Liberty Matters

What’s the Difference between a Standing Army and a Mercenary Army?

After reading these lively and engaged responses, my initial impulse – being an academic – is to engage in a little light scholarly duelling with my good friend David Wootton concerning the points of interpretation and reference with which he takes issue in my original essay.  But, aware that this is likely to be of only moderate interest to noncombatants, I will reserve my devastating and unanswerable counterarguments until David and I meet in the south of France in a few weeks’ time and are sitting down together over a meal and a drink.
Instead, I am going to explore an unstable aspect of the language of the “standing army” debate as it developed over the course of the 18th century, and in conclusion I will relate what this instability suggests back to the question of the present currency of these texts and arguments, a topic on which all three respondents touched.
It is striking that the early opponents of standing armies do not see any difference between a standing army and a mercenary army.  They use the phrases interchangeably, even though it is clear that strictly speaking they mean different things.  Just because a soldier is paid to fight, it doesn’t necessarily follow that he will fight for anyone who has the money to pay him.
The opponents of standing armies equate professional forces with mercenary forces because, following Machiavelli in The Art of War, they assume the existence of a moral gulf between a militia soldiery and paid troops.[56]  Machiavelli concluded that the Roman generals who lived and served before the third Punic War (151-146 BC), unlike their degenerate successors Sulla, Caesar, and Pompey, “were Famous as much for their Virtue as Conduct, and the reason was, because these made not War their Profession, and the others did.”[57] 
Why did Machiavelli think this?  For him, the issue turned on the moral consequences of the manner in which soldiers are obliged to subsist (and here it is clear that Machiavelli was unable to conceive of armed forces receiving regular salaries paid for out of normal taxation):
Nor can any man (great or small) who makes War his Profession, be otherwise than Vitious; because that Trade being not to be followed in time of Peace, they are necessitated either to prevent or obstruct Peace; or in time of War to provide so for themselves, that they may subsist in time of Peace; and neither of those two ways are practicable to an honest Man; for from the desire of providing for themselves against the evil day, when the Wars should be ended, proceed the Robberies, and Thefts, and Murders which are committed daily by such kind of People, and that upon their Friends as well as Enemies.[58]
In the early 16th century it was the simple human imperative of survival that made the theoretically distinct characters of the professional soldier and the mercenary converge in practice.  In Machiavelli’s day, if war was your trade, you had to be a mercenary, with all that that implied about the corrupting absence of fixed loyalties.
However, English experience over the course of the first three quarters of the 18th century (during which time what Machiavelli had been unable to imagine actually came to pass and professional armed forces were maintained in time of peace and paid for out of the normal revenues of government) revealed that a standing army in fact need not be a mercenary army.  It gradually became clear that one could be a professional soldier without being a vicious man.
As a result, the moral gulf between a virtuous militia and a vicious professional army, which had seemed unbridgeable for Machiavelli, and which had yawned so wide for Trenchard and Gordon, gradually closed.  When Edward Gibbon became an officer in the South Hampshire Militia in the summer of 1759, his journal entries written at the time show no trace of any feeling on his part that the militia was morally superior to the regular troops with whom they occasionally drilled and went on manoeuvres.  Indeed, quite the reverse.  The regular troops were the object of the militia’s emulation.  If possible Gibbon wanted his men to seem as “professional” as their regular colleagues in drill, in discipline, and even in appearance:
...from the extreme shabbiness in which we went out we are come, tho’ by slower degrees than most other corps of militia, to be as well appointed as the Guards.[59]
So impressed was Gibbon by the regular troops he met in the course of his duties as a militia officer that he even considered taking a commission himself, as he recalled in his “Memoirs”: “A young mind, unless it be of a cold and languid temper, is dazzled even by the play of arms; and in the first sallies of my enthusiasm I had seriously wished and tryed to embrace the regular profession of a soldier.”[60]
This awareness that, pace Machiavelli and Trenchard and Gordon, a standing army need not be a mercenary army also shaped the account of the Roman imperial army Gibbon put forward in The Decline and Fall.  It is sometimes said that The Decline and Fall exhibits the old Whig anti-standing-army prejudice in full strength.  But in fact in The Decline and Fall Gibbon referred only once to the imperial troops as a “standing force,”[61] and he never called them a standing army.  Instead he referred to them consistently as “mercenaries,” or as a “mercenary army.”  (It is also possible that Gibbon’s experience in Switzerland, where militia forces had been known to offer themselves for hire as mercenaries, further blurred for him the over-clear distinctions drawn by Machiavelli and his followers in late 17th- and early 18th-century London.)  The implication is clear.  For Gibbon, modern professional standing armies were very different from the mercenary bands of antiquity.
This erosion of the old prejudice that there was a moral distinction separating militias from standing armies, which we can see occurring in Gibbon between 1759 and 1776, was complemented and corroborated by the publication in 1776 of The Wealth of Nations.  Adam Smith not only asserted that, from the point of view of military effectiveness, standing armies were always superior to militias.  He also denied that there was any essential moral difference between these two military forms.  Smith drove home this point by rereading the very passages of Roman history on which Machiavelli had most relied, and coming to the very un-Machiavellian conclusion that militias, if kept embodied and in the field for long periods, would improve into standing armies, and standing armies, if military discipline became relaxed, would degenerate into militias.[62]
The straight line of movement away from the confusion of mercenaries with standing armies which Gibbon followed up until at least the publication of the second instalment of The Decline and Fall in 1781 was reversed, however, at the end of his life, when in his “Memoirs” he suddenly and unexpectedly relapsed into the old, Machiavellian conflation of professional soldiers with mercenaries when describing his career in the militia:
The defence of the state may be imposed on the body of the people, or it may be delegated to a select number of mercenaries; the exercise of arms may be an occasional duty or a separate trade, and it is this difference which forms the distinction between a militia and a standing army.... The impotence of such unworthy soldiers [the old English militia] was supplied from the æra of the restoration by the establishment of a body of mercenaries: the conclusion of each war encreased the numbers that were kept on foot, and although their progress was checked by the jealousy of opposition, time and necessity reconciled, or at least accustomed, a free country to the annual perpetuity of a standing army.[63]
What provoked this revival of a previously abandoned language?  Could it be that the military campaigns of the American revolution and the early years of the French revolution, culminating in the battle of Valmy in September 1792, put new life into the old prejudice?  The successes of the colonial militia of the American states and the citizen armies of the French republic against the trained professional armies of Britain and Prussia may have hinted that the old Florentine had not been so wide of the mark after all.
Gibbon died long before the French revolution had played itself out and the ancien régime had been apparently restored by the actions of the Congress of Vienna.  Professional armies had in the end prevailed, notwithstanding the Machiavellian complexion events had seemed to wear for a while between 1783 and the early 1790s.  It was from the midst of this post-revolutionary intellectual world that Macaulay dismissed the prejudice against standing armies as a purely historical phenomenon:
The old national antipathy to permanent military establishments, an antipathy which was once reasonable and salutary, but which lasted some time after it had become unreasonable and noxious, has gradually yielded to the irresistible force of circumstances.  We have made the discovery, that an army may be so constituted as to be in the highest degree efficient against an enemy, and yet obsequious to the civil magistrate.  We have long ceased to apprehend danger to law and to freedom from the licence of troops, and from the ambition of victorious generals.  An alarmist who should now talk such language as was common five generations ago, who should call for the entire disbanding of the land force of the realm, and who should gravely predict that the warriors of Inkerman and Delhi would depose the Queen, dissolve the Parliament, and plunder the Bank, would be regarded as fit only for a cell in Saint Luke’s.[64]
The larger conceptual shift which accompanied this withering of the old prejudice against standing armies was related to the idea of professionalism.  “Profession” and “professional” are complex words with fascinating histories.  Looking at the various entries in the OED, one can see how these terms migrated from the late-17th to the mid-19th centuries, acquiring as they did so positive connotations of disinterestedness, competence, superior performance, and rectitude.  Paradoxically, the very aspect of professionalism which had made it suspect to men of the generation of Trenchard and Gordon – namely, the receipt of payment – had been converted, by the time of Macaulay, into the reason why professionals could be trusted.  It was precisely because doctors, lawyers, and soldiers received reliable, regular, and substantial emolument that they could be relied upon to discharge the duties of their station without their own narrow personal interest being uppermost.  That interest would be looked after anyway, so they were free to put their expertise to work in a disinterested manner and for the benefit of the community as a whole.
Such at least was the social theory of professionalism, a theory which we can detect beginning in England in the late 18th century, and which by the mid-19th had taken secure hold.  It is a theory that separates us from the world of the standing army controversy of the late 17th century.  However, is that theory itself now succumbing to historical change?  In Britain and America there is widespread suspicion of the professions as closed shops which brandish the principle of disinterestedness to disguise outrageous self-enrichment.  Films and novels repeatedly put before us stories about professionals “gone bad”: corrupt lawyers, incompetent doctors – and, not least, rogue soldiers.
If the Victorian ideal of the professional is being eroded, does that suggest that the anti-standing-army prejudice, or something like it, could revive?
[56.] Art of War, book I, chs 2-4.
[57.] Art of War, book I, ch. 3; quoting from the 1695 translation of Machiavelli’s Works.
[58.] Art of War, book I, ch. 2.
[59.] Gibbon’s Journal to January 28th, 1763, ed. D. M. Low (London: Chatto and Windus, 1929), p. 143.
[60.] The Autobiographies of Edward Gibbon, ed. John Murray (London: John Murray, 1896), p. 188.
[61.] Edward Gibbon, The History of the Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire, ed. David Womersley, 3 vols. (London: Allen Lane, 2004), vol. I, p. 46. [Online version: Edward Gibbon, The History of the Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire, ed. J.B. Bury with an Introduction by W.E.H. Lecky (New York: Fred de Fau and Co., 1906), in 12 vols. Vol. 1. </titles/1365#Gibbon_0214-01_131>.
[62.] Wealth of Nations, V.i.a.23, 28, 31-34, and 39. [Online version: Adam Smith, An Inquiry into the Nature and Causes of the Wealth of Nations by Adam Smith, edited with an Introduction, Notes, Marginal Summary and an Enlarged Index by Edwin Cannan (London: Methuen, 1904). Vol. 2. See for example, </titles/119#Smith_0206-02_501>.
[63.] Autobiographies, pp. 178-79.
[64.] Thomas Macaulay, The History of England from the Accession of James the Second, ed. C. H. Firth, 6 vols (London: Macmillan, 1915), vol. VI, pp. 2731-32.