David R. Henderson  

How Napoleonic Conscription Came to America

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My piece on how conscription came to America, titled "From 'Porous' to 'Ruthless' Conscription: 1776-1917," is out in the latest issue of Independent Review. An excerpt:

As Robert Higgs insists, beliefs matter in social affairs (1987, 38). Although this idea should go without saying, a wide swath of economists unfortunately seems to believe that people pursue only their own narrowly defined interest and that the only "belief" they act on is that they should pursue this interest. In criticizing this view, Amartya Sen asserts strongly: "The purely economic man is close to being a social moron" (1977, qtd. in Higgs 1987, 41). Even a little introspection should persuade us that we often act on the basis of ideas, especially in the political realm.

In the piece, I cite as one of the factors the role of Progressive ideology. For instance:

Progressivism is, in part, the belief that citizens owe a duty to the state and that the state has the right to use coercion to exact the payment owed. As the Progressive economists who founded the American Economic Association in 1884 stated, "We regard the state as an educational and ethical agency whose positive aid is an indispensable condition of human progress. While we recognize the necessity of individual initiative in industrial life, we hold that the doctrine of laissez-faire is unsafe in politics and unsound in morals; and that it suggests an inadequate explanation of the relations between the state and the citizens" (qtd. in Ekirch 1966, 183-84).

Herbert Croly, who wrote The Promise of American Life and helped to found
The New Republic magazine in 1914, was one of the leading figures in this new ideological movement. He put the Progressive view more bluntly: "A democracy organized into a nation, and imbued with the national spirit, will seek by means of experimentation and discipline to reach the object which Tolstoy would reach by an immediate and miraculous act of faith. The exigencies of such schooling frequently demand severe coercive measures, but what schooling does not?" ([1909] 1965, 282-83).

The other two factors I cite are existence of a powerful central government and the lessons learned from the Civil War draft, lessons that made it easier to implement a draft without fomenting mass uprisings.

Comments and Sharing

COMMENTS (1 to date)
mulp writes:

The Confederacy’s conscription was by far the harsher of the two Civil War drafts. The Confederate Conscription Act of April 16, 1862, violated fixed-term enlistment contracts and compelled those who had already volunteered to stay for the rest of the war. Of the one million Confederate soldiers, 79 percent were volunteers who were retained involuntarily, and the remaining 21 percent were drafted under the 1862 act.

So, in your view, we are currently engaged in the harshest form of conscription.

As a pacifist I do wish you luck in convincing the conservatives in the US to ensure the US military can't be used for wars like those we've been engaged in for the past half century.

And NATO members who are unwilling to coerce their citizens into US wars of choice will be happy for your moral support.

Let's ensure US wars are always fought by free men who always have the freedom to do as they like without coercion from government central planners issuing orders to make a dangerous attack on an enemy.

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