Keith Thomas
The Ends of Life

During the course of the eighteenth century, gentlemen gradually stopped wearing the swords which had once been their indispensable badge of rank. After Beau Nash, the great choreographer of the new civility, had forbidden the carrying of weapons in good society, it was said that 'a sword seen in the streets of Bath would raise as great an alarm as a mad dog.' By 1780 swords were no longer worn anywhere with informal dress.'

In the words of the historian Edward Gibbon, the exercise of arms had ceased to be an occasional duty and had become a separate trade. 'The nation gave itself over to 'the peaceful occupations of trade, manufactures and husbandry,' leaving national defence to be the business of a semi-professional army under the control of a civilian parliament. It was a momentous change, made possible by the advanced nature of Britain's economic development and by its reliance on naval strength rather than land forces for its everyday security. As the future bishop Thomas Sprat had pointed out in 1667, it was now 'rightly understood that British greatness will never be supported or increased in this age, by any other wars but those at sea.' Britain was an island, observed the economist Nicholas Barbon in 1690, and 'therefore requires no military force to defend it.'

Among the population at large, the traditional obligation of all adult males to perform military service at time of need had become increasingly attenuated. At the Restoration the militia had been reestablished, but within a decade sank into a decay from which it was not resurrected until the coming of the Seven Years War in 1756. Even then, service was by lot and affected only a small proportion of the population. It is true that in 1689 the Bill of Rights had converted the age-old duty of citizens to keep arms into the right of all Protestant subjects to possess them, that the wars against Louis XIV drew some 15 per cent of adult males of military age into the armed forces, and that that figure would be surpassed during the French Revolutionary and Napoleonic Wars. But throughout the eighteenth century, Britain's rate of military participation per head of population was much lower than that of other European powers.'

The long-term consequence of this civilianization of the population and professionalization of the military was that valour and military prowess ceased to be moral qualities expected of all men of ambition and tended instead to be regarded as more akin to the technical qualifications of an occupational group. Fortitude was a necessary virtue for soldiers, thought Thomas Hobbes in the 1660s, but 'for other men, the less they dare, the better it is, both for the commonwealth and for themselves.' With the growth of a specialist defence force, observed Adam Smith in 1766, courage diminished among the bulk of the people, and they grew 'effeminate and dastardly.' As Francis Bacon had noticed a century and a half previously, commerce and manufactures did not encourage a fighting spirit: 'the sedentary and within-door arts, and delicate manufactures (that require the finger rather than the arm)' had a natural 'contrariety to a military disposition.'

This was the abiding lament of those who adhered to the civic-humanist tradition. For them, the new reliance on a professional army seemed a potential threat to liberty, which they sought to diminish by championing the idea of an armed nobility and a popular militia, thus distributing the duty of national defence as widely as possible. In the century after the Restoration of Charles II, republicans like Algernon Sidney kept alive the belief in the importance of martial exercises and warlike nobility as 'the pillars of manlike liberty.' 'Those old hospitable Gothick halls, hung round with the helmets, breast-plates, and swords of our ancestors,' declared a journalist in 1739, were 'the terror of former ministers, and the check of kings.' A standing army was repeatedly denounced as incompatible with the spirit of a free government. When the Seven Years War broke out, many 'patriots' supported the revival of the militia as a means of eliminating national 'effeminacy' and a political counterbalance to the standing army. To delegate military valour to specialists, maintained the Scottish philosopher Adam Ferguson, was to undermine 'the genius and character of man.'

In the population at large, however, there was always a strong current of hostility to military values. The chivalric ethic never had exclusive sway. Distaste for the wastefulness and brutality of war had been widespread among the medieval administrative class and the traders of London. It was strongly expressed in the late fourteenth and early fifteenth centuries by John Gower, Thomas Hoccleve, John Lydgate, and other contemporary writers. The medieval Church's doctrine of the lawfulness of a just war had never adequately resolved the inherent tension between the military life and the pacific impulse of primitive Christianity. Although the Church had permitted or even encouraged certain forms of military activity, it had unequivocally declared that wars conducted for the sake of glory and self-aggrandizement were morally unacceptable. In the late fourteenth and early fifteenth centuries, Wyclif and some of the Lollards rejected military values altogether, lamenting the admiration extended to those 'that be great warriors and fighters and that destroy and win many lands.'

  The World was all before them, where to choose
Their place of rest, and Providence their guide:
They, hand in hand, with wand'ring steps and slow,

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Through Eden took their solitary way.