Martial Law

A circumstance where the government imposes direct military control, in place of ordinary civil control, over a country or a part of a country

What is Martial Law?

Martial law refers to a circumstance where the government imposes direct military control, in place of ordinary civil control, over a country or a portion of a country. The latter circumstance is much more common, as martial law is rarely imposed over a whole country – although it does sometimes occur in undeveloped nations or countries that are ruled by a communist government or dictator.

Martial Law

When martial law is declared, civil liberties and ordinary legal procedures are often suspended or severely restricted. An example is the imposition of curfews limiting when citizens can freely move about within the area controlled by martial law.

The purpose of imposing martial law is to restore order and/or preserve the current government of a country. Citizens who defy martial law may be subject to trial in a military court rather than the usual civil or criminal courts.


  • Martial law refers to the imposition of military rule in place of the usual civilian authorities.
  • The imposition of martial law may either be a positive step to restore order or negative action to suppress dissent.
  • Martial law was imposed on a limited basis throughout the history of the United States.

Reasons for the Imposition of Martial Law

Martial law may be imposed by the leader or government of a country for several reasons. It may be used to handle protests, rebellions, or possible revolution. It may also be imposed when there is widespread chaos due to natural disasters, such as a hurricane or tornado.

However, in such instances, it is much more common to simply operate under the protocols of a civil emergency rather than declaring martial law.

Martial law may be viewed positively or negatively depending on the circumstances to which it is applied. When martial law is imposed in a totalitarian nation to quell protests or civil unrest, it is usually viewed negatively by the rest of the world.

However, martial law may be viewed positively when it is imposed simply to maintain law and order – as used in the United States during the Civil Rights movement of the 1960s.

International Examples

Two prime examples of the use of martial law occurred in Germany and Japan following the end of World War II. The governments in the two countries collapsed as a result of losing the war. Also, much of the infrastructure of the countries were destroyed by bombings, and tens of thousands of people were left homeless.

There was widespread starvation, and civilian and social authorities that could provide services to the citizenry collapsed. For such reasons, the occupying countries in Germany and the U.S., aided by the British Commonwealth, imposed martial law in Japan.

Although martial law was imposed by what were essentially occupying nations, it was generally viewed as a positive step both within and outside of the occupied countries. It was because the purpose of the imposition of martial law was primarily to restore order. It was intended to aid the suffering civilian populations of Germany and Japan and to repair and replace destroyed infrastructure. In short, the use of martial law was seen more as humanitarian, rather than a repressive effort.

Examples of Martial Law in the United States

Martial law was imposed in various areas of the United States, dating back as far as the Whiskey Rebellion in 1792. The most widespread imposition of martial law came following the Civil War, during the period called Reconstruction, which lasted approximately from 1865 to 1877.

Like Germany and Japan in the preceding examples, much of South was in utter chaos following the end of the Civil War. Not only had much of the area’s infrastructure – such as railroads – was destroyed, but whole major cities were destroyed as well, along with entire areas of farmland.

The reasons for the imposition of martial law in various areas of the South varied greatly. It was partly imposed to help rebuild and restore the Southern economy. It was also used to protect the safety and rights of newly-freed slaves, who faced backlash in many areas.

Support for both Reconstruction and martial law in the South faded by the mid-1870s, partially because of the cost and partly because of Democrats taking control of Congress. By 1877, the U.S. military was withdrawn from all the Southern states.

During the 1960s Civil Rights movement, martial law was declared by the Alabama governor to combat the movement and by the federal government to support the movement and enforce federal law.

Between the Civil War and the beginning of World War II, several court decisions restricted the future use of martial law in the United States. In addition, following Reconstruction, the U.S. Congress passed legislation prohibiting the use of martial law for law enforcement without the approval of the legislative branch.

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