Liberty Matters

Republican Extremism: No Standing Armies as Aspiration and Possibility


In his well-paced essay David Womersley focuses on the rhetoric directed against “standing armies” and in favor of militia for at least a century and a half. He rightly observes that this political language could (and did) serve diverse causes. The same holds true, mutatis mutandis, one supposes, for the larger “republican,” “civic humanist,” or “country party” discourse in which the “No Standing Army” theme was often in play. Womersley takes a reasonable history-of-ideas approach that serves to raise the question of whether or not the attack on standing armies had any intrinsic merit in its own time, or indeed, at any time. The author certainly implies it may have.
History of a Concept
Womersley writes that upon settling the Nine Years War (1689-1697), King William III wished “to retain his army of at least 87,000 experienced soldiers” for future needs of his anti-French continental coalition. Reacting badly, a “New Country Party” of Tories and radical Whigs exploited longstanding “anti-Stuart resentment by agitating for the disbanding of the army” – hence John Trenchard’s famous pamphlet of 1697.[36]
In England the “standing army” question -- first heard of in 1603 -- became important by 1642, with civil war looming. The words denoted, Womersley writes, “an army … kept together in peacetime (no matter how it is funded or sustained),” but toward 1700 came to mean an army maintained “during peacetime and paid for out of taxation” (italics added). This emergent republican critique drew on classical history and literature and reflected the ancient fear of a warrior-hero,[37] who would use his success to tyrannize over society. This concern had potential cross-class appeal to all people tired of state-building warfare. Womersley notes that Nicolò Machiavelli’s treatment of Rome’s citizen-soldiers as the key to successful territorial expansion served as proof of his claims about the superiority of militia to mercenaries.
Womersley states that down to the 1690s the “financial sinews of the English state” had been so feeble that in Oceana (1656) James Harrington called a tax-supported standing army “a mere fancy.” Harrington was wrong, and because of William III’s financial innovations,[38] standing armies “paid for out of taxation” became lasting fixtures of the state apparatus. They now endangered both liberty and property and the “Vulgar Whig” pamphlet literature of the 1690s put reliably inflammatory villains like Cromwell, Charles II, and James II in the frame as their inventors.  
The Gospel According to Trenchard and Gordon 
Here we might well have a look at John Trenchard (1662–1723) and Thomas Gordon’s (1691–1750) formulations in Cato’s Letters (and elsewhere), which set a certain standard in the English-speaking world. In their work the militia emerges as an explicit counter-model of defense-as-defense, as against the standing army.
In 1697 Trenchard claimed that the old Gothic Balance “between King, Lords and Commons” characterized the militia, so that “there was no Difference between the Citizen, the Soldier, and the Husbandman, for all promiscuously took Arms when the public Safety required it, and afterwards laid them down….” Even in 1697 “the Nobility, Gentry, and Freeholders of England [could] be trusted with the Defence of their own Lives, Estates and Liberties.” A militia was suited to defense: “Mr. Harrington hath founded his whole Oceana upon a trained Militia….” He derided “Soldiers of Fortune [who] make Murder their Profession, and enquire no farther into the Justice of the Cause[39] than their pay.[40] Having “an authorized Standing Army [was] far worse than … a Conquest from abroad.” And “how shall we ever get out of it again?”[41] 
In 1722 Gordon asserted that “military virtue [could] proceed from nothing else” but “liberty only”: “In free states, every man being a soldier, or quickly made so, they improve in a war, and every campaign fight better and better….”[42] But when could Britain safely “reduce our troops to the usual guards and garrisons, if it cannot be done now…? Or, are we never to disband, till Europe is settled according to some modern schemes?”[43]When the people are easy and satisfied, the whole kingdom is his army….”[44]   
Ancient Rhetoric and False Flags
Returning to Womersley’s narrative, we learn that “the “Standing Army” debate of 1697-98 was about taxation, rather than the ownership and location of deadly force” (italics added). Here was an early sign that anti-standing-army language could easily serve as a cudgel wielded on related and unrelated questions – a “familiar language” employed “in pursuit of subtly altered objectives.[45] Thus in the 1730s there was a flare-up of anti-standing-army language over the use of Hessian and (later) Hanoverian mercenaries (12,000 and 16,000 respectively). In this instance Lord Chesterfield – a familiar type: the imperial “isolationist”[46] – was actually angry at European commitments that might “hamper [Britain’s] freedom to pursue its now evident imperial destiny” outside Europe.
Overshooting Womersley’s stopping point a bit, we find historians Philip Harling and Peter Mandler observing that circa 1815 Britain’s “ruthlessly regressive tax system” produced the highest revenues (per GNP) of any contemporary state. In the 18th century this state had been a war machine armed with credit, taxes, and excises, and driven by foreign policy. Huge debts grew from its wars, including those with America and France. Under this pressure the English public – acting as a kind of belated Country Party, tired of expensive adventures -- appealed for peace, retrenchment and the gold standard. Whig and Benthamite reformers cut military expenses, but in making the military-fiscal state less costly, they (unfortunately) saved it.[47] Historian Edward Ingram describes the British state built between 1784 and 1842 as “authoritarian and militarist.” Its financial power – the result of world dominance -- accounted for the internal wealth of this “militarist despotism … dominated by the landed, financial, service elites who represented the City’s interests” (not to mention their alternate power base: a large landed state in India).[48] 
Empire beckons, and we shall cross the water only to find that Anglo-American cousinhood has thwarted any all-out institutional break and that distance is not always difference.
American Parallels
Womersley writes that Lord Macaulay now “looks dated” for dismissing the standing army question as a historical curiosity. Adducing Gore Vidal’s “Caesarism,” Womersley suggests there has been a real problem of statecraft here -- “how to reconcile the ownership and location of deadly force with liberty and civil society” – from time out of mind. Certainly, the leadership of a country bent on having imperial sway in the world – a goal that Englishmen broadly shared[49] – would not tie its hands by adopting a militia system. That would have meant renouncing other possibilities. The Country Party’s anti-public-debt ideas implied a similar renunciation, and they too underwent rhetorical debasement and ultimate abandonment.[50]
Womersley describes how the Jacobite rising and invasion of 1745 revived arguments for militia. New voices spoke ancient Whig language, asking for militia not as a substitute for standing armies (long since normalized), but as an additional source of military strength. Womersley writes: “An empire needs a standing army, and because regular imperial troops must often serve overseas, the consequent weakness in homeland defence had to be supplied by a militia” (italics added). Later, Adam Smith himself would summon the militia’s ghost for the same imperial reasons.[51]
Lacking space for a thumbnail sketch of American militia, I refer readers to Jeffrey Rogers Hummel’s essay of 2001.[52] The main fight was over whether the states or the feds would control it, and the feds won. Interestingly, however, Senator Gary Hart (D., Colorado) puzzled the rubes with a book in 1998[53] which trod much the same “republican” ground as the British discussion of 1745. From 1995 to about 1999 the best and brightest of the U.S. intellectual-political-military-economic complex (our Whig oligarchy?) meditated on how to defend the homeland when one’s foreign policy is not about defense at all. This was the famous Hart-Rudman Commission. The Department of Homeland Security was its offspring.
Some other Anglo-American parallels arise from shared notions (or illusions?) fathered on republican theory. In 1722 Trenchard rightly spotted a “close and inseparable … connection between [trade] and naval power….”[54] Like Harrington he saw naval power as no threat to domestic liberties. This clever mechanism for having your empire and liberty too gave way to Air Power, that special field of American praxis. Even the Taft wing of the Republican Party took up aero-mania in the early Cold War.
In all Anglo-American empire-building, there is ongoing institutional feedback from overseas: standing armies of domestic police, fingerprinting, civil-service reform, colonial offices (e.g., U.S. Bureau of Indian Affairs, Bureau of Insular Affairs), bureaucratic management, surveillance of occupied territory at home and abroad, and naturally militarization, which affected U.S. police work from the very beginning.
But what if the anti-standing-army/pro-militia strand of republicanism had had a wider constituency and greater practical impact? What then? It is hard to say. But leaving aside a few strays like John Taylor of Caroline, the truest heir of the anti-standing-army tradition may well be William Godwin, whose “civic anarchism” revealed possibilities latent in the republican tradition.[55]
[36.] 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” (1697). From John Trenchard, A Collection of Tracts, vol. I (London: F. Cogan, 1751).  </titles/2315#lf1548-01_head_004>
[37.] Georges Dumézil, The Destiny of the Warrior (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1970).
[38.] John Brewer, The Sinews of Power: War, Money and the English State, 1688-1783 (New York: Alfred A. Knopf 1989), 151-52.
[39.] The italicized phrase prefigures one of Herbert Spencer’s.
[40.] “An Argument, shewing.”
[41.] “The second part of an Argument, Shewing, that a Standing Army Is inconsistent with a Free Government, and absolutely destructive to the Constitution of the English Monarchy. With Remarks on the late published LIST of King James’s Irish Forces in France” (1697). </titles/2315#lf1548-01_head_006>
[42.] Cato's Letters, “Against Standing Armies.” No. 94. Saturday, September 15, 1722. (Trenchard and Gordon). </titles/1239#lf0226-03_head_029>
[43.] Speaking of Gibraltar, he notes “the little use of that place.”
[44.] Cato's Letters, “Further Reasonings against Standing Armies.” (Trenchard). No. 95. Saturday, September 22, 1722. </titles/1239#lf0226-03_head_030>.
[45.] Cf. J.G.A. Pocock, “The varieties of Whiggism from Exclusion to Reform,” Virtue Commerce, and History (Cambridge University Press, 1985), 215-310.
[46.] See John W. Coogan, The End of Neutrality: The United States, Britain, and Maritime Rights, 1899-1915 (Ithaca, NY: Cornell University Press, 1981), 70-75, for British “imperial isolationists”; for the Americans, Charles A. and Mary R. Beard, America in Midpassage, I (New York: Macmillan, 1939), I, 443-46, 456-57. 
[47.] Philip Harling and Peter Mandler, “From ‘Fiscal-Military’ State to Laissez-Faire State, 1760-1850,” Journal of British Studies, 32 (January 1993), 44-68.
[48.] Edward Ingram, “Hegemony, Global Reach, and World Power: Great Britain’s Long Cycle,” in Colin Elman and Miriam Fendius Elman, eds., Bridges and Boundaries: Historians, Political Scientists, and the Study of International Relations (Cambridge, MA: M.I.T. Press, 2001), 240-41, 244; on India, 237-39, 244.
[49.] Here the influence of Machiavelli was hardly benign, since it was his “republic-for-expansion” that interested most of his readers.
[50.] Brewer, Sinews of Power, 151-61, 206, on the career and decline of country ideology.
[51.] Donald Winch, Adam Smith’s Politics (Cambridge University Press, 1978), 103-13.
[52.] Jeffrey Rogers Hummel, “The American Militia and the Origin of Conscription: A Reassessment,” Journal of Libertarian Studies, 15:4 (Fall 2001), 29-77. See also Sheldon Richman, America’s Counter-Revolution (Ann Arbor, MI: Griffin & Lash, 2016), 32-34, on the militia clauses of the Constitution of 1789.
[53.] Gary Hart, The Minute Man: Restoring the Army of the People (New York: The Free Press, 1998).  
[54.] Cato's Letters, “Military Virtue produced and supported by Civil Liberty only.” (Gordon). No. 65. Saturday, February 10, 1722. </titles/1238#lf0226-02_head_035>.
[55.] George J. Neimanis, “Militia vs. the Standing Army in the History of Economic Thought from Adam Smith to Friedrich Engels,” Military Affairs, 44:1 (February 1980), 29-30. For all his faults, Godwin is a remarkably sensible Englishman at times. See Enquiry Concerning Political Justice (Harmondsworth, Middx: Penguin, 1985 [1793]), 513-534, on military matters [online version: </titles/169>.]. J.G.A. Pocock (or his subjects), Alasdair MacIntyre, William T. Cavanaugh, Elaine Scarry, and even Karl Marx may fill in some outstanding gaps.