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America’s Anti-Militarist Tradition


The Right went apoplectic at the skepticism that greeted Gen. David Petraeus’s recent testimony about the success of the military escalation in Iraq. It was as though a member of the military was incapable of engaging in spin to support his commander in chief’s war policy. How could anyone even for a moment entertain the idea that a high-ranking officer in the U.S. military could say something untrue? President Bush summed up this attitude revealingly when he said it was one thing to attack him, but quite another to question General Petraeus. Are generals above reproach? Why?

War, Clausewitz noted, is politics by other means. That makes high-ranking generals a species of politician. Not a few have harbored presidential thoughts, and some have made it. It has been reported that Petraeus would like to be another. These are the people the pro-war conservatives are willing to trust implicitly? (Anti-war members of the armed forces, on the other hand, are, in Rush Limbaugh’s words, “phony soldiers.”)

Earlier generations of Americans weren’t so trusting of the military. They harbored a healthy suspicion of it. Since this is clearly no longer the case, we can conclude that the many decades of accustoming the American people to a large permanent military establishment have succeeded. Most Americans are enthralled by anyone in a uniform, especially if he has a couple of dozen ribbons pinned to his chest. They simple-mindedly equate unquestioning service to the president with service to the country.

What is unappreciated today is the anti-militarism that influenced American culture for a long time. In his classic study The Civilian and the Military: A History of the American Antimilitarist Tradition (1956), historian Arthur A. Ekirch Jr. wrote, “The tradition of antimilitarism has been an important factor in the shaping of some two hundred years of American history.” This tradition, Ekirch notes, stretched back to England, where until the 17th century the militia, not a standing army, provided defense and was unsuited to aggressive war. Attempts in England to militarize the political system were met with resistance, as Oliver Cromwell and the Stuart dynasty were to learn. “At the close of the seventeenth century,” Ekirch wrote, “when the Crown sought a permanent standing army to thwart the designs of France on the Continent, there was intense opposition both in Parliament and throughout the realm.”

This attitude was carried to the New World, where Americans “were as little inclined as their English cousins to accept a military pattern of life or to spend overmuch of their time in training or preparation. In the colonies subordination of military to civil power became the cardinal principle it was in England.”

Ekirch pointed out that in a formal sense, service in the militia was mandatory, but in reality “the exceptions were so numerous and the training days so few that there was little interruption of normal peacetime pursuits…. Colonial militia service thus differed from modern military conscription [which the U.S. had in the Civil War and World War I, and from just before World War II until 1973], and instead of fostering a military tradition it seems to have had the opposite effect.” (For obvious reasons, mandatory military duty is a form of slavery and has no place in a free society.)

While there was some support for the British war against the French and Indians in the mid 18th century, the dominant sentiment in the colonies ran against British militarism. “Colonial feelings became clear in the outcry that was raised against British notions of a standing army of ten thousand men to protect her North American empire…. The wisdom of keeping a standing army in North America was questioned immediately by influential colonial statesmen,” Ekirch wrote.
Standing armies

Anti-militarism influenced much political thinking as the new country took shape. The Pennsylvania constitution declared a peacetime standing army “dangerous to liberty [and] ought not to be kept up.” All state constitutions contained language subordinating military to civil authority. The Declaration of Independence criticized the standing army and military autonomy. The Articles of Confederation, America’s first constitution, withheld from Congress the power to create a peacetime army (although attempts to expressly forbid its creation were unsuccessful in the rush to submit the Articles to the states for approval).

The Revolutionary War itself did not change the American attitude in a pro-military direction, Ekirch reported that states had trouble getting the required number of militiamen. When conscription was resorted to, it was not well received. Those who did don the uniform hardly exhibited the martial spirit. Ekirch wrote,

Once in the Continental army, the American soldier was often too deeply imbued with revolutionary ideas of individual liberty and equalitarian democracy to take kindly to strict military discipline. This leveling spirit interfered with distinctions in rank and hindered the development of the officer caste. An even more serious threat to the maintenance of any army was the prevalence of desertion and mutiny among the soldiers. The extreme hardships and privations suffered by the army throughout the Revolution help to explain the large number of such incidents which occurred in the years from 1777 to 1783. At the same time the American distaste for organized military life must have been an additional motivating factor in the breakdown of morale and discipline.

The reluctance of Congress and the states to provide a more efficient military establishment, despite the perilous nature of the Revolutionary cause, was a continual reminder of the strength of the popular opposition to any concentration of power in the hands of military men.

After the Revolution, this tension continued. The conservative aristocracy that had emerged during the colonial period wanted a strong central state with a powerful army. The radical liberals of the day wanted a decentralized power structure and a militia. A standing army was anathema — its potential for domestic oppression was too well known — and this was made clear when Congress in 1783 began studying the question of a permanent force. “The idea of any sort of a regular army in peacetime at once met with strong opposition in Congress,” Ekirch wrote. James Monroe and Richard Henry Lee warned of the danger to liberty, and Benjamin Franklin worried that a soldier’s training made him accepting of war. When the Society of Cincinnati was organized to honor the war’s officers, there was instant opposition. “Almost at once the Society was criticized as an attempt to establish the former Revolutionary officers as a hereditary aristocracy, and the volume of protest soon reached impressive proportions,” Ekirch wrote.

At the Constitutional Convention of 1787, the suspicion of the military led to the separation of the power of the commander in chief from the power to declare and finance war. (This has proven to be a weak protection against executive war making.) It was said of convention delegate George Mason, “He was for clogging rather than facilitating war; but for facilitating peace.”
Freedom and war

Although James Madison was a leader of the centralists, he showed an appreciation of the dangers to freedom from the war-making power. In words entirely relevant to today, he said,

In time of actual war, great discretionary powers are constantly given to the Executive Magistrate. Constant apprehension of War, has the same tendency to render the head too large for the body. A standing military force, with an overgrown Executive, will not long be safe companions to liberty. The means of defense agst. foreign danger, have been always the instruments of tyranny at home. Among the Romans it was a standing maxim to excite a war, whenever a revolt was apprehended. Throughout all Europe, the armies kept up under the pretext of defending, have enslaved the people.

(Madison’s alternative to the standing army was hardly satisfactory: he proposed giving the central government “full power to call forth the militia, and exert the whole natural strength of the Union, when necessary.”)

The anti-militarists won only partial victories in the Convention, among them subordination of the military to the civil authority. “Three members of the Convention who refused to sign the final draft of the Constitution, Edmund Randolph, George Mason, and Elbridge Gerry, gave as one of their reasons its failure to set any limitation on a standing army…. The lack of more specific limitations, such as might be included in a bill of rights, plus the failure to prohibit a standing army in time of peace, were viewed as the two chief defects of the Constitution from the antimilitarist point of view,” Ekirch wrote.

During the debates over the proposed Constitution, some of the writers known as Anti-Federalists — we might think of them as prophets today — railed against the standing army. “Centinel” proclaimed it “that grand engine of oppression.” To him, as well as to Richard Henry Lee and Patrick Henry, the power to levy taxes along with the power to create a permanent armed force were not to be accepted by freedom-loving people. These men were not pacifists, but they realized that liberty could be secure only if the power to raise an army could somehow be restricted by the population. Such power was too dangerous to be left to politicians.

Ekirch noted that Madison, Alexander Hamilton, and John Jay, in The Federalist Papers, sought to allay fears that the Constitution would empower a menacing military establishment. But “after the Constitution was adopted, its staunchest supporters readily forgot the interpretation of the document that they had offered in the heat of the struggle for ratification. While the proponents of a strong centralized government lost no time in presenting to Congress their plans for a regular military establishment, the anti-Federalist opponents of the Constitution united to prevent the creation of a standing army.”

The upshot is that the conservative fawning over the military displays an attitude that would have infuriated those first generations of Americans who actually built this country.

This article originally appeared in the December 2007 edition of Freedom Daily. Subscribe to the print or email version of Freedom Daily.

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    Sheldon Richman is former vice president and editor at The Future of Freedom Foundation and editor of FFF's monthly journal, Future of Freedom. For 15 years he was editor of The Freeman, published by the Foundation for Economic Education in Irvington, New York. He is the author of FFF's award-winning book Separating School & State: How to Liberate America's Families; Your Money or Your Life: Why We Must Abolish the Income Tax; and Tethered Citizens: Time to Repeal the Welfare State. Calling for the abolition, not the reform, of public schooling. Separating School & State has become a landmark book in both libertarian and educational circles. In his column in the Financial Times, Michael Prowse wrote: "I recommend a subversive tract, Separating School & State by Sheldon Richman of the Cato Institute, a Washington think tank... . I also think that Mr. Richman is right to fear that state education undermines personal responsibility..." Sheldon's articles on economic policy, education, civil liberties, American history, foreign policy, and the Middle East have appeared in the Washington Post, Wall Street Journal, American Scholar, Chicago Tribune, USA Today, Washington Times, The American Conservative, Insight, Cato Policy Report, Journal of Economic Development, The Freeman, The World & I, Reason, Washington Report on Middle East Affairs, Middle East Policy, Liberty magazine, and other publications. He is a contributor to the The Concise Encyclopedia of Economics. A former newspaper reporter and senior editor at the Cato Institute and the Institute for Humane Studies, Sheldon is a graduate of Temple University in Philadelphia. He blogs at Free Association. Send him e-mail.