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Trenchard on the dangers posed by a standing army (1698)

The radical Whig and Commonwealthman John Trenchard (1662-1723) wrote several tracts in the late 17th century warning his fellow countrymen of the dangers to liberty posed by a standing army. In this passage he argues that even if one has a “good Prince” as a ruler the very existence of such a powerful force is a temptation to use it to increase the state’s power:

I will venture to say, that if this Army does not make us Slaves, we are the only People upon Earth in such Circumstances that ever escaped it, with the 4th part of their number… If this Army does not enslave us, it is barely because we have a virtuous Prince that will not attempt it; and it is a most miserable thing to have no other Security for our Liberty, than the Will of a Man, though the most just Man living: For that is not a free Government where there is a good Prince (for even the most arbitrary Governments have had sometimes a Relaxation of their Miseries) but where it is so constituted, that no one can be a Tyrant if he would. Cicero says, though a Master does not tyrannize, yet it is a lamentable consideration that it is in his Power to do so; and therefore such a Power is to be trusted to none, which if it does not find a Tyrant, commonly makes one; and if not him, to be sure a Successor.

If the Prince of Orange in his Declaration, instead of telling us that we should be settled upon such a Foundation that there should be no Danger of our falling again into Slavery, and that he would send back all his Forces as soon as that was done, had promis’d us that after an eight Years War (which should leave us in Debt near twenty Millions) we should have a Standing Army established, a great many of which should be Foreigners, I believe few Men would have thought such a Revolution worth the Hazard of their Lives and Estates; but his mighty Soul was above such abject thoughts as these; his Declaration was his own, these paltry Designs are our Undertakers, who would shelter their own Oppressions under his Sacred Name.

I would willingly know whether the late King James could have enslaved us but by an Army, and whether there is any way of securing us from falling again into Slavery but by disbanding them. It was in that sense I understood his Majesty’s Declaration, and therefore did early take up Arms for him, as I shall be always ready to do. It was this alone which made his assistance necessary to us, otherwise we had wanted none but the Hangman’s.

I will venture to say, that if this Army does not make us Slaves, we are the only People upon Earth in such Circumstances that ever escaped it, with the 4th part of their number. It is a greater force than Alexander conquered the East with, than Cæsar had in his Conquest of Gaul, or indeed the whole Roman Empire; double the number that any of our Ancestors ever invaded France with, Agesilaus the Persians, or Huniades and Scanderbeg the Turkish Empire; as many again as was in any battle between the Dutch and Spaniards in forty Years War, or betwixt the King and Parliament in England; four times as many as the Prince of Orange landed with in England; and in short, as many as have been on both sides in nine Battles of ten that were ever sought in the World. If this Army does not enslave us, it is barely because we have a virtuous Prince that will not attempt it; and it is a most miserable thing to have no other Security for our Liberty, than the Will of a Man, though the most just Man living: For that is not a free Government where there is a good Prince (for even the most arbitrary Governments have had sometimes a Relaxation of their Miseries) but where it is so constituted, that no one can be a Tyrant if he would. Cicero says, though a Master does not tyrannize, yet it is a lamentable consideration that it is in his Power to do so; and therefore such a Power is to be trusted to none, which if it does not find a Tyrant, commonly makes one; and if not him, to be sure a Successor.

If any one during the Reign of Charles the Second, when those that were called Whigs, with a noble Spirit of Liberty, both in the Parliament House and in private Companies, opposed a few Guards as Badges of Tyranny, a Destruction to our Constitution, and the Foundations of a Standing Army: I say, if any should have told them that a Deliverer should come and rescue them from the Oppressions under which they then laboured; that France by a tedious and consumptive War should be reduced to half the Power it then had; and even at that time they should not only be passive, but use their utmost Interest, and distort their Reason to find out Arguments for keeping up so vast an Army, and make the Abuses of which they had been all their lives complaining, Precedents to justify those Proceedings; whoever would have told them this, must have been very regardless of his Reputation, and been thought to have had a great deal of ill-nature, But the truth is, we have lived in an Age of Miracles, and there is nothing so extravagant that we may not expect to see, when surly Patriots grow servile Flatterers, old Commonwealthsmen declare for the Prerogative, and Admirals against the Fleet.

About this Quotation:

John Trenchard was well educated in Roman history and drew upon it repeatedly in his criticisms of the English state in the late 17th and early 18th centuries. He was particularly concerned with the issue of large, permanent armies (“standing armies”) and how they had been used by generals and political leaders to intimidate the people and even to “enslave” them by means of a coup d'état. In the recent past Englishmen had seen Oliver Cromwell destroy the budding “Leveller” movement in the 1650s when he became the conqueror of Ireland and the self-styled “Protector” of England, Scotland, and Ireland; and then William of Orange who lead an invasion of England with his army in the “glorious” revolution of 1688. Trenchard notes that even if England had a “good prince” (perhaps like William of Orange) the temptation to use such power still remained and that the temptation would remain until the instrument itself had been removed permanently.

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