Martial Law Meaning: Here’s What It Means and How to Use It?

Looking for information on martial law? If so, we’ve got you covered! Read on to get the full scoop on the meaning of martial law.

Your writing, at its best

Compose bold, clear, mistake-free, writing with Grammarly's AI-powered writing assistant

In the United States of America, martial law has been declared more than 60 times — but what exactly is this concept, and where did it come from? We’ll tell you. 

Read on as we explore martial law to uncover what it is, where it originated, and more. 

What Is the Definition of Martial Law?

While it may have been declared over 60 times here in the U.S. throughout history, many of us are still unsure of the concept behind martial law. 

According to Cambridge English Dictionary and many other reputable dictionaries, martial law refers to a power that allows the military to take over a civilian government. 

Often, we see martial law declarations put into effect when civilian law enforcement agencies cannot maintain public safety and order.

In doing so, these new military authorities would then be able to exercise jurisdiction over civilians in a certain area. According to Britannica, martial law has no “true” established definition.

Typically in martial law, you’llee the suspension of a lot of basic civil law and civil authorities. 

What Is Martial Law in the States?

In the U.S., “martial law” has no established definition. This is due primarily to the fact that various entities have used the term to describe a variety of military practices and actions throughout history.

The law itself has proven to be complicated and, as a result, has never been well understood. There is currently no federal statute that defines the term, and the current limited Supreme Court precedent on martial law is inconsistent at best.

Are My Constitutional Rights Protected Under Martial Law?

Yes — even during martial law, the federal government is bound by the Constitution. At all times, the federal government must abide by the constitution. On top of that, all declarations of martial law can be subject to judicial review.

For example, if you were placed under martial law and detained, you can ask a federal court to order your release by simply petitioning the writ of habeas corpus.

What Is the History of Martial Law?

One of the greatest assets we have in grasping a word’s definition is by studying the world’s history, its origin — or most aptly put, its etymology! 

Martial law is the combination of the adjective martial and the verb law. Martial was first used in the late 14th century, deriving from Medieval Latin martialis, meaning pertaining to war. Law as a verb was not used until the 1640s deriving from the Old English noun lagian, meaning to ordain or make a law.

It wasn’t until its first recorded use in the 1530s that we saw the term martial law used in reference as we see it today, as a military rule over citizens.

What Are the Synonyms and Antonyms of Martial Law?

As we look through the thesaurus, we can quickly spot many words that we can use in place of martial law. These “synonyms” are phrases or words that have a similar or often the same definition as another word. 

Antonyms and synonyms help us avoid repeating ourselves in written and spoken conversations. Both are also another way of expanding our knowledge of the American English language.

Below you will find synonyms provided by Power Thesaurus:

  • Dictatorship
  • Ill usage
  • Junta
  • Common law
  • Iron rule
  • Blue law
  • War footing
  • Stratocracy
  • Coterie
  • Camarilla 
  • Army rule
  • Imperium in imperio
  • Militarism
  • State of emergency
  • Military rule
  • Rule of the sword
  • Serving out
  • Compulsory law
  • High handedness
  • Ill-treatment
  • Emergency powers
  • Suspension of civil rights

An antonym is a word or phrase with an opposite meaning to its original, just like synonyms; these alternate definitions are indeed a phenomenal way to memorize the definition of your original phrase or word. 

Below you will find antonyms provided by Power Thesaurus:

  • Democratic society
  • Attraction
  • Autonomy
  • Benevolence
  • Commonweal
  • Democratic state
  • Guidance
  • Freedom
  • Kindliness
  • Independence 
  • Support
  • Respect
  • Peace 
  • Liberty 

How Can Martial Law Be Used in a Sentence?

Now that we understand the meaning behind the noun martial law, let’s review how to properly use it in a sentence.  

We have included a few examples of the proper uses of Martial Law below:

In the United States, while the federal government may have the ability to declare martial law, it is usually on a state level that martial law is declared to stop strikes or protests.

The natural disasters that occurred shortly after World War II contributed to the court decisions that enforced many to be under martial law.

Usually, we see martial law declared in times of civil unrest or insurrection, so worry not during these peaceful times.

After the civil war, martial law was declared, and as such military forces such as the national guard were put in place to enforce curfews.

Countless members of the U.S. military were used by Abraham Lincoln to enforce national security and general law and order after martial law was imposed.

Sir, it simply would not matter if you were from New York, Alabama, Hawaii, or even if you were from Ukraine; during martial law, many civil liberties will be in jeopardy. 

During a declaration of martial law, the U.S. Constitution gives most of the authority to Congress. 


Martial law is simply defined as a military force proceeding to take control of a civilian government. More often than not, this is executed to quell violence in times of emergency.


  1. Words and Phrases for Martial Law | Power Thesarus
  2. Martial Law Explained | Brennan Center for Justice
  3. Martial Law : definition | Cambridge English Dictionary
  4. Martial law | Definition & Facts | Britannica