What is Martial Law? Defining Martial Law

(Last Updated On: April 29, 2019)

What is Martial Law?

What is Martial Law?

Martial law is the imposition of military control over the civilian functions of government. Very simply put, it can be thought of as “military government.” But there is actually a lot more to it than that.

In some countries, military personnel live by a set of rules different from those of civilians. In the United States, for example, active duty members of the military are not eligible for political positions, and military personnel even have regulations regarding how they can participate in civil society. Military personnel in the US cannot march or protest on federal property if they’re active duty. They can do so outside of federal property, just not in uniform. This separation goes so far as the military having its own codified justice system independent of civilians.

Now, the reason we’re laying that foundation is to show you that the military population and civilian population are often seen as very separate entities. The military replacing the government that serves the civilian population inherently violates this separation.

Why Declare Martial Law?

Martial law can be very different from place to place, and the reasons for its installation might also vary. It can be used as a temporary response to an invasion or natural disaster. A government might declare martial law to help enforce their rule over the public. Or it might come during times of war.

Generally speaking, however, martial law brings suspensions of many rights citizens may take for granted. Civil law, civil rights, and even habeas corpus can be taken away from you to varying degrees. You could even be subject to military law, so if you violate instituted martial law as a civilian, you can still be court-martialed.

And just to make sure we’re all on the same page as well, habeas corpus in large is centered around unlawful detainment. Basically, an enforcement agency needs to have a valid reason to have you in their custody, and they have to let you go if the reason isn’t good enough for the courts. This right can be suspended under martial law.

Does Martial Law Mean Military Force?

The simple answer: no, martial law does not always mean military force.

In fact, not every declaration of martial law means there’s a military issue, or violence at all. In 1871 during the Great Chicago Fire, martial law was declared under a state of emergency. It was lifted within a few days, after the fire was put out.

Alabama famously declared martial law on May 24, 1961, amidst fears that an outside group was invading to disrupt their way of life. Who were these outside invaders? The Freedom Riders, a peaceful civil rights group.

History is filled with countless other examples of martial law being imposed. While not always a bad thing, the idea of the military controlling things tends to make people nervous. As such, it tends to only be declared in extreme situations.

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About the Author:

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Kyler is a content writer at Sporcle living in Seattle, and is currently studying at the University of Washington School of Law. He's been writing for Sporcle since 2019; sometimes the blog is an excellent platform to answer random personal questions he has about the world. Most of his free time is spent drinking black coffee like water.