Monday, January 17, 2011

America's Anti-Militarist Founders

The reviewer confesses that when he read "American University historian Arthur Ekirch's book on the anti-militarist tradition in the U.S. (it was originally published in 1956), [he] had no idea that there was an anti-militarist tradition in this country" — Alan Bock book review: U.S. has an anti-militarist tradition. Really.

Mr. Bock says that "as Mr. Ekirch documents thoroughly, opposition to militarism, including an almost paranoid fear of having a standing army in peacetime, is deeply ingrained in our history and was embraced enthusiastically by almost all the founders." Some history:
    This concern originated with our English heritage. As an island nation, difficult to invade, England could afford to oppose militarism, and most English people looked with horror on what seemed to be a constant round of wars on the Continent as the nation-state system was being established beginning in the 1600s. Even the militia, the citizen army subject to call in crisis "was popular only when it remained an idealized or sentimentalized kind of paper army; organized into a trained body of semiregular troops, it was no more acceptable than a professional army."

    Separated from potential adversaries by 3,000 miles of ocean and imbued with English ideas about individual freedom and civil supremacy, the young United States embraced this tradition. The president was named commander-in-chief to ensure civilian control of the military. Although our first president was a former general, he retired eagerly to civilian life and warned of the danger of entangling alliances leading to war.

    Federalist plans to create a regular army, bring state militias under national control and require military service of all young men were soundly defeated. A navy was created only on the understanding that it would be used solely for coastal defense. Building too many ships capable of sailing the high seas was seen as a temptation to seek imperial outposts abroad.

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Blogger Mark in Spokane said...

One other point -- when the Founders did embrace a robust military, it was almost always for defensive reasons, because of external threats. The Federalist effort to build an army in the 1790's was due to the threat of French invasion (and French plans to work with Jeffersonians in the South to rebuild the French Empire in North America). Hamiliton and Adams worked to build an army to repel an a French or Spanish invasion. Adams worked to build the Navy for the same reason, to protect America and American shipping with "wooden walls." Even Jefferson's undeclared war against the Barbary Corsairs was defensive in nature -- the Corsairs were attacking American shipping and enslaving American crew members.

It is only with the war of 1812 that the Jeffersonian War Hawks (Madison and an up and coming John C. Calhoun) embraced the idea of aggressive war. And they were willing to jeopardize the Union to accomplish their goal of war against Great Britain, a war that was a disaster for the United States. And it was the political heirs of the Jeffersonians, the Democrats, who moved the country towards its first truly imperial war, the War Against Mexico. And it was the political heirs of the Federalists -- the Whigs -- who stood athwart that war, including a young Whig congressman from Illinois, Abraham Lincoln, who argued against the dreams of Empire and for the restrained and limited federal government that was the legacy of our Founding Fathers.

2:31 PM  
Blogger The Western Confucian said...

Your history lesson is spot on.

Still, I would not let the failings of Jefferson as president and his later followers besmirch the name of the Anti-Federalists of 1787. That would be like lumping the Reagan who wisely disentangled us from Beirut with the Bush who foolishly entangled us in Iraq, just because they were members of the same party.

4:22 PM  
Blogger Mark in Spokane said...

There is a difference between the anti-federalists, as you point out, and the Jeffersonians. Just as there is a difference between the Jeffersonian Republicans (who later became the Democrats under Jackson) and the "Old Republicans" or "Tertium Quids" under John Randolph of Roanoke and John Taylor of Caroline. The Old Republicans broke with the Jeffersonians when it became clear that Jefferson and Madison were not actually in favor of any of the things that they claimed to be in favor of when opposing Adams and Hamilton. The Old Republicans had a noble and principled position against aggressive foreign wars and against efforts to expand executive power (which was the immediate topic that lead to the breach between Randolph and Jefferson, as Russell Kirk points out in his first book, a biography of Randolph).

When the GOP was forming as a national political party in the mid-1850's, it formed from the remnants of the Whig Party (which was imploding at the time) and the strands of the Old Republicans who still existed -- the political descendants of Randolph. This is why they called themselves the Republican Party -- as a harkening back to the "Old Republicans." And this why they called themselves "The Grand Old Party." The "Old Party" that they were alluding to was the "Old Republican Party." Lincoln sought to embody this fusion of the Whigs and the Old Republicans, a fusion of America's two great conservative traditions into one political party committed to the principles of natural rights (life, liberty and property).

4:38 PM  

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