Martial Law: Definition & History

Instructor: David White
Through this lesson, you will learn what defines martial law, explore some examples of when and where it has been used, and gain an understanding of why it can be a very controversial topic.

What Is Martial Law?

In the United States, citizens are expected to follow the laws and regulations put in place by Congress to ensure a functional society. When they violate these laws, most would expect to have to deal with law enforcement, which is required to prove that a crime had been committed before detaining someone or handing out a punishment. This is a constitutional right of all Americans, which ensures that no person is arrested or punished for something that they did not do. There are, however, examples from the past in which this system has been suspended, and the military assumes absolute control over society. But, how is this fair?

Situations in which the military assumes absolute control over society is known as martial law. In the United States, martial law is prohibited by Article 1 of the U.S. Constitution, which forbids the military from intervening in public affairs, with the exception of a rebellion or situation in which public safety is significantly at risk. Given that, martial law tends to only be declared when the traditional means of maintaining social order are no longer sufficient for keeping the public safe, such as a civilian uprising or a natural disaster.

Martial law is generally used to temporarily regain control and reinstate order. When governments and militaries resort to this tactic, civil rights and personal freedoms are often put on hold. This means that citizens can be forced to adhere to curfews, to stay in their homes, or to follow certain orders from the military that would otherwise be considered a violation of their rights.

Among the most controversial elements of martial law is the suspension of habeas corpus during times of crisis. Habeas corpus is a kind of law that requires law enforcement and the judicial system to clearly demonstrate that there is a reason for a person to be detained, such as proof that a crime has been committed and that the person was involved in the crime. For example, if you were walking down the street and were suddenly taken into police custody for no reason, they would be violating a writ of habeas corpus because they have no valid reason to take you into custody, and do not possess the authority to simply detain you without cause.

Who Uses Martial Law?

Many countries around the world have certain provisions that allow for martial law to be used. For example, during the Irish War of Independence (1919-1921) the British government, who controlled much of Ireland, declared martial law in order to maintain control of Irish citizens. The British used the military to suppress Irish resistance fighters, who they believed were putting the public's safety at risk.

Polish people living under martial law, 1981.
Poland 1981

From 1981-1983, the communist government of Poland appealed to the Soviet Union for the right to impose martial law in the country. Having been given the support needed to do this, the Polish government suspended the rights of citizens, which included arresting journalists who opposed the communist government or who advocated for abandoning communism in Poland.

In the United States, martial law has been used on a number of occasions to restore order or to prevent uprisings. For example, when a collection of civil rights activists, known as the Freedom Riders, traveled to Alabama in 1964 to advocate for racial equality, the state's governor enacted martial law because he believed that the presence of outsiders would cause riots and a mob mentality.

Martial law was used in Alabama to stop the Freedom Riders, 1964.

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