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Compulsory enrollment and induction into the military service. Conscription is commonly known as the draft, but the concepts are not exactly the same. Conscription is the compulsory induction of individuals into the Armed Services, whereas the draft is the procedure by which individuals are chosen for conscription. Men within a certain age group must register with the Selective Service for possible conscription, but conscription itself was suspended in 1973.

Conscription first came into use as a legal term in France in 1798. It derives from the Latin conscriptionem, which refers to the gathering of troops by written orders, and conscribere, which means "to put a name on a list or roll, especially a list of soldiers." A person who becomes a member of the armed forces through the process of conscription is called a conscript.

Conscription typically involves individuals who are deemed fit for military service. At times, however, governments have instituted universal military service, in which all men or all people of a certain age are conscripted.

Most governments use conscription at some time, usually when the voluntary enlistment of soldiers fails to meet military needs. Conscription by national governments became widespread in Europe during the nineteenth century.

Some of the American colonies employed conscription. During the Revolutionary War, the American government used selective, temporary conscription to fill the ranks of its military.

The United States used conscription again briefly during the Civil War. The Union Enrollment Act of 1863 drafted all able-bodied men between twenty and forty-five years of age. The act provoked a hostile public response because it excused from military service those who were able to pay a fee of three hundred dollars. The law incited violent public disturbances, called the Draft Riots, in New York City between July 13 and 16, 1863. One thousand people were injured in the riots.

In 1917, one month after the entry of the United States into World War I, Congress passed the Selective Draft Act (40 Stat. 76). The act created a government office to oversee conscription. It also authorized local draft boards to select eligible individuals for conscription. The following year, the Supreme Court upheld the constitutionality of conscription, noting that Article I of the Constitution gives Congress the power to "raise and support Armies" (Selective Draft cases, 245 U.S. 366, 38 S. Ct. 159, 62 L. Ed. 349 [1918]).

Congress instituted the first peacetime use of conscription in 1940 when it passed the Selective Training and Service Act (54 Stat. 885). This act, which expired in 1947, enrolled those who served in U.S. armed forces during World War II. In 1948, Congress passed the Selective Service Act (50 U.S.C.A. app. § 451 et seq.), which was used to induct individuals for service in the Korean War (1950–53) and the Vietnam War (1954–75). Presidential authority to conscript individuals into the U.S. armed forces ended in 1973. No individual has been conscripted into the military since then.

In 1976, the Selective Service System was placed on a standby status, and local offices of the agency were closed. President jimmy carter issued a proclamation in 1980 requiring all males who were born after January 1, 1960, and who had attained age eighteen to register with the Selective Service at their local post office or at a U.S. embassy or consulate outside the United States (Presidential Proclamation No. 4771, 3 C.F.R. 82 [1981]). Those who fail to register are subject to prosecution by the federal government.

In 1981, the Supreme Court upheld the constitutionality of requiring only men, and not women, to register with the Selective Service (rostker v. goldberg, 453 U.S. 57, 101 S. Ct. 2646, 69 L. Ed. 2d 478). The United States has never conscripted women into military service, nor has it ever instituted universal military service. It has conscripted only individuals meeting certain age, mental, and physical standards. Congress has allowed the deferral of conscription for certain individuals, including those who need to support dependents or are pursuing an education. Among those who have been declared exempt from service are sole surviving sons, conscientious objectors to war, and ministers of religion.

The U.S. government also has the power to conscript property in times of emergency.

Further readings

Brophy, Alfred L. 2000. "'Necessity Knows No Law': Vested Rights and the Styles of Reasoning in the Confederate Conscription Cases." Mississippi Law Journal 69 (spring): 1123–80.


Involuntary Servitude; Solomon Amendment; Thirteenth Amendment.

West's Encyclopedia of American Law, edition 2. Copyright 2008 The Gale Group, Inc. All rights reserved.
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Dr Peprah-Gyamfi's latest books, World War II Revisited: Memoirs of a Forced African Conscript and its sequel, Twins Divided, both deal with the subject of forced conscription and are based on his own family's experiences.
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(22) Despite the bleakness of Bob's forced conscription, Himes opens the possibility of an interracial understanding in Bob's interaction with his fellow draftees Although white America intrudes, it has inadvertently bonded these three minority individuals together in their punishment.
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