Liberty Matters

The Swiss Militia

Machiavelli’s construct of the Florentine military force may well have been, as David Wootton suggests, composed not of free men, but of subjects.  But Machiavelli’s embrace of the Swiss militia, which is consistent with David Womersley’s traditional reading, would reverberate in the English and American opponents of the standing army.
Machiavelli tells us in The Prince that “the Swiss are well armed and enjoy great freedom.”[72]  The wise ruler permits his subjects to be armed, for disarming them shows mistrust of and offends them.[73]
In The Discourses, Machiavelli wrote: “For either I have my country well equipped with arms, as the Romans had and as the Swiss have; or I have a country ill equipped with arms, as the Carthaginians had, and as have the king of France and the Italians today.”[74]  A militia is superior for defense but not for aggression: “But when states are strongly armed, as Rome was and as the Swiss are, the more difficult it is to overcome them the nearer they are to their homes: for such bodies can bring more forces together to resist attack than they can to attack others.”[75]
In The Art of War, Machiavelli blamed the demise of the Roman republic on emperors who “began to disarm the Roman people (in order to make them more passive under their tyranny) and to keep the same armies continually on foot within the confines of the Empire.”[76]  The ideal militia included all men capable of bearing arms.[77]
For infantry exercises, Machiavelli recommended the crossbow, longbow, and harquebus, “a new, but very useful weapon.  To these exercises I would accustom all the youth in the country....”[78]  The harquebus was a short matchlock shoulder arm, an early firearm design.
Fast forward to Andrew Fletcher’s advocacy of “well-regulated militias” in A Discourse of Government with Relation to Militias (1698).[79]  Fletcher wrote: “The Swisses at this day are the freest, happiest, and the people of all Europe who can best defend themselves, because they have the best militia.... And I cannot see why arms should be denied to any man who is not a slave, since they are the only true badges of liberty....”[80]
Similarly, Abraham Stanyan in An Account of Switzerland found among the Swiss maxims: “A well regulated Militia, in Opposition to a standing Army of mercenary Troops, that may overturn a Government at Pleasure.”[81]  How was it regulated?  “In the Canton of Berne, the whole Body of the People, from sixteen to sixty, is enroll’d in the Militia, and “Every Man that is listed, provides himself with Arms at his own Expence....”[82]  (The U.S. Militia Act of 1792 did the same).  And there were butts in every community for the people “to shoot with their Muskets, that they many learn to be good Marksmen.”[83]  Visit Switzerland today and you’ll hear the music of shooting ranges in every village.
And then there’s Colonel John A. Martin’s 1745 militia plan that cited Machiavelli in support of the theme: “For Britain, as a free state, has this advantage over the absolute monarchies of Europe, that it may trust safely all its subjects with arms, whereas those cannot.”[84]  (My emphasis.)
In 1771, the patriotic Boston Gazette quoted from Thomas Gordon’s Discourses on Tacitus: “The people of Switzerland groaned long under the heavy yoke of Austria,” but “asserted their native freedom.... With handfuls of men they overthrew mighty hosts, and could never be conquered by all the neighboring powers.”  Recounting the William Tell saga, Gordon concluded: “Was there not a cause, was it not high time to exterminate such instruments of cruelty?”[85]
The symbolism was hardly obscure.  The oppressed Swiss could defeat the mightiest armies of Europe.  Now the oppressed Americans too could defeat the strongest military force in the world.  The year 1775 was not far off.
[72.] Machiavelli,  The Prince, trans. L. Ricci (New York: New American Library, 1952), 73.
[73.] Id. at 105.
[74.] Machiavelli, The Discourses, L. Walker transl. (New York: Penguin, 1970), 308.
[75.] Id. at 309-10.
[76.] Machiavelli, The Art of War, E. Farneworth transl. (Indianapolis, IN:  Bobbs-Merrill, 1965), 20.
[77.] Id. at 36, 38.
[78.] Id. at 59.
[79.] Andrew Fletcher, Political Works (Glasgow: R. Urie,1749), 71.
[80.] Id. at 33-35.
[81.] Abraham Stanyan, An Account of Switzerland.  Written in the Year 1714 (London: Jacob Tonson), 101.
[82.] Id. at 193-94.
[83.] Id. at 202.
[84.] Colonel John A. Martin, A Plan for Establishing and Disciplining a National Militia in Great Britain, Ireland, and in All the British Dominions of America (London: A. Millar, 1745), xxxvi-xxxvii.
[85.] Boston Gazette, April 1, 1771, 3. See also, Thomas Gordon, "DISCOURSE IX.: Of the People, Sect. VI.: The People not turbulent unless seduced or oppressed," in The Works of Tacitus. In Four Volumes. To which are prefixed, Political Discourses upon that Author by Thomas Gordon. The Second Edition, corrected. (London: T. Woodward and J. Peele, 1737). Vol. 3. </titles/786#Tacitus_0067-03_301>.