and responsible for whatever might occur.
We trust that none of the Washington companies will pay the least attention to this order. It is a totally unlawful one. The President has no more right to issue it than has the humblest citizen in the country. This order is only one of too many instances in which the President has attempted to exercise unlawful powers. Ever since he came to the Presidential chair he has not been satisfied to be simply and merely what the Constitution makes him the Executive but has been constantly exercising powers outside of his office. His own will not the laws of the land has been his rule of action. This latest manifestation of his habitual purpose refers, it is true, only to a few obscure military companies in the District of Columbia, but it is as flagrant a breach of the Constitution as would be an order to General Meade to disband and suppress the Legislature of the State of Pennsylvania. And it is one of the alarming features of the times, that these illegal and usurping acts of the President make apparently so little impression on the public mind. None of our earlier Presidents would have dared to venture on them.
- The Evening Telegraph, Philadelphia, Monday, November 11, 1867. Vol. VIII.--No.114. Pg. 4.