The Founders’ Case for a Strong Militia Over Standing Armies


One of the primary reasons the founders wanted a strong militia system with a well-armed general public was to minimize or even eliminate the need for a large, permanent standing army, even in times of peace. 

Most people in the founding generation were extremely wary of standing armies. They were often referred to as “the bane of liberty.”

They knew this from experience. From the standing armies that led to the massacre in Boston, to the gun control scheme that kicked off the war for independence – they lived it firsthand. As colonial resistance to taxes and other policies grew in 1774, the British responded by attempting to disarm the colonists.

Noah Webster understood this danger well, saying, “Before a standing army can rule, the people must be disarmed.”

George Mason also minced no words.

“I abominate and detest the idea of a government, where there is a standing army.”

St George Tucker warned what would happen if there was a standing army and the people were disarmed: 

“This may be considered the true palladium of liberty. … The right of self defense is the first law of nature: in most governments it has been the study of rulers to confine this right within the narrowest limits possible. Wherever standing armies are kept up, and the right of the people to keep and bear arms is, under any color or pretext whatsoever, prohibited, liberty, if not already annihilated, is on the brink of destruction.”

This is why so many in the founding generation favored a strong militia system.

Patrick Henry summed it up during the Virginia ratifying convention. 

“The militia, sir, is our ultimate safety. We can have no security without it.”

Why did the founders trust the militia and not a standing army? Because as George Mason said, the militia consists of “the whole people, except a few public officers.”

In other words, the people ultimately maintain control over the militia. In fact, they are the militia. But the government controls a standing army. It effectively serves as an extension of the government.

Henry Knox served as the first secretary of war in the U.S., and he recognized this distinction. In a letter to George Washington sharing his plan for organizing the militia dated 18 Jan. 1790, he emphasized that the militia should provide the primary defense and a standing army was distinct from the people at large.

“An energetic national militia is to be regarded as the Capital security of a free republic; and not a standing army, forming a distinct class in the community.”

He went on to say that “whatever may be the efficacy of a standing army in war, it cannot in peace be considered as friendly to the rights of human nature.” [Emphasis added]

Knox reflected a broadly-held view in the founding generation. People generally acknowledged the need for a standing army during times of war. Some even recognized the utility of a small standing army in times of peace. But virtually everybody understood standing armies posed a danger in peacetime. The militia served as an alternative – a first line of defense.

This view shaped the drafting of the militia clause at the Philadelphia Convention.

George Mason brought up the subject of federal regulation of the militia, saying he “hoped there would be no standing army in time of peace unless it might be for a few garrisons.

“The militia ought therefore to be the more effectually prepared for public defence.”

Mason conceded that “an absolute prohibition of standing armies in times of peace might be unsafe.” So, desiring to point out and guard against their danger, he moved to preface the militia clause by adding the words “And that the liberties of the people may be better secured against the danger of standing armies in times of peace.”

This language wasn’t ultimately included in the Constitution, but it shows the thinking of the framers as they were drafting the Constitution, and underscores their widely-held worries about a standing army.

Even Alexander Hamilton acknowledged this point in Federalist #29, writing, “If standing armies are dangerous to liberty, an efficacious power over the militia, in the body to whose care the protection of the state is committed, ought, as far as possible, to take away the inducement and the pretext to such an unfriendly situation.”

“To render an army unnecessary, will be a more certain method of preventing its existence than a thousand prohibitions upon paper.”

During the Philadelphia Convention, James Madison also argued that a good militia would minimize or even prevent the need for standing armies.

“As the greatest danger to liberty is from large standing armies, it is best to prevent them by an effectual provision for a good militia.”

This drives home the point that the reason for having a well-armed populace isn’t just for shooting deer, or for personal defense, or even for defending against foreign enemies. The founding generation believed it was necessary to reduce the need for a standing army.

When Thomas Jefferson first read a copy of the proposed Constitution, he urged James Madison to provide for “the substitution of militia for a standing army.

During the Virginia ratifying convention, the question came up as to why the general government was given the power to call forth the militia. Madison emphasized that “if insurrections should arise, or invasions should take place, the people ought to unquestioningly be employed, to suppress and repel them, rather than a standing army.

This reiterated the point he made during the Philadelphia Convention.

“The best way to do these things is to put the militia on a good and sure footing, and enable the government to make use of their services when necessary.”

He went on to argue that “the most effectual way to guard against a standing army is to render it unnecessary.

How do you do that?

“Give the general government full power to call forth the militia, and exert the whole natural strength of the Union, when necessary.”

Tench Coxe also argued for a strong militia in order to mitigate the need for a standing army. He said, “The militia, who are in fact the effective part of the people at large, will render many troops quite unnecessary.”

During the Virginia Ratifying Convention, James Monroe gave perhaps the best summary of the importance of the well-armed militia.

“All countries are more or less exposed to danger, either from insurrection or invasion and the greater the authority of Congress over this respectable body of men, in whose hands every thing would be safe, the less necessity there would be, to have recourse to the bane of all societies, the destroyer of the rights of men, a standing army.”

Michael Boldin
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