Joseph Warren on dangers of standing armies (1772)


In March 1772 Joseph Warren gave an oration to mark the second anniversary of the Boston Massacre. In this speech he mentioned the dangers of keeping standing armies in cities during times of peace:


“After various struggles during the tyrannic reigns of the House of Stuart… the connection between Great Britain and this colony was settled in the reign of King William and Queen Mary, by a compact, the conditions of which were expressed in a charter; by which all the liberties and immunities of British subjects, were confined to this province, as fully and as absolutely as they possibly could be by any human instrument which can be devised… And the most important right of a British subject is that he shall be governed by no laws but those to which he, either in person or by his representative, hath given his consent. And this I will venture to assert is the grand basis of British freedom; it is interwoven with the constitution and whenever it is lost, the constitution must be destroyed…

The ruinous consequences of standing armies to free communities may be seen in the histories of Syracuse, Rome and many other once flourishing states; some of which scarcely now have a name! Their baneful influence is most suddenly felt when they are placed in populous cities; for by a corruption of morals, the public happiness is immediately affected… This is one of the effects of quartering troops in a populous city, a truth to which many a mourning parent, many a lost despairing child in this metropolis, must bear a very melancholy testimony.

Soldiers are also taught to consider arms as the only arbiters by which every dispute is to be decided… they are instructed implicitly to obey their commanders, without inquiring into the justice of the cause… they are ever to be dreaded as the ready engines of tyranny and oppression. And it is too observable that they are prone to introduce the same mode of decision in the disputes of individuals. From thence have often arisen great animosities between them and the inhabitants who, whilst in a naked defenceless state, are frequently insulted and abused by an armed soldiery.

This will be more especially the case when the troops are informed that the intention of their being stationed in any city, is to over-awe the inhabitants. That this was the avowed design of stationing an armed force in this town is sufficiently known; and we, my fellow-citizens, have seen, we have felt the tragical effects!

The fatal Fifth of March 1770 can never be forgotten. The horrors of that dreadful night are but too deeply impressed on our hearts. Language is too feeble to paint the emotions of our souls, when our streets were stained with the blood of our brethren; when our ears were wounded by the groans of the dying, and our eyes were tormented with the sight of the mangled bodies of the dead. When our alarmed imagination presented to our view our houses wrapped in flames, our children subjected to the barbarous caprice of the raging soldiery; our beauteous virgins exposed to all the insolence of unbridled passion; our virtuous wives, endeared to us by every tender tie, falling a sacrifice to worse than brutal violence…

The thoughts of vengeance were soon buried in our inbred affection to Great Britain, and calm reason dictated a method of removing the troops more mild than an immediate recourse to the sword. With united efforts you urged the immediate departure of the troops from the town; you urged it, with a resolution which ensured success; you obtained your wishes, and the removal of the troops was effected, without one drop of their blood being shed by the inhabitants.”

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