What does "well regulated" mean? Especially in relation to, say, a militia?

Would this definition have been different some years ago - say in 1776?


Well regulated simply means well controlled, and has always done so, at least since late Middle English (around 1450–1550).

ODO on regulate:
• control (something, especially a business activity) by means of rules and regulations

late Middle English (in the sense 'control by rules'): from late Latin regulat- 'directed, regulated', from the verb regulare, from Latin regula 'rule'

An army which is well regulated has rules to govern its conduct, and those rules are enforced.


This definition wouldn't have been different in 1776. Well regulated will surely relate to the codification of the militia. In this case, how well the hierarchy is/was organised.

  • Thank you. The second amendment to the U.S. constitution was adopted in 1791 although there is reference to the term in the Federalist papers. – user32135 Feb 24 '13 at 23:02

Indeed, a definition of regulation as “a rule or directive made and maintained by an authority” (OED) applies here as well.

To put it in historical context, Federalist №29 (Concerning the Militia) was authored by Alexander Hamilton who put forth contra-arguments to those opposed the idea of 2nd Amendment as it was devised. He wrote that “uniformity in the organization and discipline of the militia” was necessary for public defense, and that

This desirable uniformity can only be accomplished by confiding the regulation of the militia to the direction of the national authority.


If a well-regulated militia be the most natural defense of a free country, it ought certainly to be under the regulation and at the disposal of that body which is constituted the guardian of the national security.

That is, federal authority provides the direction (regulation) and resources, and individual states facilitate training and appointment of officers.

To understand how training in discipline tie into the meaning of “well-regulated”, the following passage is helpful:

…going through military exercises and evolutions, as often as might be necessary to acquire the degree of perfection which would entitle them to the character of a well-regulated militia…

Again, regulations are prescribed by authority:

What reasonable cause of apprehension can be inferred from a power in the Union to prescribe regulations for the militia, and to command its services when necessary, while the particular States are to have the SOLE AND EXCLUSIVE APPOINTMENT OF THE OFFICERS?

And “well-regulated” means that those regulations and their implementation are effective so as to make the militia “the only substitute that can be devised for a standing army, and the best possible security against it”.

Another concept, that is related to it, is the definition of standing army as a regular army. As per OED (regular 3.), that is “conforming to or governed by an accepted standard of procedure or convention”, “of or belonging to the permanent professional armed forces of a country”, and “properly trained or qualified and pursuing a full-time occupation”.

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