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We’ve Always Known Standing Armies Are a Threat to Liberty

by | May 2, 2024

We’ve Always Known Standing Armies Are a Threat to Liberty

by | May 2, 2024

depositphotos 109546730 s

Thomas Gordon’s A Discourse of Standing Armies; shewing the Folly, Uselessness, and Danger of Standing Armies in Great Britain, published in 1722, is a significant piece of literature in the canon of classical liberalism, critiquing the presence and role of standing armies in the governance of states.

Gordon’s discourse delves into the historical context of standing armies, drawing lessons from the English Civil War and the subsequent Glorious Revolution. Here, Gordon’s chief points and argument are summarized, and the significance of his discourse in the context of the British and later American case are evaluated by drawing on the writings of James Madison, William Graham Sumner, and Dwight D. Eisenhower. For, as Gordon’s collaborator in the penning of Cato’s Letters, the Whig Parliamentarian John Trenchard, stated in beginning his A Short History of Standing Armies in England, “A Standing Army is Slavery, Popery, Mahometism [sic], Paganism, Atheism,”—in short, a thing incompatible with the preservation of the evolved English liberties so valued by Trenchard, Gordon, their fellow Commonwealthmen, and the later generation of British North Americans they inspired: Jefferson, Madison, and the American patriots.

Gordon begins his discourse by examining the historical precedents of standing armies, particularly in the context of England. He highlights the detrimental effects of standing armies on civil liberties and the balance of power between the government and the people. Gordon argues that standing armies, by their nature, pose a threat to liberty because they empower the state to exert control over its citizens through force. He contends that standing armies are inherently oppressive and conducive to tyranny, as they provide rulers with the means to suppress dissent and maintain power by force rather than consent.

Drawing from the English Civil War and the subsequent Glorious Revolution, Gordon illustrates how standing armies were indeed used by monarchs to subjugate their subjects and suppress dissent. He warns against the dangers of allowing standing armies to become instruments of oppression and argues for the importance of maintaining civilian control over the military. Rather than a standing army, in fact, Gordon advocates for the establishment of militias composed of ordinary citizens as a safeguard against the abuse of military power by the government. He contends that militias, being composed of the people themselves, are more likely to defend the interests of the populace and resist state tyranny.

Gordon’s discourse, therefore, clearly resonates with the later warnings of James Madison, one of the Founding Fathers of the United States, who expressed concerns about the potential threats posed by standing armies to liberty and Tocquevillian democracy. Madison argued that standing armies could be used by oppressive governments to suppress dissent and infringe upon the rights of citizens. Specifically, in his contributions to The Federalist Papers, he advocated for a system of checks and balances to prevent the concentration of power in the hands of the government and warned against the danger of allowing standing armies to become a tool of tyranny. To this point, in his speech at the Virginia Ratifying Convention on June 16, 1788, Madison would pronounce as follows:

“A standing military force, with an overgrown Executive will not long be safe companions to liberty. The means of defense agst. [sic] 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.”

Similarly, writing almost a century later, as the American republic was taking its first steps on the road to empire, William Graham Sumner, Yale professor of sociology and one of the last American classical liberals, warned against the dangers of emulating the imperialistic policies of European nations. Sumner cautioned that the United States risked undermining its founding principles of freedom and democracy by following the path of militarism and imperialism, arguing in his 1898 essay “The Conquest of the United States by Spain” that standing armies and military intervention abroad would inevitably lead to the erosion of civil liberties and the expansion of government power. As the classical liberal historian of the Austrian School, Ralph Raico, put it decades later in commenting on Sumner’s essay, such a turn must necessarily shift power:

“From communities and states to the federal government, and, within that, from Congress to the President…Thus, the American system based on local government, states’ rights, and Congress as the voice of the people on the national level, would more and more give way to a bloated bureaucracy headed by an imperial presidency.”

Indeed, as Sumner had written in 1898, admonishing those who disparaged the inherited Country Party, old Whig tradition in favor of the pursuit of empire, “It is by virtue of this conception of a commonwealth that the United States has stood for something unique and grand in the history of mankind, and that its people have been happy.”

As Raico explains, “the system the Founders bequeathed to us, Sumner held, was a delicate one, providing for the division and balance of powers and aimed at keeping government small and local,” the great danger being, as Washington had warned, “foreign entanglements.”

For, in the words of Raico, “A policy of foreign adventurism would, in the nature of things, bend and twist and ultimately shatter our original system.” Appropriate, then, to recall Gordon’s original warning that “almost all men desire power, and few lose any opportunity to get it, and all who are like to suffer under it, ought to be strictly upon their Guard in such Conjunctures as are most likely to increase, and make it uncontroulable [sic].”

For all their eventual domination of vast tracts of the globe, the British never would engage a vast standing army for the majority of the British Imperium. Only in the twentieth century, the century of statism and total war, would the British engage in conscription and the creation of a permanent armaments industry closely tied to the government. The same, of course, would happen in the United States. In a moment of incredible recognition, Dwight D. Eisenhower, five-star general and the 34th president of the United States, echoed these concerns in his famous farewell address, where he warned against the growing influence of the United States’ own emerging military-industrial complex, saying in part, “This conjunction of an immense military establishment and a large arms industry is new in the American experience…Yet we must not fail to comprehend its grave implications.”

Eisenhower went on to caution that the close relationship between the military establishment and defense contractors could lead to undue influence over government policy and the perpetuation of a permanent war economy. He urged Americans to remain vigilant against the dangers of militarism and to uphold the principles of democracy and individual freedom, something of a frank irony as it was his securing of the Republican nomination for president that did arguably more than anything else to destroy the Old Right described by economist and historian Murray Rothbard, a movement which took such things as sound money and limited government seriously. And as these large sectors of the American bureaucracy and economy became geared towards war, public choice theory could easily have predicted that such ready interests geared toward warmaking capacity would beget war. Such justificatory “reasons,” as Gordon had warned, could always be found. And, as James Madison had again warned, “No nation could preserve its freedom in the midst of continual warfare,” which, declared or undeclared, the United States has virtually been at since the end of the Second World War.

In conclusion, Thomas Gordon’s A Discourse of Standing Armies provides valuable insights into the dangers of standing armies and their potential threat to liberty and democracy. Gordon’s arguments resonate with the warnings of James Madison, William Graham Sumner, and Dwight D. Eisenhower, who all cautioned against the dangers of allowing standing armies to become instruments of oppression, whether through their direct application or by the levying of great taxes to raise the huge sums required to sustain them. Gordon’s discourse serves as a reminder of the importance of maintaining civilian control over the military and upholding the principles of freedom and democracy.

In an era marked by increasing militarism and global conflict, Gordon’s insights remain as relevant today as they were in the eighteenth century, serving as a timeless reminder of the dangers of unchecked military power and of the keeping of standing armies specifically.

Joseph Solis-Mullen

Joseph Solis-Mullen

Author of The Fake China Threat and Its Very Real Danger, Joseph Solis-Mullen is a political scientist, economist, and Ralph Raico Fellow at the Libertarian Institute. A graduate of Spring Arbor University, the University of Illinois, and the University of Missouri, his work can be found at the Ludwig Von Mises Institute, Quarterly Journal of Austrian Economics, Libertarian Institute, Journal of Libertarian Studies, Journal of the American Revolution, and Antiwar.com. You can contact him via joseph@libertarianinstitute.org or find him on Twitter @solis_mullen.

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