Wednesday, July 11, 2012


John Adams on the Military Threat

John Adams was the second President of the United States but before that he was an attorney and an early supporter of independence for British colonies in America. On March 5, 1770, British troops killed five civilians on King Street in Boston in an incident now commonly known as the Boston Massacre. John Adams acted as defense counsel at the soldiers' civilian trial for murder in November, 1770. Adams succeeded in getting jury acquittals for six of the soldiers and conviction of two soldiers for the lesser-included offense of manslaughter. The two soldiers were sentenced to branding of the thumb in open court.

On the third anniversary of the massacre Adams wrote in his diary:
Judgment of death against those soldiers would have been as foul a stain upon this country as the executions of the quakers or witches anciently. As the evidence was, the verdict of the jury was exactly right. ... This, however, is no reason why the town should not call the action of that night a massacre; nor is it any argument in favor of the Governor or Minister who caused them to be sent here. But it is the strongest of proofs of the danger of standing armies. [emphasis added]
Adams was a supporter of militias composed of civilians called into service as needed, as opposed to standing armies. In the second year of the Revolutionary War he wrote the following in a letter to Brigadier General Samuel H. Parsons, who started his military career in Connecticut's colonial militia:
With regard to encouragements in money and in land for soldiers to enlist during the war, I have ever been in favor of it, as the best economy and the best policy, and I have no doubt that rewards in land will be given, after the war is over. But the majority are not of my mind for promising it now. I am the less anxious about it, for a reason which does not seem to have much weight however with the majority. Although it may cost us more, and we may put now and then a battle to hazard by the method we are in, yet we shall be less in danger of corruption and violence from a standing army, and our militia will acquire courage, experience, discipline, and hardiness in actual service.  [emphasis added]
In Adams' A Defence of the Constitution of Government of the United States (1787) he wrote:
Shall we conclude, from these melancholy observations, that human nature is incapable of liberty, that no honest equality can be preserved in society, and that such forcible causes are always at work as must reduce all men to a submission to despotism, monarchy, oligarchy, or aristocracy?

By no means. We have seen one of the first nations in Europe, possessed of ample and fertile territories at home and extensive dominions abroad, of a commerce with the whole world, immense wealth, and the greatest naval power which ever belonged to any nation, which has still preserved the power of the people by the equilibrium we are contending for, by the trial by jury, and by constantly refusing a standing army. [emphasis added]
A footnote to the above-cited passage and of uncertain provenance says: "Would that it had constantly been refused! A standing army is dangerous in any hands! Even if the people had preserved their share in the legislature, a standing army in their pay would be inexpedient and dangerous."

Finally, in a letter to Thomas McKean, dated June 21, 1812, Adams said:
The danger of our government is, that the General will be a man of more popularity than the President, and the army possess more power than Congress. The people should be apprised of this, and guard themselves against it. Nothing is more essential than to hold the civil authority decidedly superior to the military power.
Adams' particular fear about the popularity of generals seems not have been realized but unfortunately we have a Congress and Presidency that rarely say no to military funding requests, in peacetime or war. That's true even when it comes to illegal, undeclared wars waged on false pretenses such as the 2003 Iraq War. The civil authority all too often bows to the military.

See also: Quotable: The Military Threat to Liberty

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