In this Federalist, Hamilton pillories those who criticize the Constitution because it does not possess sufficient safeguards against maintaining a standing army. Hamilton first attempts to show that this argument is specious, because this is not something that had been enough of a problem to even warrant a mention, in any of the state constitutions or the Articles of Confederation. This done, he points out the necessity of maintaining frontier garrisons against the insults and encroachments of the British and Spanish, as well as for protection from the Indians; and coastal installations to protect dockyards, while the country is getting its new navy launched.
TO THE powers proposed to be conferred upon the federal government, in respect to the creation and direction of the national forces, I have met with but one specific objection, which, if I understand it right, is this, that proper provision has not been made against the existence of standing armies in time of peace; an objection which, I shall now endeavor to show, rests on weak and unsubstantial foundations.
As far as the powers proposed for the federal government, with respect to the creation and direction of national forces, to my knowledge, only one objection has been raised. This is that there is an unaddressed danger associated with the existence of standing armies in time of peace. I will now show that such concerns are groundless.
It has indeed been brought forward in the most vague and general form, supported only by bold assertions, without the appearance of argument; without even the sanction of theoretical opinions; in contradiction to the practice of other free nations, and to the general sense of America, as expressed in most of the existing constitutions. The propriety of this remark will appear, the moment it is recollected that the objection under consideration turns upon a supposed necessity of restraining the LEGISLATIVE authority of the nation, in the article of military establishments; a principle unheard of, except in one or two of our State constitutions, and rejected in all the rest.
This issue has been put forth only in the most vague and general terms, supported only by bold assertions, and without reasoned argument. This concern is in contradiction with the practice of other free nations, and to the general sense of America, as expressed in most of the States’ constitutions. The truth of this last statement should be obvious when one considers that in order for this to be of concern, it would require restraining the LEGISLATIVE authority of the nation, with regard to military establishments. All but one or two of the State constitutions have rejected this principle.
A stranger to our politics, who was to read our newspapers at the present juncture, without having previously inspected the plan reported by the convention, would be naturally led to one of two conclusions: either that it contained a positive injunction, that standing armies should be kept up in time of peace; or that it vested in the EXECUTIVE the whole power of levying troops, without subjecting his discretion, in any shape, to the control of the legislature.
A stranger to our politics, if only possessed of the information printed in the newspapers, would think that either the Constitution stipulates that standing armies be kept in peace-time, or that the EXECUTIVE branch was exclusively vested with the power of levying troops without any involvement by the legislature.
If he came afterwards to peruse the plan itself, he would be surprised to discover, that neither the one nor the other was the case; that the whole power of raising armies was lodged in the legislature, not in the executive; that this legislature was to be a popular body, consisting of the representatives of the people periodically elected; and that instead of the provision he had supposed in favor of standing armies, there was to be found, in respect to this object, an important qualification even of the legislative discretion, in that clause which forbids the appropriation of money for the support of an army for any longer period than two years a precaution which, upon a nearer view of it, will appear to be a great and real security against the keeping up of troops without evident necessity.
This same stranger, if he were to look through the plan itself after the fact, would be surprised to discover that neither was the case. The whole power of raising armies is to be lodged in the legislature, not in the executive. Furthermore, the legislature is to be a popular body, consisting of periodically elected representatives. Indeed, instead of a provision stipulating standing armies, the provision in question deals with the restrictions on the appropriation of money for the support of an army limited to a period of not longer than two years. It should be evident that this is a precaution which should provide real security against the keeping up of troops without evident necessity.
Disappointed in his first surmise, the person I have supposed would be apt to pursue his conjectures a little further. He would naturally say to himself, it is impossible that all this vehement and pathetic declamation can be without some colorable pretext. It must needs be that this people, so jealous of their liberties, have, in all the preceding models of the constitutions which they have established, inserted the most precise and rigid precautions on this point, the omission of which, in the new plan, has given birth to all this apprehension and clamor.
Discovering his error, our stranger would doubtless seek another explanation. He would be likely to think that where there is smoke, there must surely be fire, and that in light of the vehemence with which this threat is held up, there must be something to it. It must be that this people, so protective of their liberties, have in all previous constitutions established by them, included rigid and precise precautions against this danger. And it is the absence of these precautions in this constitution, which has caused all this apprehension and clamor.
If, under this impression, he proceeded to pass in review the several State constitutions, how great would be his disappointment to find that two only of them1 contained an interdiction of standing armies in time of peace; that the other eleven had either observed a profound silence on the subject, or had in express terms admitted the right of the Legislature to authorize their existence.
If he tried to verify this hypothesis by reviewing the State constitutions, he would be disappointed again in discovering that only two1 of them explicitly prohibit the keeping of standing armies in time of peace, and that the other eleven are either silent on the subject or have explicitly admitted the right of the Legislature to authorize their existence.
Still, however he would be persuaded that there must be some plausible foundation for the cry raised on this head. He would never be able to imagine, while any source of information remained unexplored, that it was nothing more than an experiment upon the public credulity, dictated either by a deliberate intention to deceive, or by the overflowings of a zeal too intemperate to be ingenuous. It would probably occur to him, that he would be likely to find the precautions he was in search of in the primitive compact between the States. Here, at length, he would expect to meet with a solution of the enigma. No doubt, he would observe to himself, the existing Confederation must contain the most explicit provisions against military establishments in time of peace; and a departure from this model, in a favorite point, has occasioned the discontent which appears to influence these political champions.
Regardless, our hypothetical stranger would not give up easily in searching for some plausible foundation for the hew and cry raised over this issue. While any possible explanation remained unexplored, our stranger would be loathe to believe that this could be nothing more than a bugbear, created either to intentionally deceive, or merely as too much hyperbole. He would probably think to look next for some kind of a compact between the States, namely the current Confederation, as the next most likely source of such precautionary edicts against military establishments in peace-time. For, it must be that it is a departure from this model which has caused the discontent which appears to motivate those politicians who complain so loudly.
If he should now apply himself to a careful and critical survey of the articles of Confederation, his astonishment would not only be increased, but would acquire a mixture of indignation, at the unexpected discovery, that these articles, instead of containing the prohibition he looked for, and though they had, with jealous circumspection, restricted the authority of the State legislatures in this particular, had not imposed a single restraint on that of the United States. If he happened to be a man of quick sensibility, or ardent temper, he could now no longer refrain from regarding these clamors as the dishonest artifices of a sinister and unprincipled opposition to a plan which ought at least to receive a fair and candid examination from all sincere lovers of their country! How else, he would say, could the authors of them have been tempted to vent such loud censures upon that plan, about a point in which it seems to have conformed itself to the general sense of America as declared in its different forms of government, and in which it has even superadded a new and powerful guard unknown to any of them? If, on the contrary, he happened to be a man of calm and dispassionate feelings, he would indulge a sigh for the frailty of human nature, and would lament, that in a matter so interesting to the happiness of millions, the true merits of the question should be perplexed and entangled by expedients so unfriendly to an impartial and right determination. Even such a man could hardly forbear remarking, that a conduct of this kind has too much the appearance of an intention to mislead the people by alarming their passions, rather than to convince them by arguments addressed to their understandings.
However, if our stranger should make a careful and critical survey of the articles of Confederation, he would be astonished and even indignant at what he would find. For these articles, instead of containing the prohibition he expected to find, while they had restricted the State legislatures in this area, imposed no such restriction on the United States. If our man were intelligent and passionate, he would now see that the supposed dangers of a standing army being imposed, were nothing more than scare tactics employed by a sinister and unprincipled opposition to a plan which deserves a fair and candid examination by all who love their country. What else would motivate those in opposition to it to make such fantastic claims about something that has never been an issue before? This constitution even has strong provisions of protection which others have not. If our man were of a calmer, more dispassionate nature, then he might simply indulge in a sigh for the frailty of human nature, and lament that a matter so important to so many, should be potentially derailed from proper consideration, because of such tactics. Even the most dispassionate of men, could hardly avoid observing, that such arguments seem designed solely to mislead and scare, rather than to convince by rational argument.
But however little this objection may be countenanced, even by precedents among ourselves, it may be satisfactory to take a nearer view of its intrinsic merits. From a close examination it will appear that restraints upon the discretion of the legislature in respect to military establishments in time of peace, would be improper to be imposed, and if imposed, from the necessities of society, would be unlikely to be observed.
But in spite of how little merit there is to this objection, we will take a closer look. Looking into the matter, we will see that attempting to place restraints on the discretion of the legislature, with respect to military establishments in time of peace, is a bad idea. If such restraints were imposed, it seems that societal imperatives would render them unlikely to be enforced.
Though a wide ocean separates the United States from Europe, yet there are various considerations that warn us against an excess of confidence or security. On one side of us, and stretching far into our rear, are growing settlements subject to the dominion of Britain. On the other side, and extending to meet the British settlements, are colonies and establishments subject to the dominion of Spain. This situation and the vicinity of the West India Islands, belonging to these two powers create between them, in respect to their American possessions and in relation to us, a common interest. The savage tribes on our Western frontier ought to be regarded as our natural enemies, their natural allies, because they have most to fear from us, and most to hope from them. The improvements in the art of navigation have, as to the facility of communication, rendered distant nations, in a great measure, neighbors. Britain and Spain are among the principal maritime powers of Europe. A future concert of views between these nations ought not to be regarded as improbable. The increasing remoteness of consanguinity is every day diminishing the force of the family compact between France and Spain. And politicians have ever with great reason considered the ties of blood as feeble and precarious links of political connection. These circumstances combined, admonish us not to be too sanguine in considering ourselves as entirely out of the reach of danger.
Although a wide ocean separates the United States from Europe, there are various considerations which should prevent us from becoming over-confident in our security. On one side of us, and stretching far into our rear, are growing settlements subject to the dominion of Britain. On the other side, we have colonies and establishments subject to Spain. These extend to meet those of Britain. This situation, along with the location of the West Indies, which belong to these two powers, creates a common interest between them with respect to the United States. Also, the savage tribes on our Western frontier may be thought of as our natural enemies, and their natural allies, because they have most to fear from us, and most to hope from them. Improvements in the art of navigation and the attendant improvements in communication, have rendered even distant nations, veritable neighbors. Britain and Spain are among the principal maritime powers of Europe. The likelihood of these two powers working together on shared interests should not be discounted. This becomes more probable every day, in light of the diminishing strength of the alliance between France and Spain. Politicians have long known that blood ties are feeble and precarious links of political connection. These things combined, admonish us not to be too sanguine in considering ourselves as entirely out of the reach of danger.
Previous to the Revolution, and ever since the peace, there has been a constant necessity for keeping small garrisons on our Western frontier. No person can doubt that these will continue to be indispensable, if it should only be against the ravages and depredations of the Indians. These garrisons must either be furnished by occasional detachments from the militia, or by permanent corps in the pay of the government. The first is impracticable; and if practicable, would be pernicious. The militia would not long, if at all, submit to be dragged from their occupations and families to perform that most disagreeable duty in times of profound peace. And if they could be prevailed upon or compelled to do it, the increased expense of a frequent rotation of service, and the loss of labor and disconcertion of the industrious pursuits of individuals, would form conclusive objections to the scheme. It would be as burdensome and injurious to the public as ruinous to private citizens. The latter resource of permanent corps in the pay of the government amounts to a standing army in time of peace; a small one, indeed, but not the less real for being small. Here is a simple view of the subject, that shows us at once the impropriety of a constitutional interdiction of such establishments, and the necessity of leaving the matter to the discretion and prudence of the legislature.
Before the Revolution and since the peace, we’ve had to keep small garrisons on our Western frontier. No one doubts that these will continue to be required, if only to guard against the ravages and depredations of the Indians. These garrisons must either be furnished by occasional detachments from the militia, or by permanent corps in the pay of the government. The first is impracticable, and even if practicable, pernicious. The militia would be unwilling to be dragged from their jobs and families, to serve on the frontier in peace-time. Even if they could be convinced or compelled to serve, the increased expense of frequent rotation of service, the loss of labor, and the effect on the individual, would form significant barriers to making this scheme work. It would be as burdensome and injurious to the public as ruinous to private citizens. This sort of thing amounts to the maintenance of a standing army in time of peace. It might be small, but it is real nonetheless. This is a simple view of the subject which demonstrates the impropriety of trying to impose a constitutional restraint on the establishment of a standing army, and the necessity of leaving the matter to the discretion and prudence of the legislature.
In proportion to our increase in strength, it is probable, nay, it may be said certain, that Britain and Spain would augment their military establishments in our neighborhood. If we should not be willing to be exposed, in a naked and defenseless condition, to their insults and encroachments, we should find it expedient to increase our frontier garrisons in some ratio to the force by which our Western settlements might be annoyed. There are, and will be, particular posts, the possession of which will include the command of large districts of territory, and facilitate future invasions of the remainder. It may be added that some of those posts will be keys to the trade with the Indian nations. Can any man think it would be wise to leave such posts in a situation to be at any instant seized by one or the other of two neighboring and formidable powers? To act this part would be to desert all the usual maxims of prudence and policy.
Britain and Spain will almost certainly augment their forces to counter our own increases in strength along our frontier. If we are unwilling to stand by and accept their insults and encroachments, we will need to increase our frontier garrisons in some ratio to the forces arrayed against our Western settlements. These posts will command large districts of territory and facilitate future invasions. Furthermore, some of these posts will be critical for trading with the Indian nations. Would anyone think it smart to leave such posts unprotected or weak, and at risk of being seized by one or the other of two neighboring and formidable powers. To behave in such a way would be to abandon all the usual maxims of prudence and policy.
If we mean to be a commercial people, or even to be secure on our Atlantic side, we must endeavor, as soon as possible, to have a navy. To this purpose there must be dock-yards and arsenals; and for the defense of these, fortifications, and probably garrisons. When a nation has become so powerful by sea that it can protect its dock-yards by its fleets, this supersedes the necessity of garrisons for that purpose; but where naval establishments are in their infancy, moderate garrisons will, in all likelihood, be found an indispensable security against descents for the destruction of the arsenals and dock-yards, and sometimes of the fleet itself.
If we intend to conduct trade, or even be secure on the Atlantic seaboard, we will need to acquire a navy as soon as possible. For that, there must be dock-yards and arsenals. For the defense of these, fortifications and probably garrisons, will be required. Once a nation has a navy of sufficient strength that it can protect its dock-yards by means of its fleets, garrisons are no longer needed for that purpose. But, while the navy is in its infancy, moderate garrisons are indispensable security against the destruction of the arsenals and dock-yards, and sometimes of the fleet itself.
1. This statement of the matter is taken from the printed collection of State constitutions. Pennsylvania and North Carolina are the two which contain the interdiction in these words: “As standing armies in time of peace are dangerous to liberty, THEY OUGHT NOT to be kept up.” This is, in truth, rather a CAUTION than a PROHIBITION. New Hampshire, Massachusetts, Delaware, and Maryland have, in each of their bills of rights, a clause to this effect: “Standing armies are dangerous to liberty, and ought not to be raised or kept up WITHOUT THE CONSENT OF THE LEGISLATURE”; which is a formal admission of the authority of the Legislature. New York has no bills of rights, and her constitution says not a word about the matter. No bills of rights appear annexed to the constitutions of the other States, except the foregoing, and their constitutions are equally silent. I am told, however that one or two States have bills of rights which do not appear in this collection; but that those also recognize the right of the legislative authority in this respect.