What is Martial Law?

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After the tri-state area was devastated by Hurricane Sandy, food, gas, and power were in high demand but short supply. In those situations, people get desperate, and they sometimes become violent, throwing not just common courtesy, but also any sense of what it means to be law abiding, out the window. This lack of order usually leads the government to declare what’s known as Martial Law. In the wake of the hurricane, some news outlets reported that parts of New Jersey had been placed under martial law. But what is martial law, and under what conditions is it implemented?

Martial Law: A History

Martial law is defined as “the imposition of Military forces to designated areas in order to regain, maintain, and secure when the civilian (local) government authorities are unable to do so and, in some cases, to enforce government rule.”

A declaration of martial law isn't as rare as you might think. In fact, there are numerous examples throughout America's history. Following the end of the War of 1812, General Andrew Jackson declared martial law in New Orleans until he received official word of the peace settlement that ended the war (New Orleans was also under martial law more recently, following the destruction of Hurricane Katrina). Likewise, San Francisco was placed under martial law after the earthquake of 1906 and during riots at the ports in 1934. Chicago was placed under martial law following the Great Chicago Fire of 1871. President Lincoln declared martial law over the entire country (well, almost) during the Civil War. Coal was the reason martial law had to be declared in Colorado in 1914, and Hawaii was under martial law following the attack on Pearl Harbor in 1941.

On the Front Lines

For the most part, Presidents and politicians have declared martial law and, at the same time, stayed as far away from the anarchy as possible. But there's at least one case of a President getting involved in the fray.

Following the American Revolution, our new government, headed by George Washington, decided to place a tax on whiskey production in order to gain some much needed revenue. This did not sit well with many whiskey producers in Pennsylvania, who had just finished fighting a war partly based on taxes. So they got mad and rioted.

Washington was having none of it. He didn’t declare martial law and send in the troops; he saddled up his horse and led the Army into Pennsylvania himself to put down the Whiskey Rebellion. The sight of him pretty much squashed the rebel cause, and proved that Washington was probably the toughest President of all time.