Informing the Founders: A Short History of Standing Armies in England

By: TJ Martinell

The founding generation harbored a deep distrust of standing armies. This flowed not only from their first-hand experience with the British, but also from arguments against permanent military forces rooted in English tradition.

John Trenchard and Thomas Gordon were English Whigs whose writing heavily influenced the views of the American founding generation. The two men warned about the dangers of standing armies. In their views, permanent military forces empowered government and threatened liberty.

In 1751, English Commonwealthman John Trenchard penned “A Short History of Standing Armies in England,” chronicling the maintenance of the military in times of peace and the troubles caused by its existence. Though the prose is somewhat antiquated and imbued with Trenchard’s strong Protestant leanings, the historical accounts help modern Americans appreciate the context in which the American Founding Fathers viewed standing armies in keeping with English tradition.

Trenchard also cowrote the Cato Letters with Thomas Gordon, who penned “A Discourse on Standing Armies.” Together, their works had a strong influence in shaping the views of America’s Founders.

As the National Constitution Center describes it:

In Whig circles in America, the two men were appreciated for their firm opposition against tyranny and stalwart support for republicanism.

Both Trenchard and Gordon’s writing helped inform the founding generation’s views.

According to Trenchard, the first instance of a standing army in England following the Roman Empire’s withdrawal occurred during the reign of Richard II (1367-1400), who “suffered them to plunder, live upon Free Quarter, beat, wound, ravish and kill wherever they went.”

He was later removed from the throne, according to Trenchard, after he used his standing army to strip Parliament of its authority and then left for Ireland to put down a rebellion there.

Trenchard wrote that following Richard II, no king maintained a standing army until Charles I, more than two centuries later. That includes Henry VII, who prevailed over Richard III during the War of the Roses. Trenchard writes that though armies were raised to deal with “foreign and domestic Wars…they were constantly disbanded as soon as the Occasion was over.”

He further wrote: “And in all the Wars of York and Lancaster, whatever Party prevailed, we do not find they ever attempted to keep up a Standing Army. Such was the virtue of those times, that they would rather run the hazard of forefeiting their Heds and Estates to the rage of the opposite Party, than certainly inslave their Country, tho’ they themselves were to be the Tyrants.”

Trenchard fawned over Queen Elizabeth I’s reign for making England a powerful nation without having to raise a permanent army. However, he had no such praise for James I, recounting that he raised an army of thousands “upon the pretence of the Spanish and French War…who lived upon free Quarter, and robb’d and destroyed wherever they came.” James was later forced to disband the army after his failed military adventures.

Despite being Protestant, Trenchard reserved his fiercest criticism for Parliamentarian hero and Puritan commander Oliver Cromwell, who eventually declared himself Lord Protector and effectively ruled as king through the use of his army. That army was not disbanded, even when the country was at peace.

Trenchard wrote that this event demonstrated the dangers of a standing army, regardless of circumstances.

Following Cromwell’s death and his son Richard’s inability to handle the title passed to him, Charles II returned to England and restored the monarchy. However, he wasn’t much of an improvement over his predecessor, according to Trenchard. After Parliament called for disbanding the Army and raised money to pay the soldiers’ wages, Charles II instead used the money to continue funding the Army and dissolved Parliament.

Eventually, Parliament was brought back and once again demanded the Army be disbanded, eventually prevailing.

James II later took the throne and was swiftly challenged by the Duke of Monmouth, who sought to overthrow him in a spectacularly failed revolt against a relatively small royal force.

In a turn of events mirrored today, James II used the revolt as an excuse to increase the size of the army, and “in a haughty Speech told them (Parliament), He had increased his Army, put in Officers not qualified by the Test, and that he would not part with them.”

James II was eventually overthrown during the Glorious Revolution. Afterward, Parliament published the 1689 Declaration of Rights. It included the following provision.

A standing army at peacetime without the consent of Parliament is illegal. That the raising or keeping a standing army within the kingdom in time of peace, unless it be with consent of Parliament, is against law.

Trenchard takes issue with this, wryly remarking as if the consent of the Parliament would not have made it legal without those words, or that their Consent would make it less dangerous.

As Gordon wrote in his treatise:

“Tis certain, that all Parts of Europe which are enslaved, have been enslaved by Armies, and ’tis absolutely impossible, that any Nation which keeps them amongst themselves, can long preserve their Liberties; nor can any Nation perfectly lose their Liberties, who are without such Guests.”

Though there would be later squabbling between Parliament and the king over an army, Trenchard’s short history shows how fears of a standing army in peacetime was not a view held by ideological extremists or those in a fringe political movement, but was in keeping with English historical precedence passed on to the Founders. Much of the Bill of Rights, including the right to keep and bear arms and prohibitions on quartering troops during peacetime ultimately derive their origins from this tradition.