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FReeper Book Club: The Debate over the Constitution, Federalist #24
A Publius/Billthedrill Essay | 3 June 2010 | Publius & Billthedrill

Posted on 06/03/2010 8:02:33 AM PDT by Publius

Hamilton Addresses the Standing Army

Using the rhetorical style that charmed many a guest at New York dinner parties, Hamilton takes on the issue of a standing army by gently belittling his opponents and minimizing the risks.

Federalist #24

The Powers Necessary to the Common Defense Further Considered (Part 1 of 2)

Alexander Hamilton, 19 December 1787

1 To the People of the State of New York:


2 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.


3 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.

4 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.


5 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.


6 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.


7 Disappointed in his first surmise, the person I have supposed would be apt to pursue his conjectures a little further.

8 He would naturally say to himself, it is impossible that all this vehement and pathetic declamation can be without some colorable pretext.

9 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.


10 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 them* 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.


11 Still, however, he would be persuaded that there must be some plausible foundation for the cry raised on this head.

12 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 overflowing of a zeal too intemperate to be ingenuous.

13 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.

14 Here, at length, he would expect to meet with a solution of the enigma.

15 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.


16 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.

17 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!

18 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 [added] a new and powerful guard unknown to any of them?

19 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.

20 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.


21 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.

22 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.


23 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.

24 On one side of us, and stretching far into our rear, are growing settlements subject to the dominion of Britain.

25 On the other side, and extending to meet the British settlements, are colonies and establishments subject to the dominion of Spain.

26 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.

27 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.

28 The improvements in the art of navigation have, as to the facility of communication, rendered distant nations in a great measure neighbors.

29 Britain and Spain are among the principal maritime powers of Europe.

30 A future concert of views between these nations ought not to be regarded as improbable.

31 The increasing remoteness of consanguinity is every day diminishing the force of the family compact between France and Spain.

32 And politicians have ever with great reason considered the ties of blood as feeble and precarious links of political connection.

33 These circumstances combined, admonish us not to be too sanguine in considering ourselves as entirely out of the reach of danger.


34 Previous to the Revolution and ever since the peace, there has been a constant necessity for keeping small garrisons on our western frontier.

35 No person can doubt that these will continue to be indispensable if it should only be against the ravages and depredations of the Indians.

36 These garrisons must either be furnished by occasional detachments from the militia or by permanent corps in the pay of the government.

37 The first is impracticable, and if practicable would be pernicious.

38 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.

39 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.

40 It would be as burdensome and injurious to the public as ruinous to private citizens.

41 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.

42 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.


43 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.

44 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.

45 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.

46 It may be added that some of those posts will be keys to the trade with the Indian nations.

47 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?

48 To act this part would be to desert all the usual maxims of prudence and policy.


49 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.

50 To this purpose there must be dockyards and arsenals, and for the defense of these, fortifications and probably garrisons.

51 When a nation has become so powerful by sea that it can protect its dockyards 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 dockyards, and sometimes of the fleet itself.


[*] 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.

Hamilton’s Critique

The reader encounters an entirely different tone from Hamilton in this essay, less declamatory, less angry, and more gently mocking. The reason is that he feels that he has this particular argument so well in hand that he can afford to tone things down a bit. Hamilton has concluded, not without cause, that he has caught his opponents in a line of objection that does not apply to the proposed Constitution.

In order to understand why he feels so, it is necessary to examine some of these contentions. The anti-Federalists had been particularly vociferous over the issue of a standing army, notably John DeWitt (#2, 46) and Brutus (#1, 98), who quite clearly felt, as the latter expressed, that no free society ever kept a standing army in time of peace, and if it did so, that army constituted a deadly threat to freedom. This was echoed by Bryan in his Report of the Pennsylvania Minority (62). It seems to the modern reader to be a point supported neither by the practice of the day nor by subsequent practice within the United States. It is not, however, a contention to be lightly dismissed. Indeed, other Federalists had already addressed the contention, notably James Wilson in his October speech.

24 This has always been a topic of popular declamation, and yet I do not know a nation in the world which has not found it necessary and useful to maintain the appearance of strength in a season of the most profound tranquility.

The historian struggles not to agree. Even the Swiss cantons, notoriously dependent on the militia for defense, carried a framework of military power that was, albeit small, indistinguishable from a standing military. One must, therefore, attempt to understand this objection more from a theoretical point of view. The Founders were not attempting to replicate the Swiss cantons, but to create a new government with its own salient characteristics. It is from the perceived threat to freedom that one must attempt to understand the objections to a standing army.

What threat, then, and which freedoms? The threat was clearly that a standing army answerable only to the Executive might abrogate all the legal controls on the Executive from the other branches of government, as was to prove the case in France a decade later. It was, as well, that it might become an arm of government directed at the citizens and not at any external threat, and that it might function in the areas of law enforcement and tax collection instead of national defense. It was an understandable fear. Standing armies had, after all, done all those things in Europe at one time or another, or were about to. But it was not a fear that the proposed Constitution had ignored. Hamilton addresses, first of all, the objection that this was unlike the practices present both in the various state constitutions of the time and in the Articles of Confederation themselves.

5 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.

The former point is purely a straw man, demonstrably false on the face of it. The latter point is very quickly dismissed by pointing out that control of the army was, in fact, laid in the hands of Congress and not the Executive (Article I, Section 8). True, the Executive functioned in the role of command, but the critical issue, funding, was in the hands of an elective body.

To the Framers that was a relatively recent technique in government, copied from the British practice which was codified in the somewhat confusingly titled Bill of Rights of 1689, which laid similar restrictions on British armies, whose funding was strictly dependent on acts of Parliament. This was both a precaution against past abuses by the King and a recognition of which side had actually won the English Civil Wars.

Nor did the existing state constitutions contain a prohibition of a standing army (10), despite a popular impression to the contrary. One sees Hamilton methodically knocking the props out from under the anti-Federalist arguments here, unanswerable because of the plentiful documentation both then and since.

Is the matter settled, then? Unfortunately no, because the fears on the part of the anti-Federalists that a standing army would be pressed into roles other than the national defense were not, in fact, addressed by the proposed Constitution at all. Nor, to be fair, were an infinite variety of other speculations, but this one in particular appears to have been impressive enough to be addressed directly by the Insurrection Act of 1807, and later by its direct descendent, the Posse Comitatus Act of 1878. One sees in these a tacit acknowledgment that the anti-Federalists had at least raised an objection that was necessary to meet with legislation.

In fact, the use of a British standing army to enforce tax policy was the pretext under which the War of Independence had begun in the first place. No one participating in these debates could possibly have been ignorant of that fact.

One can, however, recognize a reciprocal tendency on the part of those bodies entrusted with law enforcement and the collection of taxes to move toward militarization themselves. This is not exclusively, or even primarily, a function of the federal government, but the tendency is clear when one contemplates the phenomena of SWAT teams and federal marshals assaulting civilian compounds in the role of law enforcement. Hamilton was correct in denying that this was an inherent attribute of the proposed Constitution; the anti-Federalists appear to have been correct in predicting it a deadly threat to freedom.

Hamilton now proceeds to a description of the current geopolitical lineup, in which it is, to him at least, fairly clear that the extant threats justify the keeping of a standing army – again, under the control of Congress, and whose establishment is to be under review every two years (6). These are of Britain to one side (24) and Spain on the other (25), who are, in addition to their land holdings, encouraging the depredations of hostile Native American populations, “savage tribes” (27). The latter is not, incidentally, an instance of racist hyperbole but an acknowledgment of fact, nor is it intended to apply to all Native Americans, as the reference at 46 to outposts being conduits to “trade with the Indian nations” indicates. It was, however, a representation of a threat requiring a more or less permanent military presence, not that of a militia (38), whose impressment into that role was likely to be unnecessarily disruptive to its constituent citizens' lives, but of a small but established garrison community. In fact, it turned out to be both over the space of the next century.

Hamilton ends by sweeping from west to east, repeating his earlier expressed belief (Federalist #11) that a navy is a proper and necessary function of the nascent federal government, and that until it can fill its role of protector of the commercial ports, the latter would have to be garrisoned on a more or less permanent basis. Thus Hamilton's contention that a standing military – an army and a navy – were not only necessary but under the proper control of Congress. That Congress could, and would, cede to the Executive certain flexibility in the employment of that military was such an inherent part of the system that Hamilton did not see necessary to address it. It could, as well, shorten the leash through funding. Although these have functioned as a safeguard against Executive abuse, Congress is hardly infallible in the matter – the disastrous de-funding of support efforts subsequent to the military withdrawal from Vietnam is an obvious example. Hamilton was promoting a system, and for that system to function, the men and women within it must function as well.

Discussion Topics

There is but one overriding topic in this essay, and that is the necessity of maintaining a standing army for purposes of defense. Hamilton sees that it is important to place that power with Congress, not solely with the Executive. He also sees that this is a job for professional soldiers and sailors, not part-time militia or draftees. This opens up historical commentary from people such as Machiavelli, Jefferson, Madison, Dick Cheney and Ron Paul. Thus far, the professional standing army has not seen fit to eliminate the middleman and take power itself, thanks to its oath to the Constitution.

TOPICS: Constitution/Conservatism; Free Republic
KEYWORDS: federalistpapers; freeperbookclub

1 posted on 06/03/2010 8:02:33 AM PDT by Publius
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To: 14themunny; 21stCenturion; 300magnum; A Strict Constructionist; abigail2; AdvisorB; Aggie Mama; ...
Ping! The thread has been posted.

Earlier threads:

FReeper Book Club: The Debate over the Constitution
5 Oct 1787, Centinel #1
6 Oct 1787, James Wilson’s Speech at the State House
8 Oct 1787, Federal Farmer #1
9 Oct 1787, Federal Farmer #2
18 Oct 1787, Brutus #1
22 Oct 1787, John DeWitt #1
27 Oct 1787, John DeWitt #2
27 Oct 1787, Federalist #1
31 Oct 1787, Federalist #2
3 Nov 1787, Federalist #3
5 Nov 1787, John DeWitt #3
7 Nov 1787, Federalist #4
10 Nov 1787, Federalist #5
14 Nov 1787, Federalist #6
15 Nov 1787, Federalist #7
20 Nov 1787, Federalist #8
21 Nov 1787, Federalist #9
23 Nov 1787, Federalist #10
24 Nov 1787, Federalist #11
27 Nov 1787, Federalist #12
27 Nov 1787, Cato #5
28 Nov 1787, Federalist #13
29 Nov 1787, Brutus #4
30 Nov 1787, Federalist #14
1 Dec 1787, Federalist #15
4 Dec 1787, Federalist #16
5 Dec 1787, Federalist #17
7 Dec 1787, Federalist #18
8 Dec 1787, Federalist #19
11 Dec 1787, Federalist #20
12 Dec 1787, Federalist #21
14 Dec 1787, Federalist #22
18 Dec 1787, Federalist #23
18 Dec 1787, Address of the Pennsylvania Minority

2 posted on 06/03/2010 8:04:07 AM PDT by Publius (Unless the Constitution is followed, it is simply a piece of paper.)
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To: Publius

Mia massima colpa! I haven’t read the last one. I hope their excessive brain power doesn’t fry my pea brain if I read 2 back to back. *is intimidated*

3 posted on 06/03/2010 9:07:37 AM PDT by definitelynotaliberal (My respect and admiration for Cmdr. McCain are inversely proportion to my opinion of Sen. McCain.)
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To: Publius


4 posted on 06/03/2010 9:11:42 AM PDT by Total Package (TOLEDO, OHIO THE MRSA INFECTION IN THE STATE and the death of freedom)
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To: Publius

As usual thanks for the fantastic post/thread.

5 posted on 06/03/2010 2:17:05 PM PDT by GOP Poet (Obama is an OLYMPIC failure.)
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To: Publius

A BTT for the afternoon crowd.

6 posted on 06/03/2010 3:59:47 PM PDT by Billthedrill
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