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The second President of the United States, John Adams provides this
critique of The Right Constitution of a Commonwealth by Marchamont
Nedham, 1656. In this excerpt from volume three of Defense of the
Constitutions of the United States Adams shows the importance of a
citizen militia, and how it helps to prevent oppression of the people by
a tyrannical government.

The Right Constitution of a Commonwealth Examined

Sixth Rule

"That the people be continually trained up in the exercise of arms, and
the militia lodged only in the people’s hands, or that part of them
which are most firm to the interest of liberty, that so the power may
rest fully in the disposition of their supreme assemblies."-The
limitation to "that part most firm to the interest of liberty," was
inserted here, no doubt, to reserve the right of disarming all the
friends of Charles Stuart, the nobles and bishops. Without stopping to
enquire into the justice, policy, or necessity of this, the rule in
general is excellent: all the consequences that our author draws from
it, however, cannot be admitted. One consequence was, according to him,
"that nothing could at any time be imposed upon the people but by their
consent," that is, by the consent of themselves, or of such as were them
intrusted. "As Aristotle tells us, in his fourth book of Politics, the
Grecian states ever had special care to place the use and exercise of
arms in the people, because the commonwealth is theirs who hold the
arms: The sword and sovereignty ever walk hand in hand together." This
is perfectly just. "Rome, and the territories about it, were trained up
perpetually in arms, and the whole commonwealth, by this means, became
one formal militia. There was no difference in order between the
citizen, the husbandman, and the soldier." This was the "usual course,
even before they had gained their tribunes and assemblies; that is, in
the infancy of the senate, immediately after the expulsion of their

But why does our author disguise that it was the same under the kings?
This is the truth; and it is not honest to conceal it here. In the
times of Tarquin, even, we find no standing army, "not any form of
soldiery;"-"nor do we find, that in after times they permitted a
deposition of the arms of the commonwealth in any other way, till their
empire increasing, necessity constrained them to erect a continued
stipendiary soldiery abroad in foreign parts, either for the holding or
winning of provinces." Thus we have the truth from himself; the whole
people were a militia under the kings, under the senate, and after the
senate’s authority was tempered by popular tribunes and assemblies; but
after the people acquired power, equal at least, if not superior to the
senate, then "forces were kept up, the ambition of Cinna, the horrid
tyranny of Sylla, and the insolence of Marius, and the self ends of
divers other leaders, both before and after them, filled all Italy with
tragedies, and the world with wonder."

Is not this an argument for the power of kings and senates, rather than
the uncontroulable power of the people, when it is confessed that the
two first used it wisely, and the last perniciously? The truth is, as
he said before, "the sword and sovereignty go together." While the
sovereignty was in the senate under kings, the militia obeyed the orders
of the senate given out by the kings; while the sovereignty was in the
senate, under the consuls, the militia obeyed the orders of the senate
given out by the consuls; but when the sovereignty was lost by the
senate, and gained by the people, the militia was neglected, a standing
army set up, and obeyed the orders of the popular idols.

"The people, feeling what misery they had brought upon themselves, by
keeping their armies within the bowels of Italy, passed a law to prevent
it, and to employ them abroad, or at a convenient distance: the law
was, that if any general marched over the river Rubicon, he should be
declared a public enemy;" and in the passage of that river this
following inscription "was erected, to put the men of arms in mind of
their duty: Imperator, five miles, five tryannus armatus quisque,
sistito vexillum, armaque deponito, neccitra hunc amnem trajicito;’
general, or soldier, or tyrant in arms, whosoever thou be, stand, quit
thy standard, and lay aside thy arms, or else cross not this river."
But to what purpose was the law? Caesar knew the people now to be
sovereign without controul of the senate, and that he had the confidence
both of them and his army, and cast the die, and erected "praetorian
bands, instead of a public militia; and was followed in it by his
successors, by the Grand Signior, by Cosmus the first great duke of
Tuscany, by the Muscovite, the Russian, the Tartar, by the French," and,
he might have added, by all Europe, who by that means are all absolute,
excepting England, because the late king Charles I who attempted it, did
not succeed; and because our author’s "Right Constitution of a
Commonwealth" did not succeed: if it had, Oliver Cromwell and his
descendants would have been emperors of Old England as the Caesars were
of Old Rome.

The militia and sovereignty are inseparable. In the English
constitution, if the whole nation were a militia, there would be a
militia to defend the crown, the lords, or the commons, if either were
attacked: the crown, though it commands them, has no power to use them
improperly, because it cannot pay or subsist them without the consent of
the lords and commons; but if the militia are to obey a sovereignty in a
single assembly, it is commanded, paid, and subsisted, by the vote of a
majority; the militia then must all obey the sovereign majority, or
divide, and part follow the majority, and part the minority.

This last case is civil war; but until it comes to this, the whole
militia may be employed by the majority in any degree of tyranny and
opression over the minority. The constitution furnishes no resource or
remedy; nothing affords a chance of relief but rebellion and civil war:
if this terminates in favour of the minority, they will tyrannize in
their turns, exasperated by revenge, in addition to ambition and
avarice; if the majority prevail, their domination becomes more cruel,
and soon ends in one despot.

It must be made a sacred maxim, that the militia obey the executive
power, which represents the whole people in the execution of laws. To
suppose arms in the hands of citizens, to be used at individual
discretion, except in private self-defence, or by partial orders of
towns, counties, or districts of a state, is to demolish every
constitution, and lay the laws prostrate, so that liberty can be enjoyed
by no man-it is a dissolution of the government.

The fundamental law of the militia is, that it be created, directed, and
commanded by the laws, and ever for the support of the laws. This truth
is acknowledged by our author, when he says, "the arms of the
commonwealth should be lodged in the hands of that part of the people
which are firm to its establishment."

A Defence of the Constitutions of Government of the United States of
John Adams, L.L.D.
Volume III
Printed for C. Dilly, in the poultry; and John Stockdale, Piccadilly
Pages 471-475

Reprint by:
Da Capo Press
New York