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militia-illustrationIn reviewing materials for a course I teach on the origins of the American Constitution, I ran across the following from the (1641) Massachusetts Body of Liberties (spelling modernized):

No man shall be compelled to go out of the limits of this plantation upon any offensive wars which this Commonwealth or any of our friends or confederates shall voluntarily undertake. But only upon such vindictive and defensive wars in our own behalf, or the behalf of our friends, and confederates as shall be enterprised by the counsel and consent of a General Court, or by authority derived from the same.

I know, I know, our military is now “volunteer” or “professional.” But one needs to read this passage in conjunction with the open hostility Americans and their British forebears used to have toward all forms of standing army. (A good book on the topic is the appropriately titled No Standing Armies! by Lois Schwoerer.) A central reason for reliance on the militia was the fear that a government with its own military forces would overawe the people and take away their liberties. Conscription for “voluntary” (might we say “preventive?”) wars was oppression. But so, too, was the building by the state of armies sufficient to carry out such wars on its own.

Food for thought, I think, during a time in which so many Americans pat themselves on the back for being more enlightened and freedom-loving than their ancestors even as they beat their chests and demand that “weaklings” allow our government to pursue its policies through voluntary wars.

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