Republicanism and War

views updated


When North American colonists protested British parliamentary measures in the 1760s and 1770s, they drew upon a rich tradition of political thought. One particularly virulent strand of opposition rhetoric informing their thinking came from a group of English writers known as Commonwealth men, who emphasized that concentrations of power in government were dangerous, especially the concentration that came from a standing army, which they warned could be used against the free subjects of a state. These ideas resonated powerfully in the colonies after the French and Indian War (1754–1763) as Parliament began reforming its imperial policies. Patriot leaders associated the British army with conspiracies and corruption and claimed that the army was at the center of a plot by Parliament to deprive Americans of their liberties and enslave them. When redcoats were stationed in Boston and civil-military conflicts increased, militant patriots saw it as evidence that their worst fears were coming true.


Drawing on these same strands of political thought, patriot leaders emphasized the merits of a republican polity in opposition to what they saw as the tyranny of British rule. In theory at least, republicanism meant that the people would be the basis of all government and act for the common good. But under a republican government, the people also had the duty and obligation to maintain private and public virtue, social harmony, and vigilance against usurpations of power. In time, active participation in the militia by responsible—and property-owning—citizens acting for the common good came to be seen as the very embodiment of republicanism. If the colonies had citizens virtuous enough to defend themselves and their liberties through their active participation in the militia, they could achieve a truly republican government.

When New England militia scored important initial victories over the British army at Concord and Breed's Hill, the importance of the militia was underscored. Initially, patriot leaders tried to capitalize on these successes by creating a republican army—one composed of citizen-soldiers serving for short periods and paid no bounties—rather than a professional army such as the British army. However, militia would not stay in the field longer than they thought necessary, nor would they take orders from superior officers easily. In response, as early as 1776, Congress, under pressure from George Washington and other officers, made moves to create a much bigger, more professional army that looked remarkably like the one that political writers had excoriated. Offering large enlistment bounties in return for long periods of service, the patriots fell back on a familiar colonial tradition of paying professional soldiers to do the bulk of the fighting.

distrust of a standing army

Republicanism and ideas about the importance of the militia continued to significantly affect mobilization, however. Although it is difficult to know just how widespread anti-standing army feeling was among the colonists, the division between the army and the militia was clear. Some historians have concluded that few middle class colonists joined the army because of the stigma attached to soldiers in a professional force. That meant the army was filled with men from the lower classes—those who had little property of their own and were young, foreign-born, or African American. Yet because of popular opposition to professional armies, Washington never got what he wanted either—a fully professionalized force serving for the duration of the war. Ordinary Americans frustrated most attempts to conscript soldiers for anything but short terms of service.

There is little evidence to suggest a widespread wartime fear of the Continental army as an instrument of coercion. Congress, for example, never granted General Washington all the powers and measures he requested, but they were prepared to grant him virtually dictatorial authority for at least three brief periods. There were, however, civil-military tensions. Many citizens withheld or hid supplies and generally failed to support the army in time of need. In return, soldiers often stole from locals and officers seized and impressed needed goods and supplies from outraged citizens. In the end, the patriot cause came to rely almost wholly on the efforts of Washington to keep the army together and in the field, and the majority of Americans turned their backs on the army. Many turned out when needed as militia, but most had little to do with the army.

The persistent but inaccurate perception that the army was unnecessary to the winning of independence also shaped postwar policy toward a peacetime army. As the army began to demobilize at the end of the war, soldiers demanding full payment of their accounts mutinied, and officers demanding lifetime pensions in return for their wartime services (culminating in the so-called Newburgh conspiracy), helped reignite anti-standing army ideas. Although Washington himself advocated a small peacetime army, ideology and a poor economy meant that the army was fully demobilized. The lack of a standing army in the post-war period helped push some nationalists into supporting a constitutional convention, as they worried about the internal and external security of the Confederation in the 1780s.

legacy of the revolution

In the debate over the Constitution, both Federalists and anti-Federalists invoked republican principles in defending or opposing federal control over the military. In the end, the Constitution reflected Federalist arguments, giving Congress stronger powers and the exclusive right to declare war and raise and support an army and navy, and making the president the commander in chief when at war. Congress was also given control over a nationalized militia. These powers were tempered, however, by a provision that limited any appropriation for the army to two years, and by dividing power over the military between Congress and the executive branch. Anti-Federalists won concessions in the Bill of Rights, where the Second Amendment protected states and individuals against any misuse of a national army by affirming the importance of the militia and the Third Amendment protected citizens from home invasions by an army.

Almost immediately, Indian resistance in the western regions forced the federal government to raise a "legion" of 5,000 men, which was never fully disbanded. This was the beginning of a national standing army in peacetime. Almost at the same time, Congress passed the Uniform Militia Act of 1792, which put much of the responsibility for the state militias back into the hands of the state governments. Mirroring the Revolutionary War experience, America's military establishment would henceforth rest primarily on a regular army, supplemented by state militias. By the end of the War of 1812, and with the recent wars of the French Revolution in mind, most Americans agreed that only a professional military could meet the needs of national security during war and peace in the new world, although continued hostility to a regular army persisted, particularly from advocates of the militia, and the principle of civilian control of the military remains a central feature of American culture.


Carp, E. Wayne. "The Problem of National Defence in the Early Republic." In The American Revolution: Its Character and Limits, edited by Jack P. Greene. New York: New York University Press, 1987.

Cress, Lawrence Delbert. Citizens in Arms: The Army and Militia in American Society to the War of 1812. Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 1982.

Higginbotham, Don. The War of American Independence: Military Attitudes, Policies, and Practice, 1763–1789. New York: Macmillan, 1971.

Kohn, Richard H. Eagle and Sword: The Beginnings of the Military Establishment in America. New York: Free Press, 1975.

Mahon, John K. History of the Militia and the National Guard. New York: Macmillan, 1983.

Martin, James Kirby, and Lender, Mark Edward. A Respectable Army: The Military Origins of the Republic, 1763–1789. Arlington Heights, IL: Harlan Davidson, 1982.

Royster, Charles. A Revolutionary People War: The Continental Army and American Character, 1775–1783. Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 1979.

Shalhope, Robert E. The Roots of Democracy: American Thought and Culture, 1760–1800. Boston, MA: Twayne, 1990.

Watts, Steven. The Republic Reborn: War and the Making of Liberal America, 1790–1820. Baltimore, MD: Johns Hopkins University Press, 1987.

Michael A. McDonnell

See also:Commonwealth Men; Mobilization, War for Independence.