One of the forgotten values of the American Founders was their deeply held opposition to a permanent standing army.
This was born of experience. In late 1763, at the end of the French and Indian War, the British decided to station 10,000 troops for “protection,” and to keep many of the troops from being out of work. John Adams wrote disparagingly of the deployment, writing that “Revenue is still demanded from America, and appropriated to the maintenance of swarms of officers and pensioners in idleness and luxury”
By 1770, concerns over the standing armies became reality, when the occupying British Army resulted in the Massacre in Boston
Following the Revolution, those apprehensions persisted during debates around the proposed Constitution. As the Virginia Ratifying Convention’s version of what became the Second Amendment made clear, the right to keep and bear arms was to ensure the civilian population was armed and would not require a standing army in order to provide civil order and national defense.
George Washington himself also warned against standing armies during his time as president, saying the country must “avoid the necessity of those overgrown military establishments which, under any form of government, are inauspicious to liberty, and which are to be regarded as particularly hostile to republican liberty.”
Five decades before the War for Independence, Scottish writer Thomas Gordon published a lengthy essay titled “A Discourse on Standing Armies” that offers strong intellectual support for the Founders’ fierce opposition to the concept.
“It is certain, that Liberty is never so much in danger, as upon a Deliverance from Slavery,” he wrote.
The context of Gordon’s work is important. Though the English Protestant Reformation had occurred centuries prior, the country was still dealing with a complicated situation in which the general populace and Parliament were Protestant but much of the royal line adhered to Catholicism.
In the late 1600s, King James II of the Stuart House had been removed from power during the Glorious Revolution, with his Protestant daughter Mary co-ruling along with her husband William. When they died without a male heir, the next in line for the throne was James Stuart, a Catholic. To avoid that, German-born George I was given the English throne, instigating Jacobite uprisings in Scotland in an effort to put the Stuarts back into power.
At the time Gordon’s essay was published, there had been three risings, the most recent in 1719.
These revolts were used by some as justification for a permanent military to prevent a Catholic force from taking over the country. However, Gordon wrote that using tyranny to prevent tyranny was counterproductive (bold emphasis added).
“If we are to be govern’d by Armies, it is all one to us, whether they be Protestant or Popish Armies; the Distinction is ridiculous, like that between a good and a bad Tyranny: We see, in Effect, that it is the Power and Arms of a Country, that forms and directs the Religion of a Country; and I have before shewn, that true Religion cannot subsist, where true Liberty does not. It was chiefly, if not wholly King James’s usurp’d Power, and his many Forces, and not his being a Papist, that render’d him dreadful to his People. Military Governments are all alike; nor does the Liberty and Property of the Subject fare a bit the better or the worse, for the Faith and Opinion of the Soldiery. Nor does an Arbitary Protestant Prince use his People better than an Arbitrary Popish Prince; and we have seen both Sorts of them changing the Religion of their Country, according to their Lust.
They are therefore stupid Politicians, who would derive Advantages from a Distinction which is manifestly without a Difference: It is like, however, that they may improve in their Subtilties, and come, in time, to distinguish between corrupt Corruption, and uncorrupt Corruption, between a good ill Administration, and an ill good Administration, between oppressive Oppression, and unoppressive Oppression, and between French Dragooning and English Dragooning; for there is scarce any other new Pitch of Nonsense and Contradiction left to such Men in their Reasonings upon Publick Affairs, and in the Part they act in them.”
He further noted that permanent armies raised and maintained ostensibly to protect people all too often become the means of their subjugation and oppression. In fact, without them, would-be tyrants would go nowhere (bold emphasis added).
“It is as certain, that King James II, wanted no Army to help him to preserve the Constitution, nor to reconcile the People to their own Interest: But, as he intended to invade and destroy both, nothing but Corruption and a Standing Army could enable him to do it; and, thank God, even his Army fail’d him, when he brought in Irish Troops to help them. This therefore was his true Design; but his Pretences were very different: He pleaded the Necessity of his Affairs, nay, of publick Affairs, and of keeping up a good Standing Force to preserve his Kingdoms forsooth from Insults at home and from abroad. This was the Bait; but his People, who had no longer any Faith in him, and to whom the Hook appear’d threatening and bare, would not believe him, nor swallow it; and if they were jealous of him, restless under him, and ready to rise against him, he gave them sufficient Cause. He was under no Hardship nor Necessity but what he created to himself, nor did his People withdraw their Affections from him, till he had withdrawn his Right to those Affections. Those who have us’d you ill, will never forgive you; and it is no new Thing wantonly to make an Enemy, and then to calumniate and destroy him for being so.”
As we’ve seen throughout America’s own history, crises — real or imagined — have been used to justify large government in one form or another, whether it’s debasing the currency, raising or creating new taxes, and of course, increasing the military’s size and budget. Naturally, this incentives politicians to find or generate fear among the people of anything that creates an excuse for a perpetual military force.
As Gordon observed, this is not a new tactic (bold emphasis added):
“The remaining Dread of the Mischiefs escaped, generally drives, or decoys Men into the same or greater; for then the Passions and Expectations of some, run high; and the Fears of others make them submit to any Misfortunes to avoid an Evil that is over; and both Sorts conour in giving to a Deliverer all that they are delivered from: In the Transports of a Restoration, or Victory, or upon a Plot discover’d, or a Rebellion quell’d, nothing is thought too much for the Benefactor, nor any Power too great to be left to his Discretion, tho’ there can never be less Reason for giving it to him than at those Times; because, for the most part, the Danger is past, his Enemies are defeated and intimidated, and consequently that is a proper Juncture for the People to settle themselves, and secure their Liberties, since no one is likely to disturb them in doing so.”
At the same time, he wrote that the warnings shouted by proponents of a permanent army failed to occur. “But notwithstanding the Army was disbanded; no Plot, Conspiracy, or Rebellion, happen’d by their disbanding.”
Writing within the context of the historical period, Gordon posed this rhetorical question:
“When can we reduce them to a competent Number better than at this Time? Or are we never to Disband, till Europe is settled according to some modern Schemes? Or till there are no Malecontents in England, and no People out of Employments who desire to be in them. ’Tis certain, that all Parts of Europe which are enslaved, have been enslaved by Armies, and ’tis absolutely impossible, that any Nation which keeps them amongst themselves, can long preserve their Liberties; nor can any Nation perfectly lose their Liberties, who are without such Guests.”
In summary, Gordon’s points are as follows:
- Tyranny is an illegitimate response to the threat of tyranny
- Permanent armies are essentially for establishing and maintaining tyranny
- The “necessity” for a permanent army doesn’t stand up to scrutiny
- Governments use a never-ending list of excuses to maintain a permanent army
Needless to say, it’s not hard to see how accurately this describes the past century of U.S. history.