From the Introduction
IN THE BEGINNING, America’s armed forces had their roots in the needs and democratic spirit of its people. None of the colonies could afford to maintain a standing body of regular soldiers, and none had the slightest desire to do so. But there was a need for defense against Indian attack, and so all the colonies except Quaker Pennsylvania made provision for a popular militia.
Colonial militias were based upon the principle of universal male obligation. All men, usually between the ages of 16 and do, were required to arm themselves and muster for drill about half a dozen times a year. New England militiamen elected their company officers. Elsewhere militias were commanded by colonial governors, with the elected assemblies maintaining control of expenditures and close surveillance over all military operations.
In practice, the need never arose for the simultaneous service of every able-bodied male in a colony. Consequently, when a limited number of troops was required for a specific campaign, the legislatures assigned quotas to local militia districts. Local officers then called for volunteers. If a sufficient number did not step forward, they would draft men for the duration of the campaign. One very important limitation, however, applied to the use of militiamen except in special circumstances: they could not be sent against their will on expeditions outside the boundaries of their colony.
This form of military organization suited the new settlements well. As farmers, craftsmen, and traders, the colonists’ prime concern was earning a living. To their way of thinking, it was neither necessary nor desirable to create a special class of full-time soldiers, separate from, supported by, and inherently dangerous to, the general body of citizens.
The Revolution spawned the first standing army of Americans. But despite the importance of the cause, the Continental Congress was almost as wary of its military creature as it was eager to expel the British. The last thing Congress wanted was a native Cromwell emerging from the ranks of the Continental Army, and though Washington had no such inclinations, Congress eyed him apprehensively nonetheless.
The “regulars” in the Continental Army consisted of militia regiments provided by the states, and Washington was hard-pressed to mold them into a disciplined force. For one thing, they kept returning to their farms when their enlistments expired. For another, they were unused to the kind of formalized, European-style fighting that Washington fell was necessary to defeat the British redcoats and Hessian mercenaries.
At times during the eight-year struggle, it appeared as though Washington’s army would completely disintegrate. Volunteers, food and supplies were often perilously low. But Washington kept his band of regulars together and gradually began to instill in them the discipline he sought. In the end, it was Washington’s main-force regiments, assisted by a fleet of French warships, that surrounded Cornwallis at Yorktown and sealed the victory.
TWO HUNDRED years later, an American standing army is bogged down in a war that has nothing to do with our national independence or defense. The tragedy is that, while the army’s power to turn American citizens into obedient executors of government policy is now vast, that power has never been less legitimate.