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Caractacus on Standing Armies



Philadelphia, August 31, 1775.

New systems of Government advance gradually towards perfection. Men may be free and happy without knowing in what freedom and happiness consist. It is a misfortune to think too highly of a nation as well as of individuals, in as much as we are often led thereby to copy their imperfections along with excellencies. This has been too much the case in our attachment to Great Britain. In our veneration, for her constitution and laws, we have lost sight of those evils which now press down her liberties, and spread desolation and slavery through every part of the Empire. We thrived upon her wholesome milk during our infancy. She then enjoyed a sound constitution. I will not say that it is high time we should be taken from her breasts, but I will say that she has played the harlot in her old age, and that if we continue to press them too closely we shall extract nothing from them but disease and death.

I shall only mention one political evil to which there is too great a propensity in the American Colonies, and that is, a willingness to trust the defence of our country to mercenary troops. I would not be understood here to insinuate the least reflection upon our brave countrymen who are now encamped around Boston: a mercenary army was absolutely necessary in that place, as the militia of that country were unequal to the toil and expense of besieging and watching the motions of our enemies. Mercenaries are, moreover, necessary when the machinations of an enemy render offensive war justifiable. The expedition to Ticonderoga, which was dictated by the first law of nature, could be conducted only by mercenary troops.

What I aim only to condemn is the practice of several of our Provincial Conventions in taking a number of Minute-Men into pay. These men must always be composed of people of the smallest property, and perhaps of the least virtue among us. They must associate together in barracks or camps, and in proportion as this become the case, they will lose the gentleness and sobriety of citizens. The military spirit by being transferred from the bulk of a country to a few mercenaries, is gradually monopolized by them, so that in a few years, from being our servants, we furnish them with the means of becoming our masters. Moreover, it is impossible for the proportion of men which each Colony can raise to be equal to all the exigencies of surprises and descents upon our coasts. A city may be burnt, or an island may be plundered while an army of minute-men are pursuing a handful of our enemies, sent into another part of the country on purpose to decoy them. I say nothing of the expense of supporting these minutemen, for if they were necessary, millions should be like


the dust of the balance, when weighed against the appointment of them.

A standing army in a part of a country which is not the immediate seat of war, is attended with all the inconveniences and dangers of a standing army in the most profound peace. History is dyed in blood when it speaks of the ravages which standing armies have committed upon the liberties of mankind: officers and soldiers of the best principles and characters have been converted into instruments of tyranny, by the arts of wicked Ministers and Kings. Cromwell overturned the commonwealth of England with the remains of his army of saints. Nor is the small size of a standing army any security against the dangers to be apprehended from them. King James the Second, at the head of only two thousand mercenaries, defeated the popular Duke of Monmouth at the head of eight thousand men, and was led from his success in this battle to trample under his feet the most sacred rights of his country. It is true the same mercenaries afterwards threw down their arms, and refused to oppose the landing of King William, but it was only because their royal master offended them, by lavishing military promotions upon his Roman Catholick subjects. In a word, had I the wings and tongue of an angel, I would fly from one end of the Continent to the other at the present juncture, and proclaim constantly in the ears of my countrymen, Beware of standing armies.

The Congress have recommended a perfect plan for a military law to the Colonies. They have ordered every man between sixteen and fifty to be completely armed and disciplined, and a fourth part of these, in rotation, to be ready to march into any part of their own, or a neighbouring Colony only, at a minute' s warning. This proportion of men is to be provided with tents and provisions. The rest of the inhabitants of each Colony are to be fully provided with arms, powder and ball, as mentioned in the order of the Congress.

It is needless to declaim long upon the advantages of a well regulated militia. A knowledge of the use of arms is the only condition of freedom. This knowledge often precludes the use of arms; for wars we find are generally made upon defenceless countries. It is impossible to subdue a country of any extent where every citizen is a soldier, and every soldier a citizen. The Republick of Switzerland has preserved its peace, as well as its freedom, longer than any country in Europe. The reason is plain: in Switzerland the soldier and the citizen are united in the same person.

The Athenian and Spartan militia were constantly victorious over the innumerable mercenaries of Persia. The Romans conquered the world in the Republican times with armies of unpaid militia: the wealth and power of Carthage, which were supported by a mercenary army, fell before them. Some people I know have ascribed the victories of the ancient Republicks less to the discipline of their militia, than to those God-like virtues which were inspired by the form of their Governments. They tell us that in countries where every man has property, and an equal right to a share in the legislation, to offer a soldier pay for his services is to offer a man a draught upon himself. I acknowledge I am not prepared to answer these encomiums upon popular Governments. I shall therefore beg leave to resume my subject.

A militia man is under many obligations to acquit himself well in the day of trial, which never can operate upon a mercenary soldier. He fights in the society of the companions of his youth, whom perhaps, he has often roused to a zeal for their country. He fights within sight of the roof under which he drew his first breath, of the cradle in which he was rocked, and of the soil from which he has derived all his nourishment and property; perhaps his head at the same time is moistened with the tears of a venerable father or mother, shed in prayers for the success of his arms. Stop! thou mercenary caitiff; lay down thy arms; let go thy plunder; and oblige not our hero to stain his patrimony with thy guilty blood! It is impiety to believe that a freeman thus animated can ever be conquered.

It has been said that the Military Association is not general, and that some men (not conscientiously scrupulous against bearing arms) have not subscribed it. I leave it to


the wisdom of the Congress to decree some punishment for such delinquents. I cannot however help thinking it a little extraordinary, that the importer of a few English goods should be advertised as an enemy to his country, and all intercourse be forbidden with him, and that an American should be suffered to fold his arms in his breast, while every part of his country is open to the attack of an enemy. Such a man is an importer of slavery, and in spite of all his boasted zeal or artful subterfuges, I maintain that he is, in the worst sense of the words, an enemy to his Country.