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

John Trenchard

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.

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.