J. L. BELL is a Massachusetts writer who specializes in (among other things) the start of the American Revolution in and around Boston. He is particularly interested in the experiences of children in 1765-75. He has published scholarly papers and popular articles for both children and adults. He was consultant for an episode of History Detectives, and contributed to a display at Minute Man National Historic Park.

Follow by Email


Sunday, July 24, 2016

The Standing Member from Massachusetts

Before leaving that day when the Constitutional Convention debated whether the size of the U.S. Army in peacetime mattered, I want to address another tradition that’s arisen about it.

Several recent books (e.g., Isaacson, Chernow, Beschloss, Stewart) and lots of websites quote Elbridge Gerry as making an analogy between a standing army and an erection.

The term used for that anatomical feature differs from one version of the tale to another, but all the versions climax with Gerry saying that either was “an excellent assurance of domestic tranquillity, but a dangerous temptation to foreign adventure.”

The earliest such statement that I could find appears in The Oxford History of the American People by Samuel Eliot Morison, published in 1965, or 178 years after the supposed event:
Elbridge Gerry, seconded by Luther Martin, wished to restrict the members of the United States Army to 3000 in time of peace, and made a humorous comparison (transmitted by oral tradition) of a standing army to a standing member—“an excellent assurance of domestic tranquillity, but a dangerous temptation to foreign adventure.”
Morison, a descendant of Harrison Gray Otis, did apparently inherit some oral traditions that he put down on paper for the first time. At least, I’ve cited schoolboy rhymes and hijinks that Morison published in the first edition of his biography of his ancestor.

But about this quotation, I’m dubious. Gerry did not see a standing army as “an excellent assurance of domestic tranquillity.” He saw it as a potential domestic danger, tempting citizens to ignore their militia system and let oppression flow. Politically, the story thus seems to be quite a stretch.

But for today’s sensibilities, that line seems like too much fun to let go of.

No comments: