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Firearms stand next in importance to the constitution itself.
- George Washington
Every citizen should be a soldier.
Few questions provoked more Constitutional debate than whether a militia or standing army was the best way to provide for the nation’s defense. This issue got at the heart of Enlightenment political and ethical theories, including the obligation of citizens to defend the country, the martial character of public virtue, and the role of a federal government to field a professional army. Considerations included the costs of maintaining a standing army versus relying on citizen-soldiers; the risks that a standing army could seize power; and whether courage should be actively promoted among the citizenry. These calculations required balancing military power, financial costs, and other practical factors, against the intangibles of character and virtue.
Jefferson, more than any other founder, thought about the issue of a militia versus a standing army. Later, as the nation’s third president, he stated in his first address to Congress that a militia should “maintain the defense until the regulars may be engaged to relieve them.” At the heart of Jefferson’s defense strategy was his belief that Americans trained and organized in arms would permit the country’s regular army to be substantially smaller or, ideally, abolished. His recommendation was to institute military training for all males, and count on society’s natural aristocracy to serve as their officers. Although they would not be professional soldiers, Jefferson believed that a force of citizen-soldiers would fight with greater zeal and loyalty in the defense of their homeland than would paid professionals. Jefferson also pointed out the risk of a coup d’état with the standing “army making the civil subordinate to the military” would be largely mitigated by a militia since “the supreme power is ever possessed by those who have arms in their hands . . . .” In his reading of history, power rested with those possessing the most weapons, and Jefferson wanted them to be in the hands of citizens, guaranteeing their freedom.
Jefferson’s martial views were rooted in classical tradition. He declared, “Every citizen should be a soldier,” reminding his fellow Americans, “This was the case with the Greeks and the Romans and must be that of every free state . . . . We can never be safe until this is done.” For Jefferson and other traditionalists, this was more than an economical way to enroll unpaid soldiers, but was indeed an ideology that had been part of Western philosophy since Aristotle. In this paradigm, bravery was essential to personal and public virtue (hence its designation as “primary”). Aristotle explained that courage was cultivated by doing brave acts, and, by repeatedly overcoming adversity during conflict, a virtuous cycle was created that would reinforce noble behavior until “the courageous man is dauntless as a human being.” And this courage was more than just martial; it could be called upon any time adversity appeared and the citizen had to “endure it in the right way and as reason directs for the sake of acting nobly.” According to Aristotle, a citizenry trained to handle weapons and invoke combat discipline would act “according to the merits of each case and as reason guides him . . . . Thus it is for a noble end that a courageous man endures and acts as courage demands.” When Jefferson stated, “No freeman shall be deprived the use of arms within his own lands,” he was speaking to the philosophical as well as the political issue.
Washington, like Jefferson, believed in the benefits of a militia system. While still commanding the Continental Army at the end of the Revolution, he proposed a postwar army that had three thousand regular troops, but relied on a robust militia for most of the nation’s defense. He wrote “the basis of our system” would be for every male from the age of 18 to 50 enlisted “on the militia rolls, provided with uniform arms, and so far accustomed to the use of them, that the total strength of the country might be called forth at a short notice . . . .” Later, in 1790, he submitted to Congress a proposal for Organization of the Militia, in which “An energetic national militia is to be regarded as the capital security of a free republic, and not a standing army . . . .” Such a militia would be akin to the Revolution’s Minutemen, ready to grab their weapons at a minute’s notice.
Being in a state of perfect preparation for war is the only sure and infallible means of producing peace.
Washington shared with his fellow Founders a belief that when the entire population was trained in the military arts, “A glorious national spirit will be introduced, with its extensive train of political consequences. The youth will imbibe a love of country; reverence and obedience to its laws; courage and elevation of mind; openness and liberality of character; accompanied by a just spirit of honor; in addition to which their bodies will acquire a robustness, greatly conducive to their personal happiness, as well as the defense of their country . . . .” Washington went even further by stating that the need for a large standing army was to concede loss of public virtue: “It is the introduction and diffusion of vice, and corruption of manners into the mass of the people, that renders a standing army necessary. It is when public spirit is despised, and avarice, indolence, and effeminacy of manners predominate, and prevent the establishment of institutions which would elevate the minds of the youth in the paths of virtue and honor, that a standing army is formed and riveted for years . . . .”
It was no surprise that Washington, an American version of Cincinnatus, would list moral reasons in advocating an armed citizenry. But many others did too. For most of the Convention delegates, standing armies were a “useless and an enormous expense” and represented an institution that was contrary to supporting the American character they codified in the Constitution. A militia system had citizens equally bearing responsibility for the nation’s defense, or as one congressman observed in 1790:
“A people who mean to continue free must be prepared to meet danger in person; not to rely on the fallacious protection of mercenary armies.”
But Hamilton vehemently disagreed. He worried that citizens would become so absorbed in their commercial ways during times of peace, that they would not take to soldiering. He wrote in Federalist no. 8 that the country needed a standing army “distinct from the body of citizens.” He represented for the Federalists’ position, opining, “The best we can hope for concerning the people at large is that they be properly armed.” Hamilton wasn’t deprecating the value of martial character; in fact he lauded it for making “human nature rise above itself, in acts of bravery and heroism.” But he legitimately feared that commercial lifestyles weakened the fortitude of moneymaking citizens until they lost their will to fight and became unreliable soldiers. Enlightenment philosophers supported this same concern: Good-natured David Hume, no sword-waving warrior himself, observed that years of peace in the British Empire caused Englishmen to become comfortable with “a more civilized life, entirely unfit for the use of arms.” Adam Smith (1723–1790), more known for his free-market theories than for ethics, wrote about “the disadvantages of the commercial spirit.” He warned that a society preoccupied with business would have its “heroic spirit almost utterly extinguished.” Thirty years before the Constitutional debates, Smith advised: “To remedy these defects would be an object worthy of serious attention.”
Some Enlightenment philosophers were even more explicit describing the link between martial character and a virtuous society. Francis Bacon despaired: “We have now two things left, our arms and our virtue; and if we yield up our arms, how shall we make use of our virtue?” John Locke made carrying weapons essential to being an aristocrat: “A gentleman of any age, ought to be so bred, as to be fitted to bear arms, and be a soldier.” Adam Ferguson (1723–1816), Scottish philosopher and “father of sociology,” wrote deeply on this point: “To separate the arts which form the citizen and the statesman, from the arts of policy and war, is an attempt to dismember the human character, and to destroy the arts we seek to improve.”
In an eventual compromise, it was agreed that America would have a standing military to protect its interests abroad and militias controlled by the states to defend the homeland. The militia system was less expensive, could quickly field vast forces, and had defenders widely distributed throughout the country to counter invasion from any direction. Madison, in Federalist no. 46, highlighted the numerical advantage that “a militia amounting to near half a million citizens with arms in their hands” would have over any standing army. But those rational calculations paled in comparison to the moral consequences of imbuing martial qualities among the citizenry. In testament to the connection between public virtue and the warrior ideal, a 1786 copper coin had Washington’s image on one side and a Roman’s on the other, with the Latin words, Non vi virtute vici: "I triumphed by virtue, not by violence."
Later came the Second Amendment guaranteeing citizen ownership of arms, for which James Madison wrote that “the right of the people to keep and bear arms shall not be infringed.” Jefferson wrote in fierce agreement:
The beauty of the Second Amendment is that it will not be needed until they try to take it.
- Thomas Jefferson
But for the Founding Fathers, citizens possessing arms was not only as a means to fend off tyranny but as an instrument to nuture the martial spirit of American character. Jefferson, who was not the most militant Founder, even advised carrying a gun for daily exercise to "stamp character on the mind":
A strong body makes the mind strong. As to the species of exercises, I advise the gun. While this gives moderate exercise to the body, it gives boldness, enterprise, and independence to the mind. Games played with the ball and others of that nature, are too violent for the body and stamp no character on the mind. Let your gun therefore be the constant companion of your walks.
- Thomas Jefferson