In the American experience, some of the traditional marks of militarism are lacking. There has been no aristocratic class, except perhaps in the antebellum South, which regarded military values highly and the army as a career preferable to business and civilian professions. There have been few challenges to civilian dominance over the military and little disagreement during most of American history about a small standing army. In the United States, any militarism must exist alongside democratic, liberal, civilian traditions and sometimes even have their support. Generally, this support has not been lacking when achievement of foreign policy goals (continental expansion, defense of the Monroe Doctrine, neutral rights, preservation of the European or world balance of power) has seemed to require military power. With that support the evidence of militarism in the United States increases as the nation accepts greater foreign policy commitments.
Late eighteenth-and nineteenth-century American history shows few signs of militarism. Americans were not militaristic because there was no rationale for it. Yet these were not years of unbroken peace, for, as Root said, Americans were willing to fight when need was apparent. American fortune allowed war preparations after the crisis developed and permitted rapid demobilization when it was past, or as historian Daniel J. Boorstin, referring to the American Revolution and later American wars, said, "the end of the war and the end of the army were substantially …the same." Strong pressures for militarism in the United States came mainly after a long development of antimilitaristic sentiment.
American military efforts in the Revolution and the successful preservation of independence brought no changes in colonial antipathy (learned from the English cousins) to standing armies. A standing army was, for the revolutionary generation, dangerous to liberty and a tool for establishing intolerable despotisms. Americans believed that those who had arms and were disciplined in their use would dominate and that a standing army was inconsistent with free government. As noted by Bernard Bailyn in The Ideological Origins of the American Revolution, such thoughts reflected the influence of earlier English writers and was dogma that prevailed with little dispute throughout nineteenth-and into twentieth-century American history. For colonists the British army might provide needed defense, but it should do so with few demands on colonial life or pocketbook. After 1763, when England kept several thousand troops in America, there was distrust in the colonies; on the eve of the Revolution, the Continental Congress memorialized the king with their grievances about the standing army in their midst and the commander in chief's assertion of authority over civil governments in America. In the Declaration of Independence, the Founders repeated these charges. Many Americans were convinced that the army was not needed and colonial wars of past years—referred to by the names of the British monarchs—were of little interest to them. This attitude reflects the isolation of the colonies and illustrates its effect on military thinking. Thomas Paine emphasized it when he urged separation from Britain. Britain fought for its own interests, he said, not for any attachment to Americans: "She did not protect us from our enemies on our account; but from her enemies on her own account." Independence would demonstrate America's isolation and lessen the need for a large professional military establishment.
More important in colonial experience was the armed citizen, the embattled farmer who was ready at a minute's notice to defend family and community. Most of the able free male inhabitants of an English settlement were armed because dispersed settlement made it necessary. They were accustomed to the rigors of hard life and were familiar with firearms. Although most of them served in the militia, the drills and reviews offered little instruction; the men were little inclined to military training or subordination. These plain citizens with arms were the military men; their presence made civilian control over the army a reality well before adoption of a constitution in which that principle was firmly embedded. During the Revolution many of these armed men served in the Continental army, the militia, or in some irregular capacity. They have been variously described as ragged, dirty, sickly, and ill-disciplined, unused to service, impatient of command, and destitute of resources.
One foreign observer, however, believed the whole nation had much natural talent for war and military life. All descriptions were apt for the citizen soldiers for whom General George Washington sometimes despaired, but with favorable geography and foreign aid, without which success would have been difficult, they won. The victory amid political and economic confusion did not emphasize the military prowess of the Continental army or of the militiamen, and fortunately, too, for the civilian tradition, the man who commanded those victorious arms did not have the seeming messianic impulse of Napoleon, Charles de Gaulle, or Douglas MacArthur.
Washington reinforced civilian dominance at the time the nation was formed and precedents were set. He understood that the Revolution needed the support of public opinion as well as successful military efforts; he emphasized to his civilian soldiers their own interests (not those of some king) in the conflict; and he remained subordinate to Congress. At the end of the war, when soldiers were grumbling about back pay and unkept promises of future reward, Washington counseled patience and obedience. It was a time when politicians were scheming with discontented officers and there was imminent danger of military interference in political matters, but Washington's position prevailed. In June 1783, most of the army disbanded and the following December the Virginia planter-turned-general resigned his commission and went home. Never again in American history would the army be so close to open defiance of civilian authority. The disbanded troops met general public opposition to their demands for further pay; many received little or nothing. Civilian suspicion of military men was also revealed in public reaction to the Society of Cincinnati, a social and charitable organization of officers with membership passing through primogeniture. Opposition focused on the aristocratic trappings and possible military pressure on government. It was a natural civilian and democratic reaction from the likes of Thomas Jefferson, John Adams, and John Jay.