A 2009 Gallup Poll of American adults revealed broad public support for the American military. With over 80% of respondents reporting “a great deal” or “quite a lot” of confidence in the American military, America’s armed forces today enjoy more support than any other major national institution.
This was not always the case. In the early years of American independence, as statesmen debated the form American government should take, the role of the military was a hotly contested issue. One of the several powers granted Congress in Article I of the US Constitution is to “raise and support armies” and to “provide for organizing, arming, and disciplining, the Militia, and for governing such Part of them as may be employed in the Service of the United States.” Article II provided that the President would be the Commander in Chief of these forces. These provisions, granting the national government ultimate responsibility for the nation’s defense, infuriated the Anti-Federalists, who saw such an arrangement as an usurpation of states’ rights and a threat to American liberty. The Federalists responded, with equal vigor, that such provisions were essential to the security of the American Republic.
This paper examines both the convictions that informed opposition to national military forces and the arguments used to defend the Constitution’s provisions for such forces. In opposing the powers over national military forces granted to the President and Congress by the Constitution, the Anti-Federalists were operating within an established Anglo-American tradition of mistrust for standing armies. The fear of standing armies as a fundamental threat to liberty was based on two convictions. First, standing armies were alien to the basic social and political structure of the English Constitution and, consequently, in possession of an inherent interest to overthrow it through either direct usurpation of authority or support for a tyrant. Second, at the time standing armies consisted of the morally degenerate dregs of society and were a corrupting influence on the rest of the population. In short, standing armies were antithetical to the ideals of limited, constitutional monarchy. They were a powerful and dangerous institution that did not fit within the framework of limited powers and did not conform to the principle of a free citizenry. Such arguments had tremendous influence on American conceptions of republican government and provided the basis of the Anti-Federalists’ opposition to the proposed Constitution’s provisions for national defense. The Anti-Federalists viewed the national government’s power to raise and command a standing army in peacetime and to exert control over state militias as a dangerous step in the direction of arbitrary, monarchical government. The Anti-Federalists furthermore contended that standing armies and a nationally controlled militia threatened the republican character of the American people. Like their English predecessors, the Anti-Federalists saw standing armies as a source of moral corruption that would weaken the spirit of independence and liberty that was the foundation of America’s martial strength.
In defending the Constitution’s provisions for a standing army and national control of state militias, The Federalist does not depart from the traditional republican fears expressed above. Although it contends that a standing army and centrally controlled militia are necessary, The Federalist nevertheless sees them as a necessary evil, not a moral good. Rather than question the Anti-Federalists’ fear of standing armies, The Federalist leverages it in defense of a political structure that will reduce the need for such forces and, to the extent they must exist, prevent them from threatening American liberty. Rather than question the Anti-Federalists’ view of standing armies as morally degenerate and incompatible with the American spirit, The Federalist’s defense of the national government’s military powers implies a faith in the ability of the American people to resist any usurpation of power by a national military.
This paper will proceed in three parts. First, an analysis of writings by John Trenchard from the late 17th century, a series of orations delivered in Boston following the Boston Massacre of 1770, and an American anti-military tract from 1783, will introduce traditional Anglo-American views of standing armies and militias. The paper will then show how the Anti-Federalists adopted much of the same arguments in their opposition to the proposed Constitution. An interpretation of The Federalist’s response to these arguments will then demonstrate how the proponents of the Constitution reconciled fears of national military forces with the republican character of the proposed political system.
Opposition to standing armies in English political thought was based in part on the belief that such forces existed outside the traditional social and political structure on which the English Constitution depended. As John Trenchard argued, the Constitution depended on “a due balance between king, lords, and commons” and on “the mutual occasions and necessities they have of one another.” In order to preserve this balance, it was essential that the armed forces charged with defending the nation reflect this natural distribution of power: “…this balance can never be preserved but by an union of the natural and artificial strength of the kingdom, that is, by making the militia to consist of the same persons as have the property.” If the army’s structure reflected the balance of power in society—i.e. with the king as general, the lords as great commanders, and the freeholders as the rank and file—it would be “almost impossible” for such a force to “act to the disadvantage of the Constitution” since they would have no incentive to do so. Unlike soldiers in a standing army, who had “nothing to lose” and no “other tie to engage their fidelity, than the inconsiderable pay of six-pence a day, which they may have from the conqueror,” the members of the militia had an inherent interest in upholding the Constitution: “Why may not the nobility, gentry, and free-holders of England be trusted with the defense of their own lives, estates and liberties, without having guardians and keepers assign’d them?” An attack on the Constitution would be an attack on their own interests. As John Hancock would argue almost a century later in 1774, “from a well regulated militia we have nothing to fear; their interest is the same with that of the state.” Put simply, militias have estates to protect while standing armies have estates to get.
English and American opponents of standing armies held that, as institutions existing outside the normal balance of power, these forces would possess limitless power. Even if Parliament were given nominal control over a standing army, the soldiers could easily intimidate the elected representatives of the people: “…we very well know their [the Army’s] desires are always commands…” and “…there is no debating nor disputing against legions.” It was feared that once a standing army were permitted to exist, its power would be absolute. Attempts to limit the influence of soldiers by controlling their funding would be in vain: “We cannot buy it off for two very good Reasons: No Money will be taken for it; and we shall have nothing to give which is not theirs already: Our Estates, Lives and Liberties will be all at their command. They will have the Keys of our Money, and the Titles to our Lands in their tower.” Even if the Army did not take power for itself, a King could nevertheless use it to seize absolute authority: “‘The King has an Army,’ stops all Mouths and cuts off all Reply. It is as if it should be said, ‘Set your hearts at rest, for the King has all Power in his hands, and you have none: He has all your Estates, Lives and Liberties, under his Girdle: Slaves, and talk!’” Thus, the existence of a standing army was seen as an inherent threat to English liberty. A power so great would eliminate any need the King had for Parliament and consequently prevent the latter from checking the power of the former.
Opposition to standing armies was further influenced by the notion that professional soldiers were morally degenerate beings whose character was incompatible with the ideals of independence and virtue. Defined by their violent profession, interested only in fortune, and devoid of any virtue or higher moral principles, soldiers were a source of corruption threatening the virtues that were deemed critical to the survival of liberty. Trenchard saw soldiers as “men of dissolute and debauched principles” who care nothing for justice and are motivated by money alone. Such men “must be false, rapacious and cruel in their own defense. For having no other profession or subsistence to depend upon, they are forced to stir up the ambition of princes…that they may share of the spoils they make.” The character of the soldier was furthermore equated to that of slaves. This made them particularly dangerous “in the midst of a free nation” since “slaves envy the freedom of others and take a malicious pleasure in contributing to destroy it.” Rather than engage in debate to resolve disputes and make independent decisions as free and equal citizens, soldiers are “taught to consider arms as the only arbiters by which every dispute is to be decided.” They are accustomed to obeying the orders of their commanders “without inquiring into the justice of the cause they are engaged to support” and thus become “the ready engines of tyranny and oppression.” Soldiers engaged in a “loose idle life” rather than a “laborious way of living.” As John Hancock argued, they were oftentimes persons “unfit to live in civil societies, who have no other motives of conduct than those which a desire to present gratification of their passions suggests.” They were murderers, thieves, quarrelers and womanizers, men who had “lost or given up their own liberties, and envy those who enjoy liberty.” They had no values, no moral foundation, and would even, “for the addition of one penny a day to their wages…desert from the Christian cross and fight under the crescent of the Turkish Sultan.” In short, these were “lawless” men who despised “the just restraints of civil authority” and thus threatened the moral foundation of society. When placed in cities, standing armies would quickly effect a corruption of morals on the population: “no vestige of freedom can remain in a state where such a force exists...the morals of the people will be gradually corrupted…they will contract such an habit of tame submission, as to become an easy prey to the brutal tyrant who rules them.” Standing armies would quell the people’s spirit of liberty and fright them into submission, with youth in particular being corrupted through interaction with the troops.
Having thus rejected standing armies, English advocates of constitutional monarchy and American republicans placed their faith in a militia composed of virtuous citizens as an enduring source martial strength. Militiamen do not fight for pecuniary gain or the ambition of a tyrant but for the preservation of their freedom and everything they hold dear:
When a country is invaded, the militia are ready to appear in its defense; they march into the field with that fortitude which a consciousness of the justice of their cause inspires; they do not jeopardize their lives for a master who considers them only as the instruments of his ambition, and whom they regard only as the daily dispenser of the scanty pittance of bread and water. No, they fight for their houses, their lands, for their wives, their children, for all who claim the tenderest names, and are held dearest in their hearts, they fight …for their liberty, and for themselves, and for their God…”
Unlike soldiers in a standing army, militiamen fought as free men. In fighting, each man exercised his individual will as a citizen rather than serve as the instrument of a tyrant’s ambition. Militiamen fought, not to deprive others of liberty and property, but to protect their own and that of their neighbors. The strength of this force came from the virtue of the society it protected. An American anti-military tract published in 1783 drew an explicit link between the martial virtue of the American militia during the War of Independence and the virtue of American society at the outset of the conflict:
This military virtue of our citizens: their sense of dignity, and contempt of danger; the gallant efforts they made; was not this, I say, the offspring of the equality and independent temper of men, who fought for themselves, and not for masters; and whose spirit was not trammeled or broken down by the oppression of an insolent nobility? This was that warm animating pride which disdained to look up to any human creature as a superior, which raised us armies, and fought campaigns without pay or covering…
Unlike standing armies, those who fought with militias kept the character of citizens even as they did the work of soldiers. For the militiamen, fighting was not a profession or a path to fortune but their duty as citizens.
The Anglo-American fear of standing armies and admiration of militias provided the basis of the Anti-Federalists’ opposition to the United States Constitution’s provisions for national defense. Like earlier opponents of standing armies, the Anti-Federalists feared that a military force fundamentally separate from the people would inevitably threaten liberty and undermine the virtuous spirit that had won American independence from the grip of an English tyrant.
The Anti-Federalists viewed the national government’s power to raise and command a standing army in peacetime and to exert control over state militias as a dangerous step in the direction of arbitrary government that would threaten the rights of states and the liberties of individual citizens. The argument over military powers was part of the larger debate on the proper balance of power between federal and state government. Patrick Henry argued that a “consolidated government” in possession of both a standing army and authority over state militias would leave the states and their citizens without the means of opposing tyranny: “Your arms wherewith you could defend yourselves are gone…Did you ever read of any revolution in any nation, brought about by the punishment of those in power, inflicted by those who had no power at all?” The hired soldiers of a standing army, “the engines of despotism,” would be ready at all times to “execute the execrable commands of tyranny,” and the people, having lost control over their militia to Congress, would be left without any defense: “Have we the means of resisting disciplined armies, when our only defense, the militia is put into the hands of Congress?...They [Congress] will therefore act as they think proper: All power will be in their own possession.” Like the English republicans, the Anti-Federalists were concerned about the separation between military power and the people: “A standing army in the hands of a government placed so independent of the people, may be made a fatal instrument to overturn public liberties.” Rather than rely on the martial strength of the people for defense, the constitution proposed to establish a force that would upset the country’s balance of power and give one segment of the political structure—i.e. the national government—the ability to oppress the rest of society.
Not only would the general government have absolute authority over the states and the citizenry through their control of the army, but it would also have ample reason to exercise that authority. As the Philadelphia Minority argued, senators and representatives in the national government would be “independent of the sentiments and resentment of the people,” and the administration would have “a greater interest in the government than in the community.” These men would ultimately not be responsible to the people and, as a result, would not enjoy their active support and affection. Such an unpopular government could only execute its laws “by the aid of a numerous standing army,” which could as easily be used to enforce good laws as to “wrest from the people their constitutional liberties.” This military execution of the laws would “very soon destroy all elective governments in the country, produce anarchy, or establish despotism.” The standing army and select militia brought under control of the national government would be the means by which the government extended its influence down to the individual citizen. They would be the collector of taxes, the instrument by which the Congress could expropriate the property of the people. Furthermore, a tyrant in possession of a standing army could order citizens “out in the militia to exercise, and to march when and where he pleases. His officers can wantonly inflict the most disgraceful punishment on a peaceable citizen, under pretense of disobedience, or the smallest neglect of militia duty.” Thus, rather than draw its strength from the affections of the American people, the government under the proposed Constitution would be empowered by soldiers. The Anti-Federalists believed that liberty could be protected only by a strong populace, by a citizenry in possession of hard power. A standing army and centrally controlled militia threatened to deprive the people of that power, “render[ing] opposition vain” and leaving American liberty at the mercy of men who could not be held accountable for their actions.
The Anti-Federalists often expressed their opposition to standing armies and nationally-controlled militias in terms of monarchy, aristocracy and military dictatorship. The Anti-Federalist “Philadelphiensis” referred to the president as the “president general” and feared that an executive in command of an army would quickly make himself King and impose a “despotic monarchy.” The people would be reduced to “subjects of a military king” with their representatives in Congress little more than aristocratic “sycophants and flatterers.” Even if Congress and the President did not use the army “for the purposes of supporting themselves in any usurpations of power,” there was nevertheless a “great hazard, that an army will subvert the forms of government, under whose authority they are raised, and establish one according to the pleasure of their leader.” Drawing on the examples of Julius Caesar and Oliver Cromwell, the Anti-Federalists argued that a standing army could easily overturn “the constitutional powers of the government” and “dictate any form they please.” The only restraint on a standing army would be the virtue of its leaders, and the Anti-Federalists held too dim a view of human nature to place much faith in this protection: “Are we so much better than the people of other ages and of other countries, that the same allurements of power and greatness, which led them aside from their duty, will have no influence upon men in our country?” The Anti-Federalists therefore saw the power of the army as an inherent source of instability in the government. Not only did they doubt the willingness of the President and Congress to refrain from using military force to impose tyranny, but they also questioned whether the government itself could restrain the ambitions of a powerful standing army.
Much of the concern over the future of American liberty was rooted in the Anti-Federalists’ understanding of how the character of soldiers differed from that of citizens. In explaining why the Continental Army did not impose a military dictatorship following the War of Independence, the Anti-Federalist “Brutus” referenced these two distinct characters: “Fortunately indeed for this country, it had at the head of the army, a patriot as well as a general; and many of our principal officers, had not abandoned the characters of citizens, by assuming that of soldiers…” Soldiers were thought to be particularly susceptible to the temptations of power and greatness and could easily be led astray by the opportunity for personal gain. Unlike republican citizens who prided themselves on virtue, independence, and a laborious way of life, standing armies were generally composed of the “dregs of the people” with little connection to the rest of society: “As they are a body of men exempt from the common occupations of social life, having an interest different from the rest of the community, they wanton in the lap of ease and indolence, without feeling the duties, which arise from the political connection, though drawing their subsistence from the bosom of the state.” Soldiers were seen as useless, lazy, inconvenient, and expensive burdens since they had “no object of employment,” besides fighting, and no legitimate role in the political life of the state. Like earlier opponents of standing armies, the Anti-Federalists saw the interests of soldiers as existing in tension with those of the citizenry. Citizens valued peace, independence, and the freedom to enjoy the fruits of their labor. Soldiers, in contrast, knew only violence and lived off the labor of the people around them. Furthermore, soldiers’ experiences in the army made them fundamentally unfit for republican citizenship: “The severity of discipline necessary to be observed reduces them to a degree of slavery; the unconditional submission to the commands of their superiors, to which they are bound, renders them the fit instruments of tyranny and oppression.” The Anti-Federalists feared that the proposed Constitution would create a distinct group of men, set apart from the rest of the population, guided by a different set of values that did not place a premium on independence and equality, motivated by interests contrary to those of the rest of the community, and in possession of the means to pursue those interests violently. Soldiers were thus the antithesis of republican virtue. They were utterly incapable of being independent, liberty-loving, politically active citizens bound by a common set of interests and duties.
It was furthermore feared that the vices of a standing army would be a source of moral corruption undermining the virtue of republican society. The Anti-Federalists argued that virtue was a prerequisite of freedom and the foundation of both prosperity and a healthy constitution. However, Standing armies were by their very nature a threat to this virtue: “It will inevitably sow the seeds of corruption and depravity of manners. Indolence will increase, and with it crimes cannot but increase. The springs of honesty will gradually grow lax and chaste, and severe manners be succeeded by those that are dissolute and vicious. Where a standing army is kept up, virtue never thrives.” Thus, opposition to standing armies was based on more than just concerns about limiting the power of the general government and preventing the rise of tyrants. Like the republicans before them, the Anti-Federalists feared standing armies would weaken the spirit of independence and liberty and destroy the republican virtue that was the ultimate source of America’s martial strength. The Anti-Federalists argued that, rather than depend on a standing army, the United States should rely on the spirit of its people for defense “…Where is the danger? If, Sir, there was any, I would recur to the American spirit to defend us; that spirit which has enabled us to surmount the greatest difficulties.” The Anti-Federalists understood liberty to be the foundation of the American spirit. It was the ultimate source of strength, one that could overcome any obstacle. The Anti-Federalists feared the consequences of affording such a powerful, prominent and proximate position to a group of men who were a threat to this liberty and the opposite of everything Republicanism stood for. In the imagination of the Anti-Federalists, it was Republican virtue that had triumphed over the British Army and guarded American liberty. Anything that threatened that virtue was intolerable.
In addition to the danger they posed, the Anti-Federalists believed standing armies were ultimately unnecessary. Patrick Henry argued that the defenders of the Constitution exaggerated the threats from Europe and the potential for domestic insurrections. While “Brutus” admitted a need for troops to guard certain outposts and for Congress to be able to raise armies in response to a threat, he thought entirely unnecessary a blanket provision enabling Congress to maintain armies in times of piece. Instead, he proposed authorizing Congress to raise armies in response to particular threats and exigencies.
Instead of standing armies and a centrally controlled militia, the Anti-Federalists preferred to entrust their security to state militias composed of and controlled by the people themselves. As Akhil Amar argues in his discussion of the 2nd Amendment, the “militia were the people and the people were the militia.” What the Anti-Federalists wanted was a militia that would look like America, a fighting force composed of citizen-soldiers, men who were motivated by love of liberty and a desire to protect their homeland: “a well-regulated militia, duly trained to discipline…when it is necessary to embody an army…at once form a band of soldiers, whose interests are uniformly the same with those of the whole community, and in whose safety they see involved every thing that is dear to themselves.” However, central control over state militias threatened to undermine the republican character of this force. Richard Henry Lee, for example, envisioned a scenario by which Congress could undermine the strength of “the yeomanry of the country” through its authority to organize the militia. Congress might conceivably recruit the “young and ardent part of the community, possessed of but little or no property” to join the militia, while the rest of the men were left defenseless. Such a strategy would deprive the yeomanry of its “boasted weight and strength,” and place them at the mercy of their well-armed neighbors. Rather than a band of united patriots fighting for their shared interests, the militia would become a tool of oppression. The Pennsylvania Minority went even further and argued that if Congress could order the militia of one state to put down an insurrection “occasioned by the most galling oppression” in another part of the union, the militiamen may become the “unwilling instruments of tyranny.” By coercing the militia into robbing their countrymen of their “liberty and independency,” Congress would be forcing these citizens to abandon the defining characteristics of Republican citizenship. The Pennsylvania Minority furthermore feared such an experience would effect an internal, moral change on the militiamen. Not only would the “magnanimity of their minds be extinguished” but “the meaner passions of resentment and revenge” would be increased as well. These passions would then be “the ready and obedient instruments of despotism to enslave others,” as previously virtuous citizens are forced into “riveting the chains of despotism on their fellow citizens.” Thus, rather than being an expression of their virtue as independent-minded, liberty-loving patriots, service in a militia of this kind would erode that virtue. Reduced to “mere machines” and resembling “Prussian soldiers” more than American citizens, the militiamen would lose their Republican character.
In responding to these arguments against the Constitutional authority given to Congress to raise and support armies and control state militias, The Federalist does not question the fundamental premise of the Anti-Federalist position. The Federalist explicitly states that standing armies are a threat to liberty. In defending the Constitution, The Federalist argues that these military forces are a necessary evil, not a moral good. Rather than question the Anti-Federalists’ fear of standing armies, The Federalist leverages this fear in defense of a political structure that will reduce the need for such forces and, to the extent they must exist, prevent them from threatening American liberty. Rather than question the Anti-Federalists’ view of standing armies as morally degenerate and incompatible with the American spirit, The Federalist argues that the American people’s love of liberty and intolerance of tyranny will play a key role in opposing the excesses of standing armies and militias. The Federalist’s treatment of standing armies and nationalized militias is thus subsumed within the larger project of defending energetic government and the system of checks and balances laid out by the Constitutions. The Federalist should not be read as defending standing armies but as defending the wisdom of the governmental system outlined in the Constitution.
The Federalist argued that a single national army and central control over state militias were necessary to defend the nation against foreign foes. John Jay outlines several trade and commercial issues that could bring the United States into conflict with European powers, while Alexander Hamilton argued that hostile Indian tribes threatened America’s frontier. Beyond these immediate concerns, the Federalists argued that the “circumstances that endanger the safety of nations are infinite” and impossible to predict. Consequently, the government must not be constrained by “Constitutional shackles” in its attempts to defend the nation from threats as they arise. The Federalist argued that a union and effective government were essential to safeguarding against these threats: “The people of America…consider union and a good national government as necessary to put and keep them in such a situation as instead of inviting war, will tend to repress and discourage it. That situation consists in the best possible state of defense…” In an America lacking union, with each state chiefly responsible for its own defense, foreign powers would find opportunities to exploit the “weakness and divisions” in the country. One state, for example, could be convinced by an invading force to not come to the aid of a neighbor. Even if the states were willing to help one another during an invasion, a lack of national leadership would leave the country unable to respond to the crisis in a coordinated and effective manner. This was precisely the problem under the Articles of Confederation during the War of Independence, when the American war effort was hampered by states that were slow to send their militiamen to fight in other states. Whereas a continuation of such division and disunity would signal weakness and invite foreign incursions, a unified government could “apply the resources and power of the whole to the defence of any particular part” and do so “more easily and expeditiously” than individual state governments acting independently.”
Support for a standing army and centrally controlled militia grew out of this faith in union and energetic government. If the national government were to be entrusted with ensuring national security, it must be empowered with the means to accomplish that end. A militia under a single “plan of discipline” and consolidated into a single “corps” would be more efficient than a multitude of “distinct independent forces.” However, even a consolidated militia would be insufficient: “The steady operations of war against a regular and disciplined army, can only be successfully conducted by a force of the same kind.” Militias simply would not be up to the task of confronting America’s enemies: “War, like most other things, is a science to be acquired and perfected by diligence, by perseverance, by time, and by practice.” Entrusting the nation’s defense to the militia alone would require these citizens to spend an inordinate amount of time training and conducting other duties. This would cost a significant “loss of labor, and disconcertion of the industrious pursuits of individuals.” War had become a profession in the modern world, and a standing army was therefore necessary to protect against invasion. The Federalists admitted that, in addition to defending against external threats, the standing army may at times be needed to quell internal sedition and insurrections: “…there might sometimes be a necessity to make use of a force constituted differently from the militia, to preserve the peace of the community, and to maintain the just authority of the laws…” However, the Federalists did not see this as a particularly unusual provision. Just as states relied on their militias to quell uprisings, the national government would need a means of defending its authority.
Despite these arguments for the necessity of national forces, The Federalist should not be read as a defense of standing armies. The Federalists clearly understood the republican concern that excessive dependence on a professional soldiery would degrade the independence and liberty of the citizenry: “The continual necessity for his services enhances the importance of the soldier, and proportionably degrades the condition of the citizens. The military state becomes elevated above the civil. The inhabitants of territories often the theater of war, are unavoidably subjected to frequent infringements on their rights, which serve to weaken their sense of those rights.” In time, the citizenry would come to see soldiers not only as “protectors” but as “superiors,” thus degrading the people in a passive acquiescence to tyranny. In Federalist #41, James Madison repeatedly referenced the danger that “military establishments” posed to liberty and praised the “prudent jealousy entertained by the people, of standing armies.” Large or small, standing armies were the “object of laudable circumspection and precaution.” However, despite the risks, the union could not survive without such forces: “A standing force, therefore, is a dangerous, at the same time that it may be a necessary, provision.” Hamilton’s argument in defense of the Constitution’s provisions for national military forces is informed by a similar sense of resigned pragmatism: “…if the defence of the community…should make it necessary to have an army, so numerous as to hazard its liberty, this is one of those calamities for which there is neither preventative nor cure. It cannot be provided against by any possible form of government…” Thus, the question for the Federalists was not whether a national government should be entrusted with military forces. The need for national forces was an unfortunate reality. Instead, The Federalist was concerned with how best to design government such that the risks posed by these forces could be mitigated.
The Federalist argues that the political system outlined in the Constitution would reduce the need for standing armies in the United States. The Federalists feared that without a strong union guided by an energetic government, the several states would be in a continual state of competition and war. “…envy and jealousy would soon extinguish confidence and affection…like most other bordering nations, they would always be either involved in disputes and war, or live in the constant apprehension of them.” In Federalist #8, Hamilton paints a bleak picture of life in America following a disintegration of the union. Smaller states would compensate for their inferior natural strength with a well-disciplined standing army. Larger states, having once suffered humiliations at the hands of their smaller neighbors’ soldiers, would then quickly establish their own professional militaries. Subject to frequent invasions and the constant threat of war, America, like continental Europe, would come to depend on the soldiery for survival. Rather than view soldiers “with a spirit of jealous acquiescence,” the American people would “look up to the military power for protection” and “submit to its oppressions.” Since “safety from external danger, is the most powerful director of national conduct,” Americans would willingly entrust their liberty to soldiers in exchange for security. Thus, without union, American liberty would ultimately become a casualty of the mutual distrust that inevitably arises between neighbors: “Our liberties would be a prey to the means of defending ourselves against the ambition and jealousy of each other.” The risk to liberty posed by standing armies was therefore a powerful argument in favor of union.
The Federalist also used the fear of standing armies to justify the Constitution’s provisions for a nationally controlled militia. By empowering the federal government with control over the state militias, the Constitution would diminish the need for a standing army: “If standing armies are dangerous to liberty, an efficacious power over the militia, in the same body [the national government] ought, as far as possible, to take away the inducement and the pretext to such unfriendly institutions.” The Federalists sought to force their opponents to choose between the lesser of two evils. The national government needed some means of defending the country and preserving the union. Thus, if the Anti-Federalists were genuine in their opposition to standing armies, then they ought to support a plan that would reduce the need for such forces.
The Federalist further argued that a strong union under an energetic government would remove the need for a “military execution” of the laws so feared by the Anti-Federalists. Under the Articles of Confederation, the national government had no ability to enforce its laws on the citizenry. Although the states were constitutionally bound to obey the laws of the national government, in reality, it was up to the states to decide whether to comply. The result was gridlock and the inability of the United States to implement national policies: “The measures of the union have not been executed; the delinquencies of the states have, step by step, matured themselves to an extreme, which has at length arrested all the wheels of the national government, and brought them to an awful stand.” The Federalist saw only two ways out of this situation: the use of military force to implement national legislation or the establishment of an energetic government capable of imposing laws directly on the citizenry without the interference of states. The former solution would be to “substitute the violent and sanguinary agency of the sword, to the mild influence of the magistracy.” Enforcing laws “by the coercion of arms” rather than “by the coercion of the magistracy” would furthermore incite civil war among the states and eventually lead to military despotism: “In an association, where the general authority is confined to the collective bodies of the communities that compose it, every breach of the laws must involve a state of war, and military execution must become the only instrument of civil obedience.” Instead of accepting such a dangerous state of affairs, The Federalist advocated enabling the federal government to pass laws that would be supreme throughout the land and enforceable on individual citizens. To the objection that the people would not willingly submit to national legislation, The Federalist argued that citizens would in fact be more likely to acquiesce to the national government’s laws than to those of state governments. People would be most likely to trust and obey a government based on “the goodness or badness of its administration.” The Federalists predicted that, since that the national government would be run by men of greater ability, less subject to the effects of faction and endowed with more comprehensive information regarding the needs of the country, it would ultimately be more effective and respected than state governments. Furthermore, a direct connection between the citizens and the national government would in time “conciliate the respect and attachment of the community.” Thus, as opposed to the present confederacy, in which “there can be no sanction for the laws but force,” the energetic government proposed by the Constitution sought to base its authority on the affection and support of the citizenry.
The Federalist argues further that, to the extent a standing army must exist, the political system outlined by the Constitution would prevent such a force from threatening American liberty. The Constitution’s provisions for delegated authority and separation of powers would prevent the rise of tyranny at the hands of a military force. By entrusting responsibility for raising and supporting armies to the Congress, the Constitution would keep control over the army in the hands of the people: “…it is a full answer to those who require a more peremptory provision against military establishments in time of peace, to say, that the whole power of the proposed government is to be in the hands of the representatives of the people. This is the essential, and, after all, the only efficacious security for the rights and privileges of the people…” By requiring Congress to review appropriations for the army every two years, the Constitution ensured that even a corrupt or careless legislature would not be able to facilitate the rise of a standing army. Since Congress was “not at liberty to invest in the executive department, permanent funds for the support of an army,” it would take a considerable amount of time, a sustained conspiracy among all members of Congress and the executive, and multiple election cycles for an army to become so large as to threaten liberty. In the interim, opposition parties could rise against the party in power, win an election and immediately cut off the military’s funding. The executive, furthermore, would never be able to acquire a force large enough to coerce Congress into providing funds for the army since there would be no conceivable pretense to obtain such a force in times of peace.
However, the ultimate check on national military forces were the American people themselves. Although, as shown above, The Federalist recognized the risk posed by a standing army to the virtue and independence of the people, it argued that the Constitution would actually enhance the ability of citizens to resist any attempt by a tyrannical government, backed up by professional military forces, to threaten American liberty. Under no circumstances would the people give up their right to the defend their interests against predatory politicians: “If the representatives of the people betray their constituents, there is then no resource left but in the exertion of that original right of self-defence, which is paramount to all positive forms of government…” Popular resistance could be more easily accomplished against national rulers since the states would provide a ready-made form for national resistance. Citizens, The Federalist argued, would actually have more to fear from the usurpation of state authorities since there would be no government around which to rally. However, the federal structure of the American system of government would strengthen the power of the people to resist usurpation from either national or state governments. If the national authorities threatened liberty, the people could resist through the states. If, on the other hand, state authorities abused their powers, the national government would be a means of holding them in check. The people, “by throwing themselves into either scale,” would be the ultimate arbiters of the inevitable rivalries between states and the national government. Thus, the people would be “entirely the masters of their own fate,” and the guardians of liberty. The natural strength of the community would provide a sure check on the power of standing armies.
The militia would also provide protection against the potential excesses of standing armies and energetic government. Consistent with the republican ideal of a militia indistinguishable from the people, The Federalist dismissed as paranoia the fear that a militia controlled by a national government could somehow be used as an instrument of oppression:
There is something so far fetched, and so extravagant, in the idea of danger to liberty from the militia…Where, in the name of common sense, are our fears to end, if we may not trust our sons, our brothers, our neighbours, our fellow citizens? What shadow of danger can there be from men, who are daily mingling with the rest of their countrymen; and who participate with them in the same feelings, sentiments, habits, and interests?
Contrary to their opponents’ fears of moral corruption in a nationally-controlled militia, The Federalist argued that militiamen would never consent to being the means by which a tyrant deprived the American people of their liberty. Rather than marching to another state to rivet “the chains of slavery upon a part of their countrymen” a militia would more readily crush the tyrants who gave them such unconscionable orders.
In final analysis, The Federalist largely continued the traditional Anglo-American fear of standing armies. Although the defenders of the Constitution thought a union charged with defending the nation must have the ability to command the military power of that nation, the standing army was, at best, a necessary evil and by no means a moral good. Unlike today, when Americans look to their soldiers as paragons of patriotism and civic virtue, the founders viewed professional warriors as the antithesis of republican citizenship. Subservient, avaricious, crude, and unprincipled, soldiers were symbols of the moral decay and unchecked tyranny America had fought a war to escape. The Americans of the late 18th century imagined themselves as the pioneers of a new political system, a community founded on virtue, governed by choice, and held together by a sense of duty to one’s countrymen. Standing armies and militias under the distant control of a national government had no place in such a system. After all, American freedom had been won by ordinary citizens unwilling to submit to a corrupt monarch, not by professional soldiers whose character and interests were defined by war. Rather than challenge this view of America’s founding, the Federalists used it to defend the proposed Constitution. A strong union and energetic government with control over state militias would reduce the need for standing armies and a military execution of the laws. To the extent that professional military forces must exist, the system of delegated authority and checks and balances outlined by the Constitution would ensure that the representatives of the people kept the soldiery under their control. If the checks and balances at the national level somehow failed, the people would still have recourse to their states and militias to counter the ambition of tyrants. Despite the protestations of the Constitution’s opponents, the Federalists’ position implied a fundamental faith in the strength of the American spirit. It was inconceivable to the Federalists that a standing army could ever become so powerful as to threaten the American people’s jealously guarded liberty, and the notion that a nationally controlled militia might somehow lose the character of citizens and turn on their countrymen was dismissed as absurd. Thus, in providing for national military forces, the Constitution did not propose an abandonment of the principles that won American independence. Rather, it was an enduring faith in the strength of those principles that made standing armies a tolerable risk.