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To the end of his days, Andrew Jackson harbored suspicions about the United States employing a standing army. A standing army was a waste of a country’s resources, and even more so, a danger to the liberties of its people…

To understand Andrew Jackson, his thought, his policies, and his legacy, one must understand the frontier and his understanding of it. There can be no real separation of one from the other. What did the West mean for the republic? What did the frontier culture mean for American culture? And, most importantly, what to do with the American Indian? A Natty Bumppo figure in his own right, Jackson believed that there could be no America without answering these questions. The future of this republic as well as every other to come throughout the world and its future depended on finding the right and proper responses, principled but practical, here and now.

Whatever historians might claim, Jackson feared and despised imperialism as the inevitable death of the republic. He cherished expansion as normal, but he considered imperialism a perversion of expansion and republicanism. To our modern ears, this might sound like a very fine distinction, but to Jackson, the distinction was immense. To the end of his days, for example, Jackson harbored suspicions about the United States employing a standing army. Throughout the 1800s and 1810s, he defended the right of militias against standing armies. Even the experiences of the War of 1812—which confirmed for many Americans the ineffectiveness of militias—did not change his mind. A standing army was a waste of a country’s resources, and even more so, a danger to the liberties of its people. Even during Jackson’s first inaugural, he refused to allow the military to participate, but he welcomed militias.

While such a view might seem odd to the modern mind, especially in an age that tends to see militias as weird organizations of dangerous anti-government hicks in the woods and mountains of Montana, Idaho, and Michigan, his views had deep roots in the Anglo-Saxon Common Law tradition as well as among most revolutionaries in the American colonies of the 1760s and among the anti-Federalists of the 1780s and 90s. One of the greatest fears of all republicans, but especially Americans of the early revolutionary period, was the standing army, which had traditionally been beholden not to localities, local charters, and the organic or common law, but only to the sovereign will of the British king.[1] Standing armies, no matter what the intentions, become playthings for the executive, thereby upsetting the delicate balance found in republics. “He was fully persuaded, that if such should be the event, they must be held in that subdued state by a great body of standing forces, and perhaps of foreign forces,” the profound Anglo-Irish statesman, Edmund Burke, wrote about his beliefs in the third person. Having witnessed British troops ravage America during the Patriot counterrevolution of 1775, he continued, “He was strongly of the opinion that such armies, first victorious over Englishmen, in a conflict for English constitutional rights and privileges, and afterwards habituated (though in America) to keep an English people in a state of abject subjection, would prove fatal in the end to the liberties of England itself.” Further, Burke wrote, the possible success of the British armies against the Patriots would only increase government spending and debt, as well as jingoism and new wars to satisfy the puffed-up pride of the English.[2]

From the earliest origins in the colonies, Americans had considered themselves to be citizen-soldiers. The greatest expression of this fundamentally republican belief, constitutionally, of course, is found in Article I of the U.S. Constitution, which restricts all Congressional expenditures for land forces to a mere two years, as well as in the Second Amendment and its guarantee of the “right to bear arms.”[3] In the years leading up to the passage of the Constitution and the Bill of Rights, Americans, by and large (the Quakers excluded, of course), saw violence and the protection of one’s family and community as a sacred duty, not just a right. Many Americans read the radical works of English philosopher James Harrington and the newspaper editorials of Cato that followed and summarized Harrington’s argument a half-century later. Not atypical was the American revolutionary pamphlet of Demophilus: “The Militia is the natural support of a government, founded on the authority of the people only.”[4] Or, again: “But what shall I say of a standing army? Under the best discipline they are a nuisance to society; and serve to introduce a system of laws repugnant to civil liberty. Are they not rendered useless by a navy? Are they not a doubtful good, which may either establish or overturn the constitution of the country?”[5] An equally popular revolutionary argument ran as follows: unless in a declared war,

a standing army may be fatal to the happiness and liberty of a community. They generally propagate corruption and vice where they reside, they frequently insult and abuse the unarmed and defenceless people: When there is any difference between rulers and subjects, they will generally be on the side of the former, and ready to assist them in oppressing and enslaving the latter. For though they are really servants of the people, and paid by them; yet this is not commonly done in their name; but in the name of the supreme magistrate.[6]

By 1816, though, such views were considered by many Americans radical and outmoded, if not outright reactionary. Even worse, they were not practical. A nation could not rely upon decentralized, private military forces when challenged by the might and resources of large and aggressive European powers. A wave of extreme nationalism—often referred to in history as an “Era of Good Feelings,” 1815-1819—led to the centralization and regularization of American land forces as well as the beginning of national roads, canals, and fortresses. Ironically, the most prominent opponent of a standing army, Andrew Jackson, was also the single greatest instigator of such nationalism with his victory at New Orleans, 1815.

As Jackson saw it, the army existed for two reasons. First, domestically, it must enforce the treaties and laws dealing with the American Indians. Second, it must protect the United States from the imperial misadventures of any foreign country, but especially from the British, the Spanish, the French, or the Holy Alliance of Austria, Prussia, and Russia. Anything beyond these two activities, he thought unconstitutional, dangerous, and immoral. If an individual, a family, or a community, privately and voluntarily, decided to move west, it had every right in the world to do so. Just as it had to break the soil on its own, it had to protect itself on its own as well. If the Boones, for example, trespassed on Shawnee land, then the Boones and the Shawnees would have to work out their differences, violently or not, but without the formal military assistance of the U.S. government. Once the U.S. government signed a treaty with any tribe, it had the duty to uphold that treaty in the name of protecting Indian as well as white, though with important exceptions. Ideally, though, real frontier communities would learn to protect themselves. If they failed, they failed. If they succeeded, as Jackson and his allies had done in Nashville, they succeeded. Clearly, they had not only made the land sustainable for civilization, but they had, time and time again, proven superiority in terms of arms, thus securing the community from outside intrusion. The difference between a frontier and an empire is slight, but in the slightness is an extremely important point. For Jackson, the best business was privately operated. Violence, too, as seen in his many duels, was no different. It was a matter of choice, with the consequences dependent upon chance, will, skill, and circumstance. Always, though, it should be freely chosen and freely manifested.

While Andrew Jackson is a particular type of American, he is very much that type, the definition and embodiment of that type. In the twentieth century, he would become Ethan Edwards, played by John Wayne, in John Ford’s The Searchers (1956). In the twenty-first century, he would become Malcolm Reynolds, played by Nathan Fillon, in Joss Whedon’s Firefly (2002). “You don’t know me, son, so let me explain this to you once,” Reynolds says to a new member of his crew. “If I ever kill you, you’ll be awake, you’ll be facing me, and you’ll be armed.” Honest and earnest to a fault, this type of American republican knows that nothing matters more in the world than one’s honor. Once this is lost, life is no longer worth living, and it can be regained only through extreme self-sacrifice.

Author’s Note: This essay is Part III in a series of “director’s cut” pieces from the forthcoming Regnery book, In Defense of Andrew Jackson, available September 10, 2018, but available for pre-order now. Part I may be found here. Part II may be found here.

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[1] Bruce Frohnen, “Revolutions, Not Made, But Prevented: 1776, 1688, and the Triumph of the Old Whigs,” chapter in Gary L. Gregg II, ed., Vital Remnants: America’s Founding and the Western Tradition (Wilmington, Del.: Intercollegiate Studies Institute, 1999), 281.

[2] Edmund Burke, “An Appeal from the New to the Old Whigs,” chapter in Daniel K. Ritchie, ed., Further Reflections on the Revolution in France (Indianapolis, Ind., Liberty Fund, 1992), 108.

[3] The best book on the political nature and essence of American militia, in theory and in practice, is Aeon J. Skoble’s short but excellent, Deleting the State (LaSalle, IL: Open Court, 2008).

[4] Demophilus, “The Genuine Principles of the Anglo-Saxon, or English, Constitution” (pamphlet, Philadelphia, 1776).

[5] Anonymous, “Rudiments of Law and Government Deduced from the Law of Nature” (pamphlet, Charleston, 1783.

[6] Simeon Howard, “A Sermon Preached to the Ancient and Honorable Artillery Company in Boston (Boston, 1773).

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