George Washington Papers

To George Washington from Henry Knox, 18 January 1790

From Henry Knox

War Office [New York, 18] January, 1790.


Having submitted to your consideration a plan for the arrangement of the militia of the United States, which I had presented to the late Congress, and you having approved the general principles thereof, with certain exceptions, I now respectfully lay the same before you, modified according to the alterations you were pleased to suggest.

It has been my anxious desire to devise a national system of defence, adequate to the probable exigencies of the United States, whether arising from internal or external causes; and at the same time to erect a standard of republican magnanimity, independent of, and superior to, the powerful influences of wealth.

The convulsive events, generated by the inordinate pursuit of riches, or ambition, require that the government should possess a strong corrective arm.

The idea is therefore submitted, whether an efficient military branch of government can be invented, with safety to the great principles of liberty, unless the same shall be formed of the people themselves, and supported by their habits and manners. I have the honor to be, with the most perfect respect, your most Obedt Servant.

H. Knox, Secretary for the
Department of War.

Copy, DNA: RG 107, Records of the Office of the Secretary of War.

For background to Knox’s enclosed revision of his militia plan, see Diaries description begins Donald Jackson and Dorothy Twohig, eds. The Diaries of George Washington. 6 vols. Charlottesville, Va., 1976–79. description ends , 5:508–9. Knox’s report, a “plan for the arrangement of the militia,” stated: “That a well constituted republic is more favorable to the liberties of society, and that its principles give an higher elevation to the human mind than any other form of government, has generally been acknowledged by the unprejudiced and enlightened part of mankind.

“But it is at the same time acknowledged, that unless a republic prepares itself by proper arrangements to meet those exigencies to which all states are in a degree liable, that its peace and existence are 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.

“A government whose measures must be the result of multiplied deliberations, is seldom in a situation to produce instantly those exertions which the occasion may demand; therefore it ought to possess such energetic establishments as should enable it, by the vigor of its own citizens to control events as they arise, instead of being convulsed or subverted by them.

“It is the misfortune of modern ages, that governments have been formed by chance, and events, instead of system—that without fixed principles, they are braced or relaxed, from time to time, according to the predominating power of the rulers or the ruled. The rulers possessing separate interests from the people, excepting in some of the high toned monarchies, in which all opposition to the will of the princes seems annihilated.

“Hence we look round Europe in vain for an extensive government, rising on the power inherent in the people, and performing its operations entirely for their benefit. But we find artificial force governing every where, and the people generally made subservient to the elevation and Caprice of the few: Almost every nation appearing to be busily employed in conducting some external war; grappling with internal Commotion; or endeavoring to extricate itself from impending debts which threaten to overwhelm it with ruin. Princes and ministers seem neither to have leisure nor inclination to bring forward institutions for diffusing general strength, knowledge, and happiness: But they seem to understand well the Machiavelian maxim of politics—divide and govern.

“May the United States avoid the errors and crimes of other governments; and possess the wisdom to embrace the present invaluable opportunity of establishing such institutions as shall invigorate, exalt, and perpetuate the great principles of freedom: An opportunity pregnant with the fate of millions, but rapidly borne on the wings of time, and may never again return.

“The public mind, unbiassed by superstition or prejudice, seems happily prepared to receive the impressions of wisdom. The latent springs of human action, ascertained by the standard of experience, may be regulated and made subservient to the noble purpose of forming a dignified national character.

“The causes by which nations have ascended and declined, through the various ages of the world, may be calmly and accurately determined; and the United States may be placed in the singularly fortunate Condition of Commencing their Career of empire, with the accumulated knowledge of all the known societies and governments of the globe.

“The strength of government, like the strength of any other vast and complicated machine, will depend on a due adjustment of its several parts. Its agriculture, its Commerce, its laws, its finance, its system of defence, and its manners and habits, all require Consideration, and the highest exercise of political wisdom.

“It is the intention of the present attempt to suggest the most efficient system of defence which may be Compatible with the interests of a free people: A system which shall not only produce the expected effect, but which in its operations shall also produce those habits and manners which will impart strength and durability to the whole government.

“The modern practice of Europe, with respect to the employment of standing armies, has created such a mass of opinion in their favor, that even philosophers, and the advocates for liberty, have frequently confessed their use and necessity, in certain cases.

“But whoever seriously and Candidly estimates the power of discipline and the tendency of military habits, will be Constrained to Confess, that whatever may be the efficacy of a standing army in war, it cannot in peace be considered as friendly to the rights of human nature. The recent instance in France, cannot with propriety be brought to overturn the general principle, built upon the uniform experience of mankind. It may be found, on examining the causes that appear to have influenced the military of France, that while the springs of power were wound up in the nation to the highest pitch, that the discipline of the Army was proportionably relaxed. But any argument on this head, may be considered as unnecessary to the enlightened citizens of the United States.

“A small corps of well disciplined and well informed artillerists and engineers, and a legion for the protection of the frontiers, and the magazines and arsenals are all the military establishment which may be required for the present use of the United States. The privates of the Corps to be enlisted for a certain period, and after the expiration of which to return to the mass of the citizens.

“An energetic national militia is to be regarded as the Capital security of a free republic; and not a standing army, forming a distinct class in the community.

“It is the introduction and diffusion of vice and corruption of manners into the mass of the people, that renders a standing army necessary. It is when public spirit is despised, and avarice, indolence and effeminacy of manners predominate, and prevent the establishment of institutions which would elevate the minds of the youth in the paths of virtue and honor, that a standing army is formed and rivetted forever.

“While the human character remains unchanged, and societies and governments of considerable extent are formed; a principle ever ready to execute the laws and defend the state, must constantly exist. Without this vital principle, the government would be invaded or overturned, and trampled upon by the bold and ambitious. No community can be long held together, unless its arrangements are adequate to its probable exigencies.

“If it should be decided to reject a standing army for the military branch of the government of the United States, as possessing too fierce an aspect, and being hostile to the principles of liberty, it will follow that a well constituted militia ought to be established.

“A consideration of the subject will shew the impracticability of disciplining at once the mass of the people. All discussions on the subject of a powerful militia, will result in one or other of the following principles.

“First. Either efficient institutions must be established for the military education of the youth; and that the knowledge acquired therein shall be diffused throughout the community by the mean of rotation, or

“Secondly. That the militia must be formed of substitutes, after the manner of the militia of Great Britain.

“If the United States possess the vigor of mind to establish the first institution, it may reasonably be expected to produce the most unequivocal advantages. A glorious national spirit will be introduced, with its extensive train of political consequences. The youth will imbibe a love of their country; reverence and obedience to its laws; courage and elevation of mind; openness and liberality of Character, accompanied by a just spirit of honor: In addition to which, their bodies will acquire a robustness, greatly conducive to their personal happiness, as well as the defence of their Country: While habit, with its silent, but efficacious operations, will durably cement the system.

“Habit, that powerful and universal law, incessantly acting on the human race, well deserves the attention of legislators. Formed at first in individuals, by separate and almost imperceptible impulses, until at length it acquires a force which controuls with irresistable sway. The effects of salutary or pernicious habits, operating on a whole nation are immense, and decides its rank and Character in the world.

“Hence the science of legislation teaches to scrutinize every national institution, as it may introduce proper or improper habits; to adopt with religious zeal the former, and reject with honor the latter.

“A republic, constructed on the principles herein stated, would be uninjured by events, sufficient to overturn a government supported solely by the uncertain power of a standing army.

“The well informed members of the community, actuated by the highest motives of self-love, would form the real defence of the country. Rebellions would be prevented, or suppressed with ease. Invasions of such a government would be undertaken only by madmen; and the virtues and knowledge of the people would effectually oppose the introduction of tyranny.

“But the second principle, a militia of substitutes, is pregnant, in a degree, with the mischiefs of a standing army; as it is highly probable the substitutes from time to time, will be nearly the same men, and the most idle and worthless part of the Community. Wealthy families, proud of distinctions which riches may confer, will prevent their sons from serving in the militia of substitutes; the plan will degenerate into habitual contempt; a standing army will be introduced, and the liberties of the people subjected to all the contingencies of events.

“The expense attending an energetic establishment of militia may be strongly urged as an objection to the institution. But it is to be remembered, that this objection is levelled at both systems, whether by rotation or by substitutes: For if the numbers are equal, the expense will also be equal. The estimate of the expense will show its unimportance, when Compared with the magnitude and beneficial effects of the institution.

“But the people of the United States will cheerfully consent to the expenses of a measure calculated to serve as a perpetual barrier to their liberties: Especially as they well know that the disbursements will be made among the members of the same community, and therefore cannot be injurious.

“Every intelligent mind would rejoice in the establishment of an institution, under whose auspices the youth and vigor of the Constitution would be renewed with each successive generation, and which would appear to secure the great principles of freedom and happiness against the injuries of time and events.

“The following plan is formed on these general principles.

“First. That it is the indispensable duty of every nation, to establish all necessary institutions for its own perfection and defence.

“Secondly. That it is a Capital security to a free state, for the great body of the people to possess a Competent knowledge of the military art.

“Thirdly. That this knowledge cannot be attained in the present state of society, but by establishing adequate institutions for the military education of youth; and that the knowledge acquired therein should be diffused throughout the community, by the principles of rotation.

“Fourthly. That every man of the proper age and ability of body, is firmly bound by the social compact, to perform, personally, his proportion of military duty for the defence of the state.

“Fifthly. That all men of the legal military age, should be armed, enrolled, and held responsible for different degrees of military service.

“And Sixthly. That, agreeably to the Constitution, the United States are to provide for organizing, arming, and disciplining the militia; and for governing such part of them as may be employed in the service of the United States; reserving to the States respectively, the appointment of the Officers, and the authority of training the militia according to the discipline prescribed by Congress” (DNA: RG 107, Secretary of War Letters Received, Unentered Series).

The remainder of Knox’s report deals with the implementation of the plan, providing detailed suggestions for the organization of the army. The report is printed in full in DHFC, description begins Linda Grant De Pauw et al., eds. Documentary History of the First Federal Congress of the United States of America, March 4, 1789-March 3, 1791. 20 vols. to date. Baltimore, 1972–. description ends 5:1435–57, and appears in full on CD-ROM:GW. Francis Childs and John Swaine printed 300 copies of A Plan for the General Arrangement of the Militia of the United States. Published by Order of the House of Representatives (New York, 1790) prefaced by Knox’s letter to GW (Evans, American Bibliography, description begins Charles Evans et al. American Bibliography and Supplement. 16 vols. Chicago, Worcester, Mass., and Charlottesville, Va., 1903–71. description ends 8:95 [no. 22988]).

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