Liberty Matters

Liberty Not Taxation Was Behind Opposition to the Standing Army

Just as one would expect, David Womersley has written an elegant, learned, and clever essay on standing armies. Unfortunately it is, on a key issue, the interpretation of Machiavelli, mistaken, and it goes astray again (in my view) in its account of the standing army debate at the end of the 17th century. On the 18th-century debates I find it entirely convincing.
Womersley’s error lies in stating that Machiavelli advocated a citizen militia. This has been often said, but the issue has been clear since the publication of a famous article by Dionisotti in 1967.[23] Womersley goes wrong because he has been led astray by what would seem to be the best authorities -- Baron, Skinner, Pocock, Viroli (at least in his first book). The error is still to be found in works such as Celenza’s Machiavelli: A Portrait,[24] but certainly not in reliable texts such as Vivanti’s Niccolò Machiavelli: An Intellectual Biography.[25] For a generation of scholars the source of the error was Alan Gilbert’s translation of book 1 of The Art of War (Chief Works, 1965 — Womersley’s reference to book 7 is evidently a slip), where the word ordinanza (= militia) is translated “citizen army” (so Quentin Skinner came away with the entirely false impression that “The whole of Book 1 [of The Art of War] is given over to vindicating ‘the method of the citizen army’”).[26] But the error goes back before then, since it is to be found in Ridolfi’s 1954 biography of Machiavelli. The best recent scholarship is cautious in its use of references to citizen armies when writing about Machiavelli, but an error that has become so well-established inevitably keeps catching the unwary, and one may suspect that even the best scholars have not made a sufficiently clean break with the mistakes of the past.[27]
The militia that Machiavelli formed when he served in the government of Florence was a conscript army of peasants. They were not citizens but subjects; in Florentine discussions of politics there is never any overlap between the two categories -- you are either one or the other. There was strong initial opposition to this new force because it was feared that it would be used to suppress Florentine liberty and establish a principality.
In The Prince, The Discourses, and The Art of War Machiavelli never advocates the establishment of a citizen militia. The claim that men fighting to defend their liberty make the most resolute soldiers is not (I think) to be found in Machiavelli — it is popularized by Boccalini, writing about the Dutch; Machiavelli could never have forgotten that the citizens of Florence had shown no determination at all when it came to defending their own liberty. Machiavelli knew, of course, that the Roman army under the Republic consisted of citizens. He surely knew that Leonardo Bruni and others had advocated a citizen army.[28] But Machiavelli never said that this Roman practice was to be imitated in this key respect.[29] What is essential, according to him, is that your army should not consist of mercenaries or auxiliaries but of your own people -- i.e., your own subjects. Otherwise you cannot keep control of it. And the Florentine army should be commanded by Florentine citizens for the same reason.
In The Art of War Machiavelli makes a further point that he believes to be crucial: the army should not be a professional army. Even its commanders should not think of warfare as their profession. A professional army will believe it has interests different from those of everyone else; an army which consists of conscripts, who serve only for a limited time, and is commanded by officers who expect to return to civilian life, will identify its own interests with those of the nation as a whole. It was this sort of army that Machiavelli consistently advocated: not a citizen army, but a conscript army. In all early modern societies those who could regard themselves as citizens were in a small minority, and Machiavelli was trying to build a substantial force that could withstand the might of France and Spain — the citizen army only comes back on the agenda with the French revolution and the expansion of citizenship, notionally at least, to all adult males.
It is certainly true, then, to say that Machiavelli was opposed to what would later be called a standing army since a standing army was understood to be a professional army. Let me turn then to Womersley’s account of the standing-army debate at the end of the 17th century.[30] Womersley’s argument is that “at bottom the ‘Standing Army’ debate of 1697-98 was about taxation, rather than the ownership and location of deadly force” and that “implicitly” the opponents of a standing army were thus proposing lower taxes. I think it must come as a surprise to any reader who turns to the sources to discover that whatever the debate may have been about “at bottom,” the opponents of the standing army were not advocating lower taxes (or at least not explicitly). Turn, for example, to the work which Womersley correctly describes as setting the terms of the debate, Trenchard’s An Argument, Shewing that a Standing Army is Inconsistent with a Free Government (1697). In that work no claim is made that rejection of a standing army will lead to lower taxes — indeed there is no discussion of contemporary government revenue and expenditure. Such a discussion is to be found in Trenchard’s Short History of Standing Armies in England, which came out the next year. But there is no suggestion there that by saving on the cost of a standing army taxes can be reduced: rather Trenchard’s point is that the vast debts accumulated in the last war must be paid down as quickly as possible if England is to put herself into a position where she can be embark on a new war with France when that becomes necessary. Trenchard seems to accept that there is no going back to a world of low taxes and small government; the question is one of how best to spend the new resources at the government’s command. He gives priority to paying off debt.
Trenchard’s core argument is straightforward: that where you have a professional army it can be used by the executive to overpower the legislature; in England you can no longer deprive the executive of the financial resources out of which a professional army can be funded (you have to maintain a constant flow of tax revenues if only to pay the interest on the national debt, so you cannot simply refuse supply); so resistance to a standing army must now be made a matter of principle, where before it could be bundled up with the question of avoiding the burden of unnecessary taxes. In other words, far from it being the case that what had once been a question of liberty has now become a question of frugality (as Womersley argues), Trenchard’s claim is the exact opposite: an argument which could once be conducted as being about taxation must now be conducted as being about liberty. It is not surprising that, having misunderstood the argument of Trenchard and his colleagues, Womersley concludes (wrongly, I think) that they were “appealing to prejudice rather than to reason.”
Trenchard’s claim is thus that wherever you have a professional army the people lose their liberty unless (as in the particular case of Holland) they have the means to defend themselves against their own army. Trenchard, it should be stressed, holds exactly the same position as the Bill of Rights of 1689 — there should be no standing army in this kingdom. He had no objection to the use of a professional army to fight wars abroad, arguing merely that it would be cheaper to hire foreign troops than send out English ones, and altogether preferable to have foreigners die in place of Englishmen. And he knew perfectly well that resistance to a standing army was a peculiarly English luxury, for it depended on the claim that all that England needed to defend herself was not a professional army but a professional navy. As he put it in An Argument:
It is certain there is no Country so situated for Naval Power as England. The Sea is our Element, our Seamen have as much hardy Bravery, and our Ships are as numerous, and built of as good Materials as any in the World: Such a Force well applied and managed is able to give Laws to the Universe; and if we keep a competent part of it well arm'd in times of Peace, it is the most ridiculous thing in nature to believe any Prince will have thoughts of invading us, unless he proposes to be superiour to us in Naval Power….[31]
There is a second respect in which Womersley misrepresents the views of the opponents of a standing army when he says that “the ‘Standing Army’ debate of 1697-98 was about taxation, rather than the ownership and location of deadly force.” Not only was it about liberty not taxation, it certainly was about the ownership and location of deadly force. In order to see this we need only turn to Toland’s The militia reform'd, or, An easy scheme of furnishing England with a constant land-force capable to prevent or to subdue any forein power, and to maintain perpetual quiet at home without endangering the public liberty of 1699. There Toland bluntly responds to those who object to what they call “arming all the people” that “this is, in my Opinion, so useful and necessary, that, should we obtain nothing, besides, it were well worth our while to procure an Act for this alone.”[32]
But, before one hastens to conclude that Toland would have approved of the U.S. Constitution’s Second Amendment, one has to note that Toland actually wants to arm only what he calls free men, for his proposal is
THAT ENGLAND CONSISTING OF FREEMEN AND SERVANTS, NONE BE CAPABLE OF SERVING IN THE MILITIA BUT THE FORMER. By FREEMEN I understand Men of Property, or Persons that are able to live of themselves; and those who cannot subsist in this Independence I call SERVANTS. The bare Explication of the Terms should, one would think, be sufficient to perswade any Man of Sense that the former should not only be sooner trusted with Arms than the latter; but that they must needs use 'em likewise to better purpose. For besides that all the Endowments which Nature has made common to both are improv'd in FREEMEN, the very Temper of their Bodies being much stronger and livelier by better feeding, which is no little Ingredient to Courage, they fight also for their Liberty and Property; whereas the other have nothing to lose but their Lives, which are likewise infinitely dearer to those whose Circumstances render 'em more agreeable and easy.[33]
Thus only freemen are to be armed; though servants (a term which includes all employees) are to be trained in the use of arms they are not to be allowed to take their weapons home with them, but are required to surrender them when they leave the parade ground so that they can be safely locked away in an armory. They are not members of the militia, but Toland says, “auxiliaries.” Toland thus equivocates: he rejects the arguments against arming all the people (that armed robbery and poaching will become commonplace — no one will want to rob armed householders, and poaching is easier with snares than with guns)[34] as fallacious, but he accepts that the poor cannot be trusted with weapons. And the reason for his equivocation is simple: since the poor are not really free and are not to be counted as citizens, they cannot be relied on to defend the existing order. It is only men of property who can be trusted to defend the liberties and properties of those who are “able to live of themselves,” for they are bound to “consider they are fighting for their own, and not otherwise employ'd for their Fellows than these are for them, their common Endeavours being to secure every Man's private Property.”[35] Thus the ownership and location of deadly force was indeed the fundamental issue. If a professional army could not be trusted, neither could the poor. Only men of property could be entrusted with weapons and could be allowed to keep them in their homes.
Are there lessons to be drawn from these debates when we think about questions of liberty in our own very different world? Two seem to me important. First, there is a strong case to be made for regarding conscription into the army as being not an infringement of liberty but a precondition for a society founded on principles of liberty and equality. Second, a Second Amendment right to bear arms depends on all — or nearly all — citizens feeling that they are beneficiaries of the existing order; it can only work under quite restricted social and economic conditions. Toland, I think, would have been delighted to find himself living in a society where those conditions existed; but he would have thought it foolish to imagine that such a right should be asserted no matter what the circumstances. Arming the people has its dangers if you put guns into the hands of the wrong people.
[23.] Reprinted in Carlo Dionisotti, Machiavellerie (Turin: G. Einaudi, 1980), pp. 3-59.
[24.] Celenza, Machiavelli: A Portrait, (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 2015).
[25.] Vivanti, Niccolò Machiavelli: An Intellectual Biography ( Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 2013).
[26.] Quentin Skinner, Machiavelli (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1981), p. 37. I thank Paul Rahe for pointing out to me the significance of Gilbert’s translation.
[27.] See, for example, Maurizio Viroli, Niccolò's Smile: A Biography of Machiavelli (New York: Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 2000), pp. 81-85;  John M. Najemy, A History of Florence 1200-1575 (Malden, MA: Blackwell Pub., 2006), pp. 410-12. A sound view is that of Paul Anthony Rahe, Against Throne and Altar: Machiavelli and Political Theory under the English Republic (New York: Cambridge University Press, 2008), p. 9. I am surprised how cautious my own formulation in Niccolò Machiavelli, Selected Political Writings, trans. David Wootton (Indianapolis, IN: Hackett, 1994), p. xvi was. For an indication that the pendulum is now once again swinging against a Roman reading of the militia proposal, and an up-to-date bibliography, see Robert Black, "Machiavelli and the Militia: New Thoughts," Italian Studies 69 (2014): 41-50.
[28.] C. C. Bayley, War and Society in Renaissance Florence; The De Militia of Leonardo Bruni (Toronto: University of Toronto Press, 1961).
[29.] Of course one can argue that he would have liked to say this but for prudential reasons never did: Mikael Hörnqvist, "Perché Non Si Usa Allegare I Romani: Machiavelli and the Florentine Militia of 1506", Renaissance Quarterly 55 (2002): 148-91. Perhaps; but his immediate model was not ancient Rome but Cesare Borgia.
[30.] On this, see Lois G. Schwoerer, "No Standing Armies!": The Antiarmy Ideology in Seventeenth-century England (Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press, 1974).
[31.] John Trenchard, An Argument Shewing that a Standing Army is Inconsistent with a Free Government: and Absolutely Destructive to the Constitution of the English monarchy (London: n.p., 1697), p. 18.
[32.] John Toland, The Militia Reform'd, or, An Easy Scheme of Furnishing England with a Constant Land-force: Capable to Prevent or to Subdue any Forein Power, and to Maintain Perpetual Quiet at Home, without Endangering the Publick Liberty (London: John Darby, 1698), p.  86.
[33.] Ibid., pp. 18-19.
[34.] Joyce Lee Malcolm, To Keep and Bear Arms: The Origins of An Anglo-American Right (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 1994).; Joyce Lee Malcolm, Guns and Violence: The English Experience (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 2002).
[35.] Toland, The Militia Reform'd, p. 23.