National security is government’s most important duty, but for republics dedicated to the limitation of power it presents a special dilemma. In Federalist 8 Hamilton depicts the likelihood of hostilities between separate states or confederacies and the consequent curtailment of liberty. He contrasts the security requirements of the Union to those of independent bordering states or confederacies and the consequences sure to follow.
The provision of national security by a unified nation with no need for a military presence is different than the dictates of national security needs in a government under consequent threat of invasion. In the former, liberty is more likely to be protected by the Constitution from unwarranted extensions of government power. In the latter, the frequent exigencies of security will make the people grow used to surrendering their liberties and the strengthen resultant military government making it harder to reclaim lost freedoms.
ASSUMING it therefore as an established truth that the several States, in case of disunion, or such combinations of them as might happen to be formed out of the wreck of the general Confederacy, would be subject to those vicissitudes of peace and war, of friendship and enmity, with each other, which have fallen to the lot of all neighboring nations not united under one government, let us enter into a concise detail of some of the consequences that would attend such a situation.
If we assume that Confederacy (in the event of disunion) would not be exempt from the evils that typically befall other nations that border each other, then it makes sense to look at the consequences to be faced in that event.
War between the States, in the first period of their separate existence, would be accompanied with much greater distresses than it commonly is in those countries where regular military establishments have long obtained. The disciplined armies always kept on foot on the continent of Europe, though they bear a malignant aspect to liberty and economy, have, notwithstanding, been productive of the signal advantage of rendering sudden conquests impracticable, and of preventing that rapid desolation which used to mark the progress of war prior to their introduction. The art of fortification has contributed to the same ends. The nations of Europe are encircled with chains of fortified places, which mutually obstruct invasion. Campaigns are wasted in reducing two or three frontier garrisons, to gain admittance into an enemy’s country. Similar impediments occur at every step, to exhaust the strength and delay the progress of an invader. Formerly, an invading army would penetrate into the heart of a neighboring country almost as soon as intelligence of its approach could be received; but now a comparatively small force of disciplined troops, acting on the defensive, with the aid of posts, is able to impede, and finally to frustrate, the enterprises of one much more considerable. The history of war, in that quarter of the globe, is no longer a history of nations subdued and empires overturned, but of towns taken and retaken; of battles that decide nothing; of retreats more beneficial than victories; of much effort and little acquisition.
War between the States, would initially be worse than it is for countries that have longer histories. Europe has long maintained disciplined armies. Though such armies are not good for the liberty of their countries’ peoples, they have the advantage of discouraging sudden conquests. Prior to their existence, the history of Europe was one of rapid desolation. The abundance of fortifications have served the same purpose. Consequently, campaigns to destroy frontier garrisons are wasteful and often ineffective as a precursor to invading an enemies territory. In the past, an invading army would penetrate deep into the heart of a neighboring country with almost no warning. But now, just a small force of disciplined troops garrisoned in outposts can frustrate even enemies of considerably greater strength. Because of this, war in Europe has changed from the subjugation of nations and overthrowing of empires to a series of inconsequential, but costly battles over towns and villages, which are subsequently lost and retaken only to be lost again.
In this country the scene would be altogether reversed. The jealousy of military establishments would postpone them as long as possible. The want of fortifications, leaving the frontiers of one state open to another, would facilitate inroads. The populous States would, with little difficulty, overrun their less populous neighbors. Conquests would be as easy to be made as difficult to be retained. War, therefore, would be desultory and predatory. PLUNDER and devastation ever march in the train of irregulars. The calamities of individuals would make the principal figure in the events which would characterize our military exploits.
In this country, the exact opposite would be the case. The antipathy toward standing armies would delay their establishment. The lack of fortifications on the frontiers would encourage incursions. The bigger States would easily overrun their less populous neighbors. Conquests would be easily achieved but hard to hold. As a result, war would be desultory and predatory. Irregular, undisciplined troops have ever been the source of plunder and devastation and calamity.
This picture is not too highly wrought; though, I confess, it would not long remain a just one. Safety from external danger is the most powerful director of national conduct. Even the ardent love of liberty will, after a time, give way to its dictates. The violent destruction of life and property incident to war, the continual effort and alarm attendant on a state of continual danger, will compel nations the most attached to liberty to resort for repose and security to institutions which have a tendency to destroy their civil and political rights. To be more safe, they at length become willing to run the risk of being less free.
This is not just hyperbole. National conduct is overwhelmingly motivated by a desire for safety against external threats. Even those most enamored with freedom, will eventually trade it for safety. The violent destruction of life and property is characteristic of war. The constant threat of such continual danger will cause even the most idealistic nations to turn for protection to institutions which have a tendency to destroy their civil and political rights. To be more safe, they at length become willing to run the risk of being less free.
The institutions chiefly alluded to are STANDING ARMIES and the correspondent appendages of military establishments. Standing armies, it is said, are not provided against in the new Constitution; and it is therefore inferred that they may exist under it.1 Their existence, however, from the very terms of the proposition, is, at most, problematical and uncertain. But standing armies, it may be replied, must inevitably result from a dissolution of the Confederacy. Frequent war and constant apprehension, which require a state of as constant preparation, will infallibly produce them. The weaker States or confederacies would first have recourse to them, to put themselves upon an equality with their more potent neighbors. They would endeavor to supply the inferiority of population and resources by a more regular and effective system of defense, by disciplined troops, and by fortifications. They would, at the same time, be necessitated to strengthen the executive arm of government, in doing which their constitutions would acquire a progressive direction toward monarchy. It is of the nature of war to increase the executive at the expense of the legislative authority.
The institutions I am referring to are STANDING ARMIES and other military establishments. People are claiming that because there is no prohibition against standing armies, therefore they may be established under the new Constitution. How likely they are to exist is problematical and uncertain, given the terms of the new Constitution. But, it is inevitable that standing armies will result from the dissolution of the Confederacy. Frequent wars and constant apprehension requires preparedness and that means armies. The weaker States or confederacies would have no other choice but to resort to them as a means of establishing an equal footing with their more powerful neighbors. They would endeavor to make up for smaller populations and less resources with an effective military force and fortification of their borders. For the same reasons, they would be impelled to strengthen the executive branch of government. This would in turn lead to a path toward monarchy. It is of the nature of war to increase the executive at the expense of the legislative authority.
The expedients which have been mentioned would soon give the States or confederacies that made use of them a superiority over their neighbors. Small states, or states of less natural strength, under vigorous governments, and with the assistance of disciplined armies, have often triumphed over large states, or states of greater natural strength, which have been destitute of these advantages. Neither the pride nor the safety of the more important States or confederacies would permit them long to submit to this mortifying and adventitious superiority. They would quickly resort to means similar to those by which it had been effected, to reinstate themselves in their lost pre-eminence. Thus, we should, in a little time, see established in every part of this country the same engines of despotism which have been the scourge of the Old World. This, at least, would be the natural course of things; and our reasonings will be the more likely to be just, in proportion as they are accommodated to this standard.
States which followed their inclinations to form armies in an effort to equalize or overtake their neighbors in strength would have advantage over those that did not. History has shown that small states with disciplined armies and sufficient political will, have often been able to conquer larger states that did not avail themselves of military establishments. Pretty soon all the states or confederacies would be forced, out of a desire for security or pride of place alone, to form their own armies. They would do whatever was necessary to ensure their relative position in the hierarchy of States. Consequently, before we knew it, we would see a militarized continent subject to the same engines of despotism that have plagued the Old World. This is just the natural course of things. Should we take this road, events would transpire as described.
These are not vague inferences drawn from supposed or speculative defects in a Constitution, the whole power of which is lodged in the hands of a people, or their representatives and delegates, but they are solid conclusions, drawn from the natural and necessary progress of human affairs.
These aren’t just idle musings or straw men constructed out of supposed defects in a hypothetical Constitution whose power is entirely derived from the people or their representatives. They are solid conclusions, drawn from the history of human affairs.
It may, perhaps, be asked, by way of objection to this, why did not standing armies spring up out of the contentions which so often distracted the ancient republics of Greece? Different answers, equally satisfactory, may be given to this question. The industrious habits of the people of the present day, absorbed in the pursuits of gain, and devoted to the improvements of agriculture and commerce, are incompatible with the condition of a nation of soldiers, which was the true condition of the people of those republics. The means of revenue, which have been so greatly multiplied by the increase of gold and silver and of the arts of industry, and the science of finance, which is the offspring of modern times, concurring with the habits of nations, have produced an entire revolution in the system of war, and have rendered disciplined armies, distinct from the body of the citizens, the inseparable companions of frequent hostility.
One might argue that if that were the case, then why weren’t standing armies a feature of the ancient republics of Greece? After all they, had their own conflicts and contentions. There are different and equally valid answers to this question. There is a fundamental difference between the culture of today and that of those ancient republics. Today people are absorbed in the acquisition of wealth and focused on improvements to trade and agriculture. This is incompatible with a society of citizen soldiers, which was essentially the basis of those ancient republics. Since then the vast increase in wealth and the ability to generate revenue have revolutionized the art of war. Disciplined armies separate from the body of citizens can and will be maintained. Such armies are the inseparable companions of frequent hostility between states.
There is a wide difference, also, between military establishments in a country seldom exposed by its situation to internal invasions, and in one which is often subject to them, and always apprehensive of them. The rulers of the former can have a good pretext, if they are even so inclined, to keep on foot armies so numerous as must of necessity be maintained in the latter. These armies being, in the first case, rarely, if at all, called into activity for interior defense, the people are in no danger of being broken to military subordination. The laws are not accustomed to relaxations, in favor of military exigencies; the civil state remains in full vigor, neither corrupted, nor confounded with the principles or propensities of the other state. The smallness of the army renders the natural strength of the community an overmatch for it; and the citizens, not habituated to look up to the military power for protection, or to submit to its oppressions, neither love nor fear the soldiery; they view them with a spirit of jealous acquiescence in a necessary evil, and stand ready to resist a power which they suppose may be exerted to the prejudice of their rights.
There is a big difference between the military structure in a country that is not exposed to the risk of invasion and one that is, and must always be prepared for that eventuality. In the former case, those in charge may still decide to maintain standing armies, but in the latter there is no other option but do so. Again, in the first case, since the armies are so rarely needed for defense, there is much less danger of the people becoming subject to military rule. Martial law is rarely if ever needed as an expedient to self-protection and civil law remains preeminent. This is not the case in countries forced by circumstance to maintain a constant state of preparedness. In the former circumstance, a tiny army is easily counter-balanced by the strength of the community. The citizenry is not accustomed to relying on the strength of the military for its protection, and therefore not inclined either to fear or love them. They are viewed, instead, as a necessary evil which stands ready for their protection if needed.
The army under such circumstances may usefully aid the magistrate to suppress a small faction, or an occasional mob, or insurrection; but it will be unable to enforce encroachments against the united efforts of the great body of the people.
In a country in the predicament last described, the contrary of all this happens. The perpetual menacings of danger oblige the government to be always prepared to repel it; its armies must be numerous enough for instant defense. The continual necessity for their services enhances the importance of the soldier, and proportionably degrades the condition of the citizen. The military state becomes elevated above the civil. The inhabitants of territories, often the theatre of war, are unavoidably subjected to frequent infringements on their rights, which serve to weaken their sense of those rights; and by degrees the people are brought to consider the soldiery not only as their protectors, but as their superiors. The transition from this disposition to that of considering them masters, is neither remote nor difficult; but it is very difficult to prevail upon a people under such impressions, to make a bold or effectual resistance to usurpations supported by the military power.
The army of such a state might be of some use by the government to suppress a small insurrection or to put down a localized mob. But such an army would be incapable of resisting widespread rebellion by the people or enforcing significant encroachments on their liberty.
However, in a country that finds itself constantly under threat, forced to adhere to a constant state of military preparedness, the opposite would be true. The army it would be forced to maintain would be of much more significant size to serve its purpose. Soldiers in such an army would assume a role of much greater importance. The power and significance of civilians would decrease proportionally. The military state would be elevated above the civil state. The citizens of territories which become theaters of war often have their rights abrogated by necessity. They get used to that situation and come to regard the military not just as their protectors, but as their superiors. This transition in status is not unlikely. The people who find themselves in such circumstances are reluctant to resist against tyranny imposed by the military power.
The kingdom of Great Britain falls within the first description. An insular situation, and a powerful marine, guarding it in a great measure against the possibility of foreign invasion, supersede the necessity of a numerous army within the kingdom. A sufficient force to make head against a sudden descent, till the militia could have time to rally and embody, is all that has been deemed requisite. No motive of national policy has demanded, nor would public opinion have tolerated, a larger number of troops upon its domestic establishment. There has been, for a long time past, little room for the operation of the other causes, which have been enumerated as the consequences of internal war. This peculiar felicity of situation has, in a great degree, contributed to preserve the liberty which that country to this day enjoys, in spite of the prevalent venality and corruption. If, on the contrary, Britain had been situated on the continent, and had been compelled, as she would have been, by that situation, to make her military establishments at home coextensive with those of the other great powers of Europe, she, like them, would in all probability be, at this day, a victim to the absolute power of a single man. It is possible, though not easy, that the people of that island may be enslaved from other causes; but it cannot be by the prowess of an army so inconsiderable as that which has been usually kept up within the kingdom.
Great Britain is a good example of a state in the first circumstance. As an island nation with a powerful navy to protect against foreign invasion, it does not need to maintain a large standing army. All that they have deemed necessary is a small force sufficient to hold off a sudden invasion long enough for the militia to be called up. The government could not justify a larger force and neither would the citizenry tolerate it. It has been a long time since there was anything to justify internal unrest. This good fortune has served to preserve the liberty that Great Britain continues to enjoy, in spite of the prevalence of venality and corruption found there. If, however, Britain were located on the continent, and had been forced to maintain a large standing army like the other powers of Europe, it is likely that like them, she’d be ruled today by an autocrat as they are. It is still possible that the people of Britain might become enslaved by other causes, however unlikely. But, it won’t be due to the maintenance of such a small army.
If we are wise enough to preserve the Union we may for ages enjoy an advantage similar to that of an insulated situation. Europe is at a great distance from us. Her colonies in our vicinity will be likely to continue too much disproportioned in strength to be able to give us any dangerous annoyance. Extensive military establishments cannot, in this position, be necessary to our security. But if we should be disunited, and the integral parts should either remain separated, or, which is most probable, should be thrown together into two or three confederacies, we should be, in a short course of time, in the predicament of the continental powers of Europe — our liberties would be a prey to the means of defending ourselves against the ambition and jealousy of each other.
If we are wise enough to preserve our Union, then we should be able to enjoy the same advantages that Britain has enjoyed. Europe is a long way away from us. Such colonies as she still has near to us are likely to remain too small to provide much of a threat. Consequently, we shouldn’t require an extensive military to ensure our security. But, if we should disband the Union and splinter into individual States, or more likely several confederacies, then we’ll have to deal with the same issues as the European powers. Our freedom would suffer as a result of having to constantly defend ourselves against the ambitions and jealousies that would arise between us.
This is an idea not superficial or futile, but solid and weighty. It deserves the most serious and mature consideration of every prudent and honest man of whatever party. If such men will make a firm and solemn pause, and meditate dispassionately on the importance of this interesting idea; if they will contemplate it in all its attitudes, and trace it to all its consequences, they will not hesitate to part with trivial objections to a Constitution, the rejection of which would in all probability put a final period to the Union. The airy phantoms that flit before the distempered imaginations of some of its adversaries would quickly give place to the more substantial forms of dangers, real, certain, and formidable.
This is not a straw man argument, but rather a real and likely risk. It deserves serious and mature consideration from all of us, regardless of party. If honest and prudent men will meditate dispassionately on this, they should be willing to forsake their trivial objections to the Constitution. Since, if the Constitution is rejected, it will almost certainly mean the end of the Union. In the face of serious contemplation, the exaggerated concerns imagined by the opponents of ratification will give way to the real dangers enumerated above.
1. This objection will be fully examined in its proper place, and it will be shown that the only natural precaution which could have been taken on this subject has been taken; and a much better one than is to be found in any constitution that has been heretofore framed in America, most of which contain no guard at all on this subject.