Sixth Rule
John Adams
Learning Centre: Constitution, Freedom, History, Rights, Sovereignty

Sixth Rule. [quoting Nedham] 'That the people be continually
trained up in the exercise of arms, and the militia lodged only
in the people's hands, or that part of them which are most firm to
the interest of liberty, and so the power may rest fully in the
disposition of their supreme assemblies.'--The limitation to 'that
part most firm to the interest of liberty,' was inserted here, no
doubt, to reserve the right of disarming all the friends of Charles
Stuart, the nobles and the bishops. Without stopping to enquire
into the justice, policy, or necessity of this, the rule in general
is excellent: all the consequences that our author draws from it,
however, cannot be admitted.

One consequence was, according to him, 'that nothing could at
any time be imposed upon the people but by their consent,' that
is, by the consent of themselves, 'or of such as were by them
intrusted. As Aristotle tells us, in his fourth book of Politics,
the Greek states ever had special care to place the use and
exercise of arms in the people, because the commonwealth is theirs
who hold the arms: the sword and sovereignty ever walk hand in hand
together.' This is perfectly just. 'Rome, and the territories
about it, were trained up perpetually in arms, and the whole
commonwealth, by this means, became one formal militia. There
was no difference in order between the citizen, the husbandman,
and the soldier.' This was the 'usual course, even before they
had gained their tribunes and assemblies; that is, in the infancy
of the senate, immediately after the expulsion of their kings.'

But why does our author disguise that it was the same under the
[Roman] kings? This is the truth; and it is not honest to conceal
it here. In the times of Tarquin, even, we find no standing army,
'not any form of soldiery;' -- 'nor do we find, that in after times
they permitted a deposition of the arms of the commonwealth in any
other way, till their empire increasing, necessity constrained them
to erect a continued stipendiary soldiery abroad, in foreign parts,
either for the holding or winning of provinces.' Thus we have the
truth from [Nedham] himself; the whole people were a militia under
the kings, under the senate, and after the senate's authority was
tempered by popular tribunes and assemblies; but after the people
acquired power, equal at least, if not superior to the senate, then
'forces were kept up, the ambition of Cinna, the horrid tyranny
of Sylla, and the insolence of Marius, and the self[ish] ends of
divers[e] other leaders, both before and after them, filled all
Italy with tragedies, and the world with wonder.' Is this not
an argument for the power of kings and senates, rather than the
uncontroulable power of the people, when it is confessed that the
two first used it wisely, and the last perniciously? The truth is,
as he said before, 'the sword and sovereignty go together.'

While the sovereignty was in the senate under the kings, the
militia obeyed the orders of the senate given out by the kings;
while the sovereignty was in the senate, under the consuls, the
militia obeyed the orders of the senate given out by consuls;
but when the sovereignty was lost by the senate, and gained by the
people, the militia was neglected, a standing army set up, and
obeyed the orders of the popular idols. 'The people, seeing what
misery they had brought upon themselves, by keeping their armies
within the bowels of Italy, passed a law to prevent it, and to
employ them abroad, or at a convenient distance: the law was,
that if any general marched over the river Rubicon, he should be
declared a public enemy;' and in the passage of that river this
following inscription 'was erected, to put the men of arms in mind
of their duty: Imperator, sive miles, sive tyrannus armatus
quisque, sistito vexillum, armaque deponito, nec citra hunc amnem
trajicito; general, or soldier, or tyrant in arms, whosoever thou
be, stand, quit thy standard, and lay aside thy arms, or else cross
not this river.'

But to what purpose was the law? Caesar knew the people now
to be sovereign, without control of the senate, and that he had
the confidence both of them and his army, and_cast the die,_ and
erected 'praetorian bands, instead of a public militia; and was
followed in it by his successors, by the Grand Signior, by Cosmus
the first great duke of Tuscany, by the Muscovite, the Russian,
the Tartar, by the French,' and, he might have added, by all
Europe, who by that means are all absolute [monarchs], excepting
England, because the late king Charles I, who attempted it, did
not succeed; and because our author's 'Right Constitution of a
Commonwealth' did not succeed: if it had, Oliver Cromwell and his
descendants would have been emperors of Old England as the Caesars
were of Old Rome.

The militia and sovereignty are inseparable. In the English
constitution, if the whole nation were a militia, there would be
a militia to defend the crown, the lords, or the commons, if either
were attacked: the crown, though it commands them, has no power to
use them improperly, because it cannot pay or subsist them without
the consent of the lords and commons; but if the militia are to
obey a sovereignty in a single assembly, it is commanded, paid,
subsisted, and a standing army too may be raised, paid, and
subsisted, by the vote of a majority; the militia then must all
obey the sovereign majority, or divide, and part follow the
majority, and part the minority. This last case is civil war;
but until it comes to this, the whole militia may be employed by
the majority in any degree of tyranny and oppression over the
minority. The constitution [of Britain] furnishes no resource or
remedy; nothing affords a chance of relief but rebellion and civil
war: if this terminates in favour of the minority, they will
tyrannize in their turns, exasperated by revenge, in addition to
ambition and avarice; if the majority prevail, their domination
becomes more cruel, and soon ends in one despot.

It must be made a sacred maxim, that the militia obey the
executive power, which represents the whole people in the execution
of the laws. To suppose arms in the hands of citizens, to be used
at individual discretion, except in private self-defence, or by
partial orders of towns, counties, or districts of a state, is to
demolish every constitution, and lay the laws prostrate, so that
liberty can be enjoyed by no man --it is a dissolution of the
government. The fundamental law of the militia is, that it be
created, directed, and commanded by the laws, and ever for the
support of the laws. This truth is acknowledged by our author,
when he says, 'The arms of the commonwealth should be lodged in
the hands of that part of the people which are firm to its

<<John Adams, in this chapter, is reviewing a 1656 work by
Marchamont Nedham (1620-1678), titled "The Excellency of a free
State, or the right Constitution of a Commonwealth," from which
Adams quotes extensively. Notice should be made especially of the
last paragraph, in which Adams outlines his views on the two
legitimate functions of the right to keep and bear arms, which are
for private self-defense, and for enforcing the law as a member of
the general militia, under the direction of a democratically
elected government (as local as possible). Note also his earlier
analysis of the dangers inherent in a democratic tyranny of the
majority, and, in passing, an explanation of the ancient origin of
the phrase "crossing the Rubicon.">>

_A Defence of the Constitutions of Government of the United States of America,_ p.471-475 (London, 1788)
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