How Napoleonic Conscription Came to America
By David Henderson
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?” ( 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.