Facts About the Military Draft

by Michael Duty, studioD

Since its inception in the 1860s, the idea of a military draft or conscription has generated much debate and resistance up to and including protests and "draft dodging." Its legality and constitutionality have been challenged all the way up to the Supreme Court. Conscription, or "the draft," is a means for the United States military to call up additional troops when needed for the national defense.


Performers re-enact the United States Civil War on its 150th anniversary date.

The draft in the United States began with the Civil War in 1863. It was officially called the "Conscription Act" and was initiated by the Confederacy. Even then, the law created a public outcry, because many believed that compulsory service was an infringement on personal liberty. Furthermore, the Conscription Act had exemptions that allowed the wealthy to escape the draft by paying "commutation" or hiring a substitute. According to civliwarhome.com, the Confederacy would pass three separate Conscription Acts before the Union passed its first in March 1863. The Union Enrollment Act of Conscription triggered a riot in New York City that lasted three days and resulted in $1.5 million in damages. Since the Civil War, the draft has been used for World War I, World War II, Korea and Vietnam.

Selective Service

Pillars and arches in the U.S. Congressional library.

Congress passed the Selective Service Act in May 1917. Initially, all men ages 21 to 30 were required to register for selective service. However, the Act was later revised to include men from the ages of 18 to 45. Also, there was a significant difference in the 1917 acts and the Civil War acts: Potential draftees could not hire substitutes to fight in their place.

The Draft During Vietnam

A close-up of a calendar page.

The Selective Service held a lottery drawing on December 1, 1969. It was the first since 1942. A large plastic jar was filled with 366 blue plastic capsules, each containing a birth date. Rep. Alexander Pirnie (R-NY) of the House Armed Services Committee drew the first capsule, which contained the birth date September 14. That meant all men born on September 14 were first in line to be drafted into the military. Furthermore, after the birth dates were drawn, 26 letters of the alphabet were also drawn. J was drawn first and V was drawn last. Therefore, a man with the name Johnson would be called before a man with the last name Vickers. The draft process sparked protests, and many young men fled the country instead of reporting for duty. Others, like boxer Muhammad Ali, were arrested and faced trial for draft evasion. Some young men received student deferments to complete their educations, but even that process caused controversy, because some saw it as favoring men from wealthier families who could afford college.

Constitutional and Legal Challenges

Steps leading up to the U.S. Supreme Court.

Since the first Conscription Acts of the Civil War, there has been a contention that the draft is unconstitutional and illegal. Most notably, detractors use the 13th Amendment to support this argument, because it states that "Neither slavery nor involuntary servitude, except as a punishment for crime whereof the party shall have been duly convicted, shall exist within the United States, or any place subject to their jurisdiction." However, in the case of Arver v. the United States, the Supreme Court upheld the constitutionality of the draft, because the constitution gave Congress the power to raise armies, and conscription had been used in colonial America as well as in England.

The Current System

Jimmy Carter speaks to the media.

In 1980, President Jimmy Carter re-established the Selective Service System. Although this was done during peacetime, the purpose was "to provide a hedge against unforeseen threats." By law, all men between the ages of 18 and 26 are required to register for Selective Service. The Selective Service website spells out what would occur for the U.S. to return to a draft. First, Congress and the President would have to authorize a draft. Then a lottery based on birthdays determines the order in which registered men are called up. The first to be called would be men whose 20th birthday fell that year, followed by those aged 21 up to 25. The Selective Service website says that those who are 18 or 19 probably would not be called.

How the Draft System Has Changed Since Vietnam

A portrait of a student studying in the library,

The Selective Service website says that student deferments would not be issued as before. Students could have their induction postponed until the end of the current semester, or seniors could have their induction postponed until the end of the academic year. The website also says that the new system would require draft boards to be as representative as possible of the racial and national origin of the registrants in the area served by the board. Finally, the website says that for every year that a man was not called, he would drop into a lower priority group so that he did not have to wait until he was 26 years old to be certain that he would not be drafted.

About the Author

Michael Duty has worked in manufacturing for more than 10 years and is also a volunteer fire fighter and Emergency Medical Technician. He began his writing career in 2005 and has been published in such websites as "Lifted Magazine" and "All Business Magazine." Duty holds a Bachelor of Science in industrial technology management from Berea College.

Photo Credits

  • Mario Tama/Getty Images News/Getty Images