Thursday, June 14, 2018

Evening Note for Thursday, June 14

Thought for the Evening: The Notion of Militia in Scottish Enlightenment Thought

Militias of one sort or another have been a longstanding tradition, but they became a major political topic in the Florentine Renaissance, which put forward two basic ideas: standing armies are inherently dangerous to liberty, and the primary right and responsibility for the defense of any people is the people themselves, qua militia. This spread out across Europe, and interacted with the British common law, which recognized that the whole body of men could be called up as a defensive authority, either against lawbreakers (in posse comitatus) or against invaders (in militia). The British Empire found the militia to be increasingly useful in the colonies as a supplement to regular military forces (particularly the American colonies -- the militia in Bermuda turned out to be particularly successful). And in 1757, Parliament passed the Militia Act to put the English militia on a more organized and regular footing. Scotland, however, was left out in the cold for much of this: a similar bill for Scotland was defeated in 1760. The Parliament of Great Britain was primarily English, and the English did not trust the Scots. Regular regiments had been formed, but a more expansive involvement of the Scots in their own defense was inconsistent with the British policy on dealing with Scottish uprisings, of which there were, of course, quite a few in the eighteenth century, due to the Jacobites. That policy was heavily focused on disarmament of the Highlands. This frustrated Scots, even and perhaps especially pro-Union Scots, because (1) it was yet another way in which the Scots were treated by the English as a second-class member of Great Britain; (2) the actual practical effect of such disarmament attempts had largely been to leave disarmed Union-sympathizing Scots in the Highlands at the mercy of armed Jacobites; and (3) it essentially meant that the Scots had limited power and authority over their own defense, so that habits of dependency would inevitably develop.

Even before the Union there had been some reflection on the importance of the militia to Scottish life, and this helped to set up for much of the Scottish disatisfaction at the failure of the Union Parliament to recognize a Scottish militia. The key figure in this tradition is Andrew Fletcher of Saltoun, who in 1698 wrote an influential work, A Discourse of Government With Relation to Militias. In this work he develops an extended argument for the superiority of a militia over standing army. It makes the argument that it is absolutely essential to a free people for their state not to have a monopoly on force; those who are dependent on standing armies inevitably are at the mercy of those who control the armies. Since the general argument against this view is that standing armies are necessary for defense against other standing armies, he spends some time arguing against this. First, the danger of a standing army is so great that it is more serious than that of foreign invasion. But, second, Fletcher argues that one can distinguish between an "ordinary and ill-regulated" militia and a "well-regulated" militia, the latter being one that is actively supported and given the means to have some organization and training.

Fletcher's conclusions take quite a strong form, then -- the militia is one of the differences between a free people and unfree people:

A good militia is of such importance to a nation, that it is the chief part of the constitution of any free government. For though as to other things, the constitution be never so slight, a good militia will always preserve the public liberty. But in the best constitution that ever was, as to all other parts of government, if the militia be not upon a right foot, the liberty of that people must perish. The militia of ancient Rome, the best that ever was in any government, made her mistress of the world: but standing armies enslaved that great people, and their excellent militia and freedom perished together. The Lacedemonians continued eight hundred years free, and in great honour, because they had a good militia. The Swisses at this day are the freest, happiest, and the people of all Europe who can best defend themselves, because they have the best militia.

In the course of making this argument, he will make a number of other arguments that will also have some influence on later discussions. First, that arms "are the only true badges of liberty". Second, that the disparagement of militias tends to have what we might call it a classist motivation. In a regime with a weak militia, the wealthy and powerful can get out of out their responsibilities to protect the common good; in practice, the poor end up fighting and dying for the liberty of the rich. Third, that militia service, even very basic militia service, can serve an educational purpose in cultivating free and courageous habits of mind, as people see themselves as contributing to their own defense.

It is perhaps unsurprising, then, that when the Scottish Militia Bill was defeated, Scottish intellectuals began to consider what could be done to advocate for a Scottish militia. The result of this, given the club culture of Edinburgh intellectuals, was the Militia Club, founded in 1762. It would very soon afterwards change its name to the Poker Club -- the name was less confrontational and conveyed the notion of stirring up support the way a poker stirs up a fire. Much of the cream of Edinburgh literate society, including David Hume and Adam Smith, were members.

Of the members, perhaps the greatest driving force was Adam Ferguson. He had served as a chaplain in the British army and was a strong admirer of military virtues. Heavily influenced by the civic republican tradition that had been revived by Florentine humanists, he regarded the diffusing of the power of defense among the people as part of the progress of society, and in 1756 had written a work on the subject, Reflections Previous to the Establishment of a Militia. One of Ferguson's arguments is that the foundation of a militia has to begin at a much more fundamental point than actually getting people together for exercises: a militia depends crucially on people already being ready to bear arms, and this requires that they already be accustomed to them. Thus Ferguson argues that "every Restraint should be taken away by which the People are hindered from having or amusing themselves with Arms." This is indeed one of the advantages of a thriving militia over a standing army; the latter tends to predominate in terms of order and discipline, but the former can bring a "Love of Arms" that no amount of military training can instill. Besides "a general Use of arms among the People", Ferguson also argues that ranks in the militia should have an honor equal to other forms of honor (like titles of nobility) and given special precedence in certain matters, in order to increase the interest in active participation by a love of honor. This double foundation, general use of arms and pursuit of honor, Ferguson regards as the one form of defense that is not itself a danger to the liberty of the people.

Fletcher and Ferguson do not agree on all things (for instance, Fletcher opposes, and Ferguson supports, the king having direct authority over the militia), and neither of them agree on all things with others in the Scottish Enlightenment who touch on the matter. For instance, Adam Smith, although agreeing with them about some of the benefits, has comments that can plausibly be taken as suggesting that he has much less of a problem with standing armies than they do.

The notion of a militia had its banner success in 1776, when American militias served as the first basis for what would become the Continental Army. The Scots would get their legally recognized militia in 1797, in part because so many regular troops had been siphoned off to handle the French and the Americans. Pressure from the Napoleonic Wars kept the militia alive as both a form of home defense and a reserve. However, Ferguson had remarked on the tendency of trade empires to depreciate militias in favor of standing armies, and this seems to have held generally throughout the world, as militias residuated into a kind of reserve power and then into a mere nominal existence. The civic-republican interest in the notion that a free people are a militia faded almost everywhere, and the World Wars led to Britain's own militias largely being assimilated by the standing army. Despite its once being regarded as a pillar of freedom, it is hardly recognized today; the Swiss still have the militia culture that once so impressed Scottish and American liberals, and fragments of the idea still play a major role in the national discourse of the United States, but you would be hard pressed to find much of substance anywhere else.

Various Links of Interest

* Richard Marshall interviews Malcolm Keating on Indian philosophy of language.

* Rogier Creemers, China's Social Credit System: An Evolving Practice of Control (PDF)

* One of the most famous and influential psychology experiments of all time, the Stanford Prison Experiment, was, it turns out, manipulated by the experimenter to get the conclusion it reached.

* Trump threw the media in a frenzy (as he does) earlier in June over the question of whether he could pardon himself. In fact, it is a legally unclear area and has been disputed for some time; the two main reference points being the lack of constitutional restriction (except for impeachment) and the fact that legal pardons usually cannot be for the person issuing them. Jack Goldsmith has an evenhanded summary of the current lay of the dispute: A Smorgasbord of Views on Self-Pardoning (PDF).

Currently Reading

Gordon MacKay Brown, Magnus
Neil Gaiman, Norse Mythology
John C. Wright, Superluminary: The Space Vampires

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