Front Page Titles (by Subject) SECTION XVII. On debauching the Minds of the rising Generation and a whole People, by giving them Military Notions in a frée and commercial Country. - The Works of Vicesimus Knox, vol. 5
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SECTION XVII. On debauching the Minds of the rising Generation and a whole People, by giving them Military Notions in a frée and commercial Country. - Vicesimus Knox, The Works of Vicesimus Knox, vol. 5 
The Works of Vicesimus Knox, D.D. with a Biographical Preface. In Seven Volumes (London: J. Mawman, 1824). Vol. 5.
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On debauching the Minds of the rising Generation and a whole People, by giving them Military Notions in a frée and commercial Country.
In proportion as great men refuse to submit to reason, they are inclined to govern by violence. They who have the sword in their hands, are unwilling to wait for the slow operation of argument. The sword cuts away all opposition. No troublesome contradiction, no unwelcome truth, will impede the progress of him who uses the ratio ultima regum, and mows down all obstacles with the scythed car.
Hence the abettors of high prerogative, of absolute monarchy, and aristocratical pride, always delight in war. Not satisfied with attacking foreign nations, and keeping up a standing army even in time of peace, they wish, after they have once corrupted the mass of the people by universal influence, to render a whole nation military. The aggregate of military force, however great, being under their entire direction, they feel their power infinitely augmented, and bid defiance to the unarmed philosopher and politician, who brings into the field truth without a spear, and argument unbacked with artillery.
But such a system tends to gothicize a nation, to extinguish the light of learning and philosophy, and once more to raise thick fogs from the putrid pools of ignorance and superstition, the bane of all happiness, but the very element of despotism.
The diffusion of a military taste among all ranks, even the lowest of the people, tends to a general corruption of morals, by teaching habits of idleness, or trifling activity, and the vanity of gaudy dress and empty parade.
The strict discipline which is found necessary to render an army a machine in the hands of its directors, requiring, under the severest penalties, the most implicit submission to absolute command, has a direct tendency to familiarize the mind to civil despotism. Men, rational, thinking animals, equal to their commanders by nature, and often superior, are bound to obey the impulse of a constituted authority, and to perform their functions as mechanically as the trigger which they pull to discharge their muskets. They cannot indeed help having a will of their own; but they must suppress it, or die. They must consider their official superiors as superiors in wisdom and in virtue, even though they know them to be weak and vicious. They must see, if they see at all, with the eyes of others: their duty is not to have an opinion of their own, but to follow blindly the behest of him who has had interest enough to obtain the appointment of a leader. They become living automatons, and self-acting tools of despotism.
While a few only are in this condition, the danger may not be great to constitutional liberty; but when a majority of the people are made soldiers, it is evident that the same obsequiousness will become habitual to the majority of the people. Their minds will be broken down to the yoke, the energy of independence weakened, the manly spirit tamed; like animals, that once ranged in the forest, delighting in their liberty, and fearless of man, caught in snares, confined in cages, and taught to stand upon their hind legs, and play tricks for the entertainment of the idle. They obey the word of command given by the keeper of the menagerie, because they have been taught obedience by hunger, by the lash of the whip, by every mode of discipline consistent with their lives, which are saleable property. But they are degenerate, contemptible animals. Compare a bird or a beast, thus broken down, with one of the same species flying in clear expanse of air, or roaming in the forest. Their very looks speak their degradation. The discipline of Mr. Astley causes the fiery steed to bend his knees in apparent supplication. But how are the mighty fallen! when the animal has broken from his obedience to nature, to fall down prostrate before Mr. Astley!
Suppose a whole nation, thus tamed, and taught submission to the command of one of their own species. Be it remembered, the horse, in learning unnatural tricks, submits to one of another species, who is naturally his superior. But suppose a whole nation, or at least the mass of the common people, thus broken in by a skilful rider. Will they not lose all energy? Will they dare, I do not say to speak, but to think of liberty? No; they will sink to the rank of German mercenaries let out for hire, claiming no rights, enjoying no privileges above the swine; a state of degradation at which the spirit of man, unspoiled by despotic government, revolts; and rather than fall into which, every true Englishman, from the palace to the hovel of the itinerant beggar, will be ready to exclaim, in the language of the Scriptures, “Why died I not from the womb?”
Is it not time, then, for the virtuous guardians of Heaven's best gift, liberty, to be alarmed, when they see a propensity in ministers, who have gained enormous power and corrupt influence, to render a whole people military? The gold chain of corruption is thus let down and ramified, in a million of directions, among those who never thought of courts or courtiers; but enjoying a noble independence, the independence of honest industry, chaunted their carols at the plough and the loom, glorying in the name of Englishmen, because England is free; and delighting in peace, because peace is the parent of plenty.
But, under the auspices of such a ministry, many an emulous esquire, hoping to be distinguished and rewarded, in some mode or other, by court favours, fond of the dress and name of a captain, and the privilege of commanding with absolute sway, bribes volunteers from behind the counter and the plough. He clothes them in the finest frippery that his own or his lady's imagination can invent. He himself parades at their head; a very pretty sight on a summer's day. And now he is distinguished as a soldier, who before only figured as a hunter of hares or foxes, and a prosecutor of poachers. Ambition, as well as vanity, begins to fire his soul. The raising of so many men in his neighbourhood must please the minister; especially if the esquire uses the influence he gains over the vicinity, in a proper manner, at a general election. If the esquire wants not money, he may want honour. Then let the minister make him a baronet. If he has no sons of his own in the army, navy, law, or church, he may have nephews or cousins. If not these, he must have nominal friends, to direct on whom the favours of ministers, though it proceed not from benevolence, must flatter pride, and add to rural consequence.
The whole of the military system is much indebted for its support to that prevailing passion of human nature, pride. Politicians know it, and flatter pride even in the lowest of the people. Hence recruiting-officers invite gentlemen only, who are above servile labour. “The vanity of the poor men” (says a sagacious author) “is to be worked upon at the cheapest rate possible. Things we are accustomed to we do not mind, or else what mortal, that never had seen a soldier, could look, without laughing, upon a man accoutred with so much paltry gaudiness and affected finery? The coarsest manufacture that can be made of wool, dyed of a brick-dust colour, goes down with him, because it is in imitation of scarlet or crimson cloth; and to make him think himself as like his officer as it is possible, with little or no cost, instead of silver or gold lace, his hat is trimmed with white or yellow worsted, which in others would deserve bedlam; yet these fine allurements, and the noise made upon a calf-skin, have drawn in and been the destruction of more men in reality, than all the killing eyes and bewitching voices of women ever slew in jest. To day the swineherd puts on his red coat, and believes every body in earnest that calls him gentleman; and two days after, Serjeant Kite gives him a swinging rap with his cane, for holding his musket an inch higher than he should do .... When a man reflects on all this, and the usage they generally receive—their pay—and the care that is taken of them when they are not wanted, must he not wonder how wretches can be so silly as to be proud of being called gentlemen soldiers? Yet if they were not so called, no art, discipline, or money, would be capable of making them so brave as thousands of them are.”
When all the base arts which custom is said to have rendered necessary are practised only to raise and support a regular army, perhaps they might, however reluctantly, be connived at by the watchful friend of freedom. But when the major part of the labouring poor, and all the yeomanry, are made gentlemen soldiers, merely to support a minister, it is time for every virtuous and independent mind to express, as well as feel, alarm.
It appears, from the above-cited passage of an author who had anatomized human nature, to find out its most latent energies, that the spirit of pride is rendered, by artful statesmen, the chief means of supplying an army. But the spirit of pride is in fact the spirit of despotism; especially when it is that sort of pride which plumes itself on command, on external decoration, and the idle vanity of military parade.
When this pride takes place universally in a nation, there will remain little industry, and less independence. The grand object will be to rise above our neighbours in show and authority. All will bow to the man in power, in the hope of distinction. Men will no longer rely on their own laborious exertions; but the poor man will court, by the most obsequious submission, the favour of the esquire; the esquire cringe to the next lord, especially if he be a lord-lieutenant of the county; and the lord-lieu-tenant of the county, will fall prostrate before the first lord of the treasury; and the first lord of the treasury will idolize prerogative. Thus the military rage will trample on liberty; and despotism triumphant march through the land, with drums beating and colours flying.