Any man or woman who enlists in the United States Army must take the following oath: “I do solemnly swear (or affirm) that I will support the Constitution of the United States against all enemies, foreign and domestic; that I will bear true faith and allegiance to the same.” In other words, American soldiers are expected to risk their lives for a piece of paper, but that is not as absurd as it sounds. As we all know, the Constitution serves a high purpose, which its framers took pains to articulate in their Preamble—“to form a more perfect Union, establish Justice, insure domestic Tranquility, provide for the common defence, promote the general Welfare, and secure the Blessings of Liberty.” That definition of good government contains a pronounced military component. Governments usually provide for their defense by maintaining armed forces, and those forces are sometimes called upon to keep order at home.
Yet while the men who drafted and ratified the Constitution may have agreed on the general purpose of government, they clashed over the proper means for ensuring national security. The years in which the United States won its independence and attempted to assert its viability as a nation also witnessed a prolonged and abrasive debate over military policy. Americans argued about how much military power they were willing to entrust to the national government, as well as when and against whom that power should be employed.
Although anti-militarism permeated the basic political philosophy of America’s Founders, they could not escape the fact that theirs was a nation conceived in war. The more realistic among them acknowledged that the general welfare and blessings of liberty could not be safeguarded without occasional resort to arms. Despite ideological disputes and increasingly bitter partisanship, they managed to construct a military system that would govern America’s responses to its enemies, both foreign and domestic, for a century following George Washington’s presidency. That system, and the assumptions that supported it, continue to influence our current defense establishment. As America’s leaders search for new ways to serve the republic’s security interests in an age of uncertainty, they would do well to revisit the country’s military roots.
When Englishmen first began colonizing North America in the late 1500s and early 1600s, the institution that we equate with a modern military establishment—a standing (full-time, professional) army—had not yet taken root in their country. Consequently, colonizing bands met their military needs by importing the English militia system.
The militia rested on the principle of universal military obligation. With the exception of Quaker Pennsylvania, all of the Thirteen Colonies passed legislation that turned their adult male inhabitants into part-time soldiers. Each man aged sixteen to sixty was expected to own a modern weapon, train regularly with his neighbors, and stand ready to repel any attack on his colony. This standard was rarely realized in full, however, and it tended to deteriorate over time.
H. Charles McBarron’s “The American Soldier, 1794,” shows Major General Anthony Wayne and his Legion of the United States (America’s regular army) winning the Battle of Fallen Timbers on August 20, 1794. (From U.S. Army Center of Military History
The cost of weaponry and emerging social taboos caused the militia to evolve into an association of white, middle-class, propertied males. As the colonies expanded and prospered, moreover, the militia system grew weaker. Militiamen in settled areas became reluctant to answer distant frontier alarms and defend other people’s property and families. Drawing solid citizens from their farms and businesses also unsettled colonial economies.
Thus colonial governments took to guarding their frontiers with paid troops raised for set periods of time (a campaign season or a year). Ironically, these semi-regulars or “Provincials” were often the very men barred from militia service—the poor and propertyless—the start of an enduring recruitment pattern in the American military.
Despite this reliance on semi-regulars and the fact that a large infusion of British regulars proved decisive in eliminating the French threat from North America in the French and Indian War, 18th-century Americans tended to fear standing armies. They believed that regulars without a war to keep them busy posed a threat to popular liberty. These words, published under a pseudonym in 1788, summed up what had long been an entrenched attitude in American society:
It has ever been held that standing armies in times of peace are dangerous to a free country; and no observation seems to contain more reason in it. Besides being useless, as having no object of employment, they are inconvenient and expensive. The soldiery, who are generally composed of the dregs of the people, when disbanded, or unfit for military service, being equally unfit for any other employment, become extremely burthensome. … The severity of discipline necessary to be observed reduces them to a degree of slavery; the unconditional submission to the commands of their superiors, to which they are bound, renders them the fit instruments of tyranny and oppression.—Hence they have in all ages afforded striking examples of contributing, more or less, to enslave mankind.
Americans justified these prejudices by drawing on the history of ancient Greece and Rome, and the more recent excesses of Oliver Cromwell and James II. The use that Great Britain made of a few thousand Redcoats to enforce compliance with parliamentary taxes in the Thirteen Colonies between 1763 and 1775 not only intensified American hostility toward standard armies, but it triggered the War of Independence.
Ironically, the men who led America into revolution discovered they could not win independence without creating a regular force of their own—George Washington’s Continental Army. Washington’s Continentals were not the middle-class “embattled farmers” of cherished myth—at least not after the war’s first year or two. The rank and file consisted largely of vagrants, loafers, the unemployed, indentured servants, debtors, free blacks, slaves, enemy deserters, prisoners of war, ordinary criminals, and Loyalists facing execution, along with a healthy sprinkling of enemy deserters. To induce such men “to serve during the present war,” the Continental Congress, the rebellious colonies’ de facto central government, began offering recruits economic enticements in the fall of 1776 (100-acre land grants and $20 bounties—with bounties eventually soaring to $80).
Donna Neary’s “To Execute the Laws” shows President George Washington (in uniform) and Secretary of the Treasury Alexander Hamilton (in civilian clothes) at Carlisle, PA, reviewing the 15,000 federalized militia called out to quell the Whiskey Rebellion in 1794. These troops are what Washington called “the army of the constitution” at the end of the article. (From National Guard Heritage Gallery, National Guard Bureau)