Our post-liberals have diagnosed pathologies in contemporary liberalism, but they have not dealt with the true ground of our discontents.
Publications written for an occasion rarely draw much notice once the moment prompting them has passed. Only those particularly interested in either the topic or author bother with them, unless some striking literary merit transcends context. Why then would an English philanthropist in 1767 send a collection of old pamphlets to Harvard College? David Womersley poses that question in a new volume from Liberty Fund in the Thomas Hollis Library entitled Writings on Standing Armies. It traces a debate between 1697 and 1722 on the danger of standing armies with a final contribution from 1752. The particular controversy may have been settled in Britain by the mid-1700s, but it also highlights larger concerns about civil-military relations that profoundly shaped Anglosphere political culture.
Womersley rightly describes the question of where to locate, in whose hands to place, and how to exercise state control over military force as both a perennial topic for political theory and a recurring problem for political practice. Britain’s experience of civil war and then military rule under Oliver Cromwell followed by James II’s attempt to extend royal power with professional troops set the context for debating them. Strong anti-army sentiment shaped how the British army operated under civilian control. Besides the revenue appropriated to fund it, annual parliamentary votes renewed a Mutiny Act that governed the army and kept it legally in being. An officer corps whose members purchased commissions they held from the king remained assimilated to civilian landed elites rather than a standing apart as professional caste like their Prussian counterparts. A parliamentary monarchy closely attuned to public sentiment kept the army on tap for protecting national interests, but never close to coming on top.
Along with successful measures subordinating soldiers to the state, Britain’s needs for an effective force during cycles of major wars helped settle the debate over standing armies. But imperial reform during the 1760s raised questions in America about how to reconcile coercive state power with liberty and civil society. The Stamp Act and Townshend Duties placed soldiers in the uncomfortable role of enforcing policies colonists resisted and made their presence a grievance against ministers in London. Resistance escalated into civil war in New England with the outbreak of open fighting between British troops and local militia. The ensuing struggle for independence led the United States to establish its own Continental Army under Congress. Revolutionary and Early Republican America debated many of the same issues discussed here and the outcome set lasting precedents for relations between soldiers and the state.
Seventeenth-century political debates, as Caroline Robbins pointed out, influenced American thinking long after many arguments raised had been marginalized in Britain as relics of a turbulent age happily left behind. The Commonwealthman tradition Robbins traced combined support for republican principles with a commitment to natural rights, religious tolerance, and reforming mercantilist policies that benefited the well-connected. Looking back to John Milton, James Harrington, and Algernon Sydney along with John Locke, it became a minority position even among Whigs by the early 1700s as political thinking in England changed. With sovereignty resting in the crown-in-parliament rather than the king alone, many ideas they engaged, including resistance theory, seemed irrelevant if not dangerous to the balanced constitution. But they resonated among Americans whose public culture remained closer to the world that spawned them. Thomas Hollis, who found his vocation as an intellectual publicist, carefully selected the texts he gave Harvard to promote ideas of liberty drawn from a heavily Commonwealthman milieu. Works he believed had sustained public virtue in England had readers among colonial elites and set a context for their thinking. Hollis’ efforts kept that tradition in view as Americans grappled with the place of standing armies in their own society.
Financing the Professional Army
Although William III’s 1697 proposal that parliament fund a peacetime standing army opened the debate to which these pamphlets contributed, larger trends set the context. Historians have described a general crisis of the seventeenth century across Europe where social tensions and failures of governance produced war. Conflicts within and between states fueled an early modern revolution in military affairs by driving innovations in weapons and tactics along with administrative developments to keep armies in the field and finance their campaigns. States that succeeded either thrived or at least survived in this competitive dynamic. Even as the burdens new military systems imposed aroused resentment and often political resistance, they could not be avoided without risking subordination to rivals.
Civil Wars in the British Isles between 1642 and 1651 overthrew the Stuart monarchy and brought Cromwell to power at the head of what became a military government. The army’s role imposing a godly commonwealth on a recalcitrant public and the unprecedented level of taxation required to fund it made soldiers deeply unpopular by Charles II’s restoration in 1660. Only relatively small numbers were kept in service during his reign with several wars with the Dutch Republic justifying them. James II, a soldier by training who in exile had served in French and Spanish armies, squandered the strong position he held on taking the throne in 1685 by trying to extend royal authority backed by an enlarged army. His bid for absolutism revived opposition to standing armies and led to the Glorious Revolution of 1688.
William of Orange overthrew his father-in-law and took the throne jointly with his wife Mary after a group of English notables invited him to protect the country’s liberties, but he acted primarily from a concern James would side with Louis XIV against a coalition formed to block French hegemony in Europe. Drawing England into that struggle in 1689 began an extended conflict known as the Second Hundred Years War that lasted on and off until Waterloo in 1815, albeit with an extended pause from 1714 to the late 1730s. William III’s reign saw the beginnings of a British fiscal military state with a national debt serviced by parliamentary taxation to finance and administer the fleet and army it required.
When fighting in the Nine Years War (1688-1697) reached a stalemate, William III and his allies negotiated the Treaty of Ryswick with France to end it. The peace left underlying issues unsettled and renewed conflict likely. William accordingly sought to keep almost 90,000 veteran troops as a peacetime force. A coalition of Tories and radical or Old Whigs formed against plans for a standing army. They found enough support that parliament refused the king’s request and cut troop numbers to their level at the end of Charles II’s reign. Popular prejudice against standing armies, a term Womersley dates in English to Richard Knolles’ use in 1603, made prudential arguments for keeping a professional force in being unavailing.
Balancing Liberty and Security
Toland and Moyle, both radical Whigs with republican sympathies, began the print debate with a pamphlet two months before parliament addressed the issue and drew replies by John Somers and Daniel Defoe. Following the period’s custom of anonymity, none of the pamphlets, however, identified their author. Describing England’s government as an empire of laws rather than men, Toland and Moyle warned that armies gave rulers commanding them undue power that would upset the balanced constitution and curb liberty. A ruler’s virtue or that of his army made no difference to the danger that limited monarchy would become absolute. The king’s reliance on nobles for support in wartime had imposed a check on their power under the feudal order that professionalizing the military now had removed. Arguing for a militia in place of a standing force, the authors insisted “there can be no danger from an army where the nobility and chief gentry of England are the commanders, and the body of it made up of the freeholders, their sons and servants.”
John Somers, recently appointed Lord Chancellor and a member of the Whig Junto directing William III’s government, replied that the recent peace would be best guaranteed by standing guard with a strong army. Circumstances made it both prudent and necessary to keep a reasonable force for defense. Precedents Toland and Moyle cited from antiquity did not fit the present day and what once might have been a reasonable case no longer applied. Moreover, they overstated the danger a standing army might influence parliament. Somers urged the questions be treated with the care it demanded rather than popular rhetoric or false colors.
Daniel Defoe, an admirer of William III and Whig pamphleteer best known for Robinson Crusoe (1719), gently mocked the argument for a militia in a close refutation of what he called a “scandalous” pamphlet. Echoing Somers’ point that times had changed, he chided its authors for insisting beyond what experience showed that “what happen’d yesterday will come to pass again.” Moreover, militia had fared badly against trained soldiers in recent wars and a militia sufficiently disciplined “may enslave us as well as an army.” War had changed since antiquity or the middle ages. Proximity across the North Sea made war in Flanders a war in England, and Defoe listed the risks facing countries that disarmed while their neighbors stood ready.
Moyle returned to the case from history in The Second Part of an Argument which Andrew Fletcher, a Scottish Whig and friend of John Locke, elaborated with lessons from antiquity and more recent examples. Parliament’s power over the purse was not enough, Fletcher insisted, as only the sword in the hand of the subject could guarantee liberty. Defoe’s view that the power of the purse equated to that of the sword did not persuade him. Relying on paid volunteers had removed an important check on rulers, and giving the king a standing army set his power beyond control. Fletcher condemned how luxury promoted by expanded trade since 1500 had eroding the virtue on which free government depends. Nobles preferred to collect rents in lieu of feudal service and commoners lost the military spirit in enjoying their pleasures. He dismissed the danger of invasion from abroad as mercenaries threatened the constitution far more than foreigners. In his view, the fleet provided both adequate defense from them and sufficient means to uphold the balance of power.
Toland’s The Militia Reform’d took up the question of how that force could be organized without threatening liberty through a scheme aiming to recover the Roman Republic’s spirit. Only men of property could be trusted to serve in the militia and substantial estates would be required of officers. Aspiring tyrants recruited among the poor who had nothing to lose and everything to gain. John Trenchard, an independent Whig with a bleak view of human nature, catalogued royal abuses with Cromwell and the Interregnum making a case that even with the most virtuous men and a successful parliament a standing army inclines to despotism. His short history implicitly charged that some Whigs after 1688 had given up their principles to become William III’s party of government rather than custodians of revolutionary principles.
Precedents and Analogies
The case against standing armies relied more on the weight of examples, many from antiquity, than focused reasoning. Although parliament rejected William III’s request, his supporters had the better argument. Their opponents appealed effectively to prejudices sharpened by past conflicts over martial law, billeting troops on civilians and taxes levied without consent from parliament. Much of the rhetoric also cited the Roman Republic’s fall into civil war and Caesarism. Niccolo Machiavelli had contrasted fifteenth-century Italy’s struggles with Rome’s rise to defend militia over hired troops in a critique later writers elaborated in historical detail. Monarchs gained power over nobles and other subjects even before they had significant troops at their disposal. Harrington, whose writing Toland later published, used Machiavelli’s warnings about mercenaries and lessons from antiquity to make his own case against a professional army in England, but that backward-looking view failed to engage how war had changed.
George I’s decision to retain troops after the 1715 Jacobite Rebellion briefly revived the standing army debate. A soldier prince descended from James I’s daughter Elizabeth, he had succeeded Queen Anne in 1714, excluding her Catholic half-brother from the throne. Many Tories preferred to keep a Stuart on the throne of what had become the United Kingdom of Great Britain by the 1707 Act of Union with Scotland—if he conformed to the Church of England. Jacobites who rejected George I as a foreign usurper rejected even that qualification in their loyalty to the Stuarts. Constant plots and an open rebellion in Scotland underlined a threat that justified keeping veteran soldiers at hand even with peace secure abroad.
Womersley describes the revival of anti-standing army and pro-militia arguments on both occasions as “a classic example of that classic snare of intellectual history, namely when a familiar language is used to engage with new and unfamiliar objects, and is deployed in pursuit of subtly different objectives.” The Commonwealth tradition that Robinson describes ran through these debates, but the context differed on both occasions along with the aims. Parliament exercised far more control with the emergence of a fiscal-military state dependent on its sanction than under the Stuarts or Cromwell. Indeed, Junto and then Court Whigs became a new establishment with a stake in the post-1688 and Hanoverian order. War against Louis XIV had shown the necessity of standing armies along with their failure to threaten ordered liberty. No longer a constitutional problem, the issue provided rhetorical ammunition for curbing expenditure or challenging politicians in office.
The anonymous author of Reasons Against a Standing Army (1717) complained ironically that maintaining troops gave Jacobites loyal to the exiled Stuarts a tool to stir disaffection. Peace with France since the 1713 Treaty of Utrecht ended the War of Spanish Succession made him ask “where now is the enemy?” Historical arguments familiar from the earlier debate returned, including descriptions of soldiers as mercenaries and that nobles had been “disarm’d” by the end of feudalism, but the grounds of complaint had changed to the size of the force proposed and the pamphleteer accepted a competent number of troops to guard the king and royal family. Arguing that “the sea is our element,” he insisted that an English fleet well-managed could “give laws to the universe.” Militia could supplement regular troops in the unlikely case of invasion.
Thomas Gordon, an independent Whig and collaborator with Trenchard who published as Cato, evoked the standing army debate of 1697-8 writing against the recent plan in 1722. Like the earlier pamphleteer, he asked what threat justified keeping troops when they should rather be disbanded. How could the country be less prepared by reducing the army to the peacetime force of William III and Anne given the absence of present danger? Gordon deployed old language behind a case for reducing the military establishment rather than ending it altogether. Only emergency justified keeping a substantial force which might otherwise threaten liberty.
George II drew criticism for hiring German troops during the 1730 and then taking Hanoverian forces into British pay during the War of Austrian Succession. These episodes reinforced suspicions that the king’s interests as Elector of Hanover guided Britain’s policy and drew on its resources, but the renewed struggle with France from the 1740s also showed the need for a professional army. Indeed, Britain scrambled to expand its forces and improve their leadership. Defeats at Dettingen in 1743 and on the Monongehela in 1755 forced a shift George II fully supported that raised standards for military professionalism with lasting effects. In the face of military necessity, the standing army controversy that had been so pressing was no longer even an issue at all.
Militia, as Charles Sackville, 2nd Duke of Dorset showed in a 1752 pamphlet, acted as a supplement to the regular army rather than an alternative to it. The scheme he offered with historical commentary focused on Rome filled a gap in home defense from deploying troops abroad. Drafts from a militia restored on proper lines could further augment the crown’s army and field a more formidable force on the Continent. Not only would his plan meet the approval of professionals, but it would also “forever extinguish the all the prejudice of the people to an army.” The gradual public acceptance of a standing army, Womersley points out, created a rhetorical opening for those styling themselves patriots upholding liberty to attack it.
Edward Gibbon, who served as a captain of Hampshire militia when it was embodied in 1759, later described how Roman militia developed into a standing army. Citing his formulation, Womersley suggests a similar transformation in England and quotes Adam Smith on how long-serving militia could match the competence of professionals. Bringing those insights together suggests that standing armies and militia could be more alike than different, whatever seventeenth-century pamphleteers might argue. Placing disciplined force at the disposal of authority was the essential point and the fundamental problem for liberty. The form that force took mattered less than controversialists featured here realized.
A Settled Issue?
While the debate over standing armies had closed in England by the time Gibbon and Smith published their most famous works in 1776, it had taken wing in America where the colonies had declared their independence from Britain that year. Regular troops enforcing parliament’s authority had been a grievance prompting the Declaration, and the need to make the claim to independence effective forced the United States to raise an army. Militia had fared well at Lexington and Concord, but war required trained men on extended service. Creating the Continental Army challenged George Washington as much as leading it in battle, but he viewed the task as an essential part of building an independent state.
The American debate over standing armies lasted beyond the Revolutionary War and opens a separate discussion. English ideas from the seventeenth and eighteenth century, including those framed by writers here, shaped how Americans responded to the challenge. Although the United States maintained a professional army and often made heroes of its commanders, American political culture and the wider society operated in tension with military professionalism. But that professionalism, as Samuel Huntington has argued, also subordinates the army to civilian control and inculcated a collective ethos of duty to the public good. Standing apart from politics enables soldiers and other services to claim a professional autonomy grounded on their expertise. The bargain has stood the United States well by ensuring the advantage of an effective military without the danger of a Caesar or Cromwell. Preserving it during a period of especially contentious politics that spill over into civil-military relations should be all the more important.