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Henry Knox on a Well-Regulated Militia
Digital History ID 266

Author:   Henry Knox


This plan was written for members of Congress who, like Henry Knox, feared the potential for military dictatorship posed by a regular standing army. Knox's plan reflects basic underlying assumptions regarding republican government. Like many post-Revolutionary era leaders, he was convinced that a large standing army was "hostile to the principles of liberty" and believed that the country should trust to well-regulated militia instead. Further, Knox believed that human nature would not change in America, but Americans could profit by studying the history and experiences of other people, and by instituting government rationally. Yet Knox also believed that a strong military force was essential for ensuring the country's "future glory and power" and shaping the character of the nation's young men.


The Secretary of United States, for the Department of War, having been ordered by Congress, "to devise a plan for the general regulation of the Militia of the United States, in such manner, as to render it most respectful, and least expensive to the respective states..."; reports that he has considered as extensively, and as maturely as his abilities would admit, the necessity and importance of a national militia. That the various views he has taken of this subject, have convinced him, that a proper arrangement of the militia may be regarded as the foundation of the future glory and power of the United States. Acting under this impression, he has been anxious to bring forward an institution to form the manners and habits of youth, on principles of true republican magnanimity. And also, to erect on the power, inherent in the people, a durable edifice of national greatness....

Unless a republic prepares itself by proper arrangements to meet those exigencies to which all States are in a degree liable, then its independence is more precarious than the forms of government in which the will of one directs the conduct of the whole, for the defence of the nation....

The exertions of the virtuous citizens of the United States, during the late trying war, deserve the highest praise. Numerous instances of extensive patriotism might be produced, which would view in lustre with the most splendid actions of antiquity.

But the powerful springs which then impelled to action, having ceased to exist, it may be apprehended that the sweets of peace will cling so close to many citizens, as to produce a supineness of conduct, forgetful of the past, and regardless of future dangers. The effulgence of wealth will dazzle weak minds, and the seducing influence of luxury may introduce a corruption of manners, destructive to a republic.

Hence the wisdom of fixing the public mind on objects of national utility; of forming the manners of the rising generation on principles of republican virtue; of infusing into their minds, that the love of their country, and the knowledge of defending it, are political duties of the most indispensable nature.

The design of the plan herewith submitted, is to establish institutions, which shall in a degree effect the above purposes....

The plan is formed on the following general principles:

1st. That every independent nation ought to possess within itself, the means for its defence.

2d. That is an essential security to a free state, for the great body of the people, to possess a competent knowledge of the military art.

3d. That this knowledge cannot be generally attained, but by establishing efficient institutions for the military education of the youth, and that the knowledge acquired therein, should be diffused through the community by the means of rotation....

Youth is the time, for the state to avail itself of those services which it has a right to demand, and by which it is to be invigorated and preserved; in this season, the passions and affections, are strongly influenced by the splendor of military parade. The impressions the mind receives will be retained through life. The young man will repair with pride and pleasure to the field of exercise, while the head of a family, anxious for its general welfare, and perhaps its immediate subsistence, will reluctantly quit his domestic duties for any length of time.

The habits of industry will be rather strengthened, than relaxed, by the establishment of the annual camps of discipline, as all the time will be occupied

by the various military duties. Idleness and dissipation will be regarded as disgraceful, and punished accordingly....

It ought to be a permanent rule, that those who in youth decline or refuse to subject themselves to the course of military education, established by the laws, should be considered as unworthy of public trust, or public honors, and be excluded therefrom accordingly....

Source: Gilder Lehrman Institute

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