The most recent issue of the Fletcher Security Review features a paper by Alex Nowrasteh and myself on Privateers! Their History and Future. One of the interesting side notes is that Americans supported privateering not just because it was effective but also because America’s greatest patriots, the founding generation, were deeply skeptical about standing armies and navies. Today, the right-wing, uber-patriotic brand of Americanism is pro-military and pro-empire. In contrast, the founders would regard the empire as deeply un-American. Quoting from the paper:
The founders feared standing armies as a threat to liberty. At the constitutional convention, for example, James Madison argued that “A standing military force, with an overgrown Executive will not long be safe companions to liberty. The means of defence against foreign danger have been always the instruments of tyranny at home.” For the founders, the defense of the country was best left to citizens who would take up arms in times of national peril, form militias, overcome the peril, and then to return to their lives.
As a result, the ideal military for the founders was small and circumspect (remember also that the second amendment was in part about the fear of standing armies, hence the support of the militia). The 1856 Treaty of Paris banned privateering but the United States refused to sign. Secretary of State William Marcy explained why in a great statement of patriotic American anti-militarism:
The United States consider powerful navies and large standing armies as permanent establishments to be detrimental to national prosperity and dangerous to civil liberty. The expense of keeping them up is burdensome to the people; they are in some degree a menace to peace among nations. A large force ever ready to be devoted to the purposes of war is a temptation to rush into it. The policy of the United States has ever been, and never more than now, adverse to such establishments, and they can never be brought to acquiesce in any change in International Law which may render it necessary for them to maintain a powerful navy or large standing army in time of peace.
Today the patriotic brand of anti-militarism, the brand that sees skepticism about the military and the promotion of peace and commerce as specifically American, is largely forgotten. President Eisenhower’s farewell address to the nation was perhaps the last remnant in modern memory. It’s a tradition, however, that true patriots must remember.