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Thomas Jefferson on Politics & Government

47. The Military & the Militia

A standing army has always been used by despots to enforce their rule and to keep their people under subjection. Its existence was therefore considered a great threat to peace and stability in a republic and a danger to the rights of the nation. Since every aspect of government was designed to prevent the rise of tyranny, strict limits and control over the military were considered absolutely necessary. It was essential that the military be subordinate to civilian control.

"The supremacy of the civil over the military authority I deem [one of] the essential principles of our Government, and consequently [one of] those which ought to shape its administration." --Thomas Jefferson: 1st Inaugural, 1801.

"The freest governments in the world have their army under absolute government. Republican form and principles [are] not to be introduced into government of an army." --Thomas Jefferson: Notes Concerning the Right of Removal from Office, 1780. Papers 4:282

"[A commander who conducts a] great military contest with wisdom and fortitude [will] invariably [regard] the rights of the civil power through all disasters and changes." --Thomas Jefferson: Address to George Washington, 1783.(*) Papers 6:413

"Instead of subjecting the military to the civil power, [a tyrant will make] the civil subordinate to the military. But can [he] thus put down all law under his feet? Can he erect a power superior to that which erected himself? He [can do] it indeed by force, but let him remember that force cannot give right." --Thomas Jefferson: Rights of British America, 1774.(*) ME 1:209, Papers 1:134

"No military commander should be so placed as to have no civil superior." --Thomas Jefferson to Samuel Smith, 1801. FE 8:29

47.1 The Uses of the Military

"It is probable... that not knowing how to use the military as a civil weapon, [the civil authority] will do too much or too little with it." --Thomas Jefferson to William Carmichael, 1789.

"To carry on our war with success, we want able officers, and a sufficient number of soldiers. The former, time and trial can alone give us; to procure the latter, we need only the tender of sufficient inducements and the assiduous pressure of them on the proper subjects." --Thomas Jefferson to John Clarke, 1814. ME 14:79

"Bonaparte will conquer the world, if they do not learn his secret of composing armies of young men only, whose enthusiasm and health enable them to surmount all obstacles." --Thomas Jefferson to Barnabas Bidwell, 1806. ME 11:116

"There should be a school of instruction for our navy as well as artillery; and I do not see why the same establishment might not suffice for both. Both require the same basis of general mathematics, adding projectiles and fortifications for the artillery exclusively, and astronomy and theory of navigation exclusively for the naval students." --Thomas Jefferson to John Adams, 1821. ME 15:334

"Neither a nation nor those entrusted with its affairs could be justifiable, however sanguine their expectations, in trusting solely to an engine not yet sufficiently tried under all the circumstances which may occur, and against which we know not as yet what means of parrying may be devised." --Thomas Jefferson to Robert Fulton, 1807. ME 11:328

"I believe now we should be gainers were we to burn our whole navy, and build what we should be able on plans approved by experience and not warped to the whimsical ideas of individuals, who do not consider that if their projects miscarry their country is in a manner undone." --Thomas Jefferson to Richard Henry Lee, 1779. Papers 3:39

47.2 Against Standing Armies

"There are instruments so dangerous to the rights of the nation and which place them so totally at the mercy of their governors that those governors, whether legislative or executive, should be restrained from keeping such instruments on foot but in well-defined cases. Such an instrument is a standing army." --Thomas Jefferson to David Humphreys, 1789. ME 7:323

"I do not like [in the new Federal Constitution] the omission of a Bill of Rights providing clearly and without the aid of sophisms for... protection against standing armies." --Thomas Jefferson to James Madison, 1787. ME 6:387

"Nor is it conceived needful or safe that a standing army should be kept up in time of peace for [defense against invasion]." --Thomas Jefferson: 1st Annual Message, 1801. ME 3:334

"Standing armies [are] inconsistent with [a people's] freedom and subversive of their quiet." --Thomas Jefferson: Reply to Lord North's Proposition, 1775. Papers 1:231

"The spirit of this country is totally adverse to a large military force." --Thomas Jefferson to Chandler Price, 1807. ME 11:160

"A distinction between the civil and military [is one] which it would be for the good of the whole to obliterate as soon as possible." --Thomas Jefferson: Answers to de Meusnier Questions, 1786. ME 17:90

"It is nonsense to talk of regulars. They are not to be had among a people so easy and happy at home as ours. We might as well rely on calling down an army of angels from heaven." --Thomas Jefferson to James Monroe, 1814. ME 14:207

"There shall be no standing army but in time of actual war." --Thomas Jefferson: Draft Virginia Constitution, 1776. Papers 1:363

"The Greeks and Romans had no standing armies, yet they defended themselves. The Greeks by their laws, and the Romans by the spirit of their people, took care to put into the hands of their rulers no such engine of oppression as a standing army. Their system was to make every man a soldier and oblige him to repair to the standard of his country whenever that was reared. This made them invincible; and the same remedy will make us so." --Thomas Jefferson to Thomas Cooper, 1814. ME 14:184

"Bonaparte... transferred the destinies of the republic from the civil to the military arm. Some will use this as a lesson against the practicability of republican government. I read it as a lesson against the danger of standing armies." --Thomas Jefferson to Samuel Adams, 1800. ME 10:154

47.3 Against Forced Enlistment

"In this country, [a draught from the militia] ever was the most unpopular and impracticable thing that could be attempted. Our people, even under the monarchical government, had learnt to consider it as the last of all oppressions." --Thomas Jefferson to John Adams, 1777. ME 4:286, Papers 2:18

"The breaking men to military discipline is breaking their spirits to principles of passive obedience." --Thomas Jefferson to John Jay, 1788. ME 7:19

47.4 Controlling the Military

"If no check can be found to keep the number of standing troops within safe bounds while they are tolerated as far as necessary, abandon them altogether, discipline well the militia and guard the magazines with them. More than magazine guards will be useless if few and dangerous if many. No European nation can ever send against us such a regular army as we need fear, and it is hard if our militia are not equal to those of Canada or Florida." --Thomas Jefferson to James Madison, 1788.

"Our duty is... to act upon things as they are and to make a reasonable provision for whatever they may be. Were armies to be raised whenever a speck of war is visible in our horizon, we never should have been without them. Our resources would have been exhausted on dangers which have never happened instead of being reserved for what is really to take place." --Thomas Jefferson: 6th Annual Message, 1806. ME 3:424

"[Montesquieu wrote in his Spirit of the Laws, XIII,c.17:] 'As soon as one prince augments his forces, the rest, of course, do the same; so that nothing is gained thereby but the public ruin.'" --Thomas Jefferson: copied into his Commonplace Book.

"The following [addition to the Bill of Rights] would have pleased me:... All troops of the United States shall stand ipso facto disbanded at the expiration of the term for which their pay and subsistence shall have been last voted by Congress, and all officers and soldiers not natives of the United States shall be incapable of serving in their armies by land except during a foreign war." --Thomas Jefferson to James Madison, 1789.

47.5 A Navy for Protection

"Every rational citizen must wish to see an effective instrument of coercion, and should fear to see it on any other element than the water. A naval force can never endanger our liberties, nor occasion bloodshed; a land force would do both." --Thomas Jefferson to James Monroe, 1786. ME 5:386

"I am for relying for internal defense on our militia solely till actual invasion, and for such a naval force only as may protect our coasts and harbors from such depredations as we have experienced; and not for a standing army in time of peace which may overawe the public sentiment; nor for a navy which, by its own expenses and the eternal wars in which it will implicate us, will grind us with public burthens and sink us under them." --Thomas Jefferson to Elbridge Gerry, 1799. ME 10:77

"A navy is a very expensive engine. It is admitted that in ten or twelve years a vessel goes to entire decay; of, if kept in repair, costs as much as would build a new one; and that a nation who could count on twelve or fifteen years of peace, would gain by burning its navy and building a new one in time. Its extent, therefore, must be governed by circumstances." --Thomas Jefferson to John Adams, 1822. ME 15:402

"Collisions... between the vessels of war of different nations... beget wars and constitute the weightiest objection to navies." --Thomas Jefferson to John Adams, 1822. ME 15:403

47.6 A Well-Organized and Armed Militia

"For a people who are free and who mean to remain so, a well-organized and armed militia is their best security. It is, therefore, incumbent on us at every meeting [of Congress] to revise the condition of the militia and to ask ourselves if it is prepared to repel a powerful enemy at every point of our territories exposed to invasion... Congress alone have power to produce a uniform state of preparation in this great organ of defense. The interests which they so deeply feel in their own and their country's security will present this as among the most important objects of their deliberation." --Thomas Jefferson: 8th Annual Message, 1808. ME 3:482

"None but an armed nation can dispense with a standing army. To keep ours armed and disciplined is therefore at all times important, but especially so at a moment when rights the most essential to our welfare have been violated." --Thomas Jefferson to -----, 1803. ME 10:365

"It is more a subject of joy that we have so few of the desperate characters which compose modern regular armies. But it proves more forcibly the necessity of obliging every citizen to be a soldier; this was the case with the Greeks and Romans, and must be that of every free State. Where there is no oppression there can be no pauper hirelings." --Thomas Jefferson to James Monroe, 1813. ME 13:261

"A well-disciplined militia, our best reliance in peace and for the first moments of war till regulars may relieve them, I deem [one of] the essential principles of our Government, and consequently [one of] those which ought to shape its administration." --Thomas Jefferson: 1st Inaugural, 1801.

"A militia so organized that its effective portions can be called to any point in the Union, or volunteers instead of them to serve a sufficient time, are means which may always be ready yet never preying on our resources until actually called into use. They will maintain the public interests while a more permanent force shall be in course of preparation. But much will depend on the promptitude with which these means can be brought into activity. If war be forced upon us in spite of our long and vain appeals to the justice of nations, rapid and vigorous movements in its outset will go far toward securing us in its course and issue, and toward throwing its burdens on those who render necessary the resort from reason to force." --Thomas Jefferson: 6th Annual Message, 1806. ME 3:425

"Militia do well for hasty enterprises but cannot be relied on for lengthy service and out of their own country." --Thomas Jefferson to North Carolina Assembly, 1781. FE 2:480, Papers 5:54

"[The] governor [is] constitutionally the commander of the militia of the State, that is to say, of every man in it able to bear arms." --Thomas Jefferson to A. L. C. Destutt de Tracy, 1811.

"Uncertain as we must ever be of the particular point in our circumference where an enemy may choose to invade us, the only force which can be ready at every point and competent to oppose them, is the body of neighboring citizens as formed into a militia. On these, collected from the parts most convenient, in numbers proportioned to the invading foe, it is best to rely, not only to meet the first attack, but if it threatens to be permanent, to maintain the defence until regulars may be engaged to relieve them." --Thomas Jefferson: 1st Annual Message, 1801. ME 3:334

47.7 Every Citizen Given Military Training

"We must train and classify the whole of our male citizens, and make military instruction a regular part of collegiate education. We can never be safe till this is done." --Thomas Jefferson to James Monroe, 1813. ME 13:261

"[Congress should] consider whether it would not be expedient, for a state of peace as well as of war, so to organize or class the militia as would enable us, on a sudden emergency, to call for the services of the younger portions, unencumbered with the old and those having families... Able-bodied men, between the ages of eighteen and twenty-six years, which the last census shows we may now count within our limits, will furnish a competent number for offence or defence in any point where they may be wanted, and will give time for raising regular forces after the necessity of them shall become certain; and the reducing to the early period of life all its active service cannot but be desirable to our younger citizens, of the present as well as future times, inasmuch as it engages to them in more advanced age a quiet and undisturbed repose in the bosom of their families." --Thomas Jefferson: 5th Annual Message, 1805. ME 3:389

"[One measure] which I pressed on Congress repeatedly at their meetings... was to class the militia according to the years of their birth, and make all those from twenty to twenty-five liable to be trained and called into service at a moment's warning. This would have given us a force of three hundred thousand young men, prepared by proper training for service in any part of the United States; while those who had passed through that period would remain at home, liable to be used in their own or adjacent States. [This] would have completed what I deemed necessary for the entire security of our country." --Thomas Jefferson to Thaddeus Kosciusko, 1810. ME 12:368

"I pressed on Congress repeatedly at their meetings... measures [which would have] left... the whole territory of the United States organized by such a classification of its male force, as would give it the benefit of all its young population for active service, and that of a middle and advanced age for stationary defence." --Thomas Jefferson to Thaddeus Kosciusko, 1810. ME 12:368

"Two measures will enable us to... defend ourselves. 1. To organize the militia into classes, assigning to each class the duties for which it is fitted (which, had it been done when proposed years ago, would have prevented all our misfortunes), abolishing by a declaratory law the doubts which abstract scruples in some, and cowardice and treachery in others, have conjured up about passing imaginary lines, and limiting, at the same time, their services to the contiguous provinces of the enemy. The 2nd is the [financial] ways and means." --Thomas Jefferson to James Madison, 1814. ME 14:202

"I think the truth must now be obvious that our people are too happy at home to enter into regular service, and that we cannot be defended but by making every citizen a soldier, as the Greeks and Romans who had no standing armies; and that in doing this all must be marshaled, classed by their ages, and every service ascribed to its competent class." --Thomas Jefferson to John Wayles Eppes, 1814.

"Against great land armies we cannot attempt defense but by equal armies. For these we must depend on a classified militia, which will give us the service of the class from twenty to twenty-six, in the nature of conscripts,... to be specially trained. This measure, attempted at a former session, was pressed at the last, and might, I think, have been carried by a small majority. But considering that great innovations should not be forced on a slender majority, and seeing that the general opinion is sensibly rallying to it, it was thought better to let it lie over to the next session, when, I trust, it will be passed." --Thomas Jefferson to John Armstrong, 1808.

"Convinced that a militia of all ages promiscuously are entirely useless for distant service, and that we never shall be safe until we have a selected corps for a year's distant service at least, the classification of our militia is now the most essential thing the United States have to do. Whether on Bonaparte's plan of making a class for every year between certain periods, or that recommended in my message, I do not know, but I rather incline to his." --Thomas Jefferson to James Madison, 1807. ME 11:202

"In the beginning of our government we were willing to introduce the least coercion possible on the will of the citizen. Hence a system of military duty was established too indulgent to his indolence. This [War of 1812] is the first opportunity we have had of trying it, and it has completely failed--an issue foreseen by many, and for which remedies have been proposed. That of classing the militia according to age and allotting each age to the particular kind of service to which it was competent was proposed to Congress in 1805 and subsequently; and on the last trial was lost, I believe, by a single vote. Had it prevailed, what has now happened would not have happened. Instead of burning our Capitol, we should have possessed theirs in Montreal and Quebec. We must now adopt it, and all will be safe." --Thomas Jefferson to Thomas Cooper, 1814. ME 14:185

"It is very much the good to force the unworthy into their due share of contributions to the public support, otherwise the burden on them will become oppressive, indeed." --Thomas Jefferson to Garret Vanmeter, 1781. ME 4:417, Papers 5:566

"Militia duty becoming burthensome it is our duty to divide it as equally as we can." --Thomas Jefferson to James Innes, 1781. Papers 4:686

ME, FE = Memorial Edition, Ford Edition.   See Sources.

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