FEDERALISTS V ANTI-FEDERALISTS PART FOURTEEN (the last part): On Federal Military Power


The Anti-Federalists were extremely wary of granting any new Central Government the right to raise and maintain military forces. Especially loathsome to them was the thought of “standing armies”– large armies maintained even in times of peace.

Anti-Federalist Patrick Henry tried to convince his fellow citizens that a people separated from Europe by the entire Atlantic Ocean had nothing to fear militarily from so many thousands of miles away.

Nevertheless, the Federalists remained incredulous that any sane person could seriously suggest that a society need not maintain adequate defenses to discourage– or if need be, repel– an attack.

James Wilson, in his speech of 6 October 1787, declared… 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.”

John Jay warned in Federalist #4 that other nations would not “regard our advancement in union” […] “with an eye of indifference and composure.”

Writing in Federalist #25, Hamilton cautioned that, if the United Stated did not keep its defenses up in peace-time, then… “we must receive the blow before we could even prepare to return it.” Furthermore, by appearing unprepared to ward off the blows from aggressor nations, we… “invite them by our weakness.”

History shows, said Hamilton in Federalist #34, that “to model our political systems upon speculations of lasting tranquility, is to calculate on the weaker springs of human character.” Those who think we have the luxury of augmenting or reducing the armed forces based purely upon our own whims, have clearly forgotten that “peace or war will not always be left to our option.”

Hamilton — a veteran of the Revolutionary War and an aide to General Washington– ridiculed the notion that local militia “would be at all times equal to the national defense.” If we had follow this doctrine, he declares in Federalist #25, we “had like to have lost us our independence.” The fact of the matter is that… “the steady operations of war against a regular and disciplined army can only be successfully conducted by a force of the same kind.” […] “War, like most other things, is a science to be acquired and perfected by diligence, by perseverance, by time, and by practice.”

Some Constitutional opponents felt that, even if the Central Government be granted its standing army, the Constitution does not provide enough restrictions and safeguards against abuse of that awesome power.

Hamilton found such a view naive. Writing in Federalist #23, he explains that the powers granted to the General Government to defend the nation… “ought to exist without limitation, because it is impossible to foresee or define the extent and variety of national exigencies, or the correspondent extent and variety of the means which may be necessary to satisfy them.” […] “No Constitutional shackles” can wisely be imposed on the body possessing the responsibility of the Union’s defense. He declared that there can no limitation when it comes to… any matter essential to the formation, direction, or support of the National forces.”

In Federalist #31, Hamilton asserted that, since there can be established no limit to what crises the Union might face, there can therefore be no limit assigned to the resources of the National community at the disposal for that defense.

Even the decidedly less martial, and battlefield-inexperienced, Madison had to agree with Hamilton here. “With what propriety,” he asks in Federalist #41, “could the force necessary for defence be limited by those who cannot limit the force of offense?” And… “How could a readiness for war in time of peace be safely prohibited, unless we could prohibit in like manner the preparations and establishments of every hostile nation?”

Madison continued… “The means of security can only be regulated by the means and the danger of attack.” […] “If a Federal Constitution could chain the ambition or set the bounds to the exertions of all other nations, then indeed might it prudently chain the discretion of its own Government, and set bounds to the exertions for its own safety.” […] “If ONE nation maintains constantly a disciplined army, ready for the service of ambition or revenge, it obliges the most pacific nations who may be within reach of its enterprises to take corresponding precautions”

Furthermore, wrote Madison, “it is in vain to oppose Constitutional barriers to the impulse of self-preservation. It is worse than in vain, because it plants in the Constitution, itself, necessary usurpations of power, every precedent of which is a germ of unnecessary and multiplied repetitions.”

Unsurprisingly, Hamilton, in Federalist #34, tied the military question to the economic development of the new nation… “If we mean to be a commercial people, it must form a part of our policy to be able one day to defend that commerce.”

Hamilton also reminded his readers, in Federalist #24, that the Constitution DOES provide some checks on the use of the military power by the Executive. Most importantly, the power of raising armies is with the Legislature, not the Executive. Additionally, the Constitution forbids the appropriation of money for the support of an army for any longer period than two years.”

Of course, as wise and full of fore-sight as the Founding Generation was, it is sometimes humorous to us today just how naive or blind the turned out to be concerning the future. Hamilton wrote in Federalist #26 that it is not easy to conceive a possibility that dangers so formidable can assail the whole Union as to demand a force considerable enough to place our liberties in the least jeopardy.” Of course, there is also the distinct possibility that, in arguing for his proposed course of action, Hamilton was downplaying its risks.

Besides the size and the control of the mighty military machine of the Nation, there were other army-related concerns held by citizens at the time of the Ratification Debates…


The Virginia Convention wanted the Constitution amended so that it contained an express prohibition against soldiers in time of peace being… quartered in any house without the consent of the owner, and in time of war in such manner only as the law directs.”


The Pennsylvania Minority Opinion On Ratification was concerned that there was no clause in the Constitution exempting conscientious objectors from any future military draft.

Sharing a similar concern, the Virginia Convention proposed the following amendment to the Constitution… “Any person religiously scrupulous of bearing arms ought to be exempted, upon payment of an equivalent to employ another to bear arms in his stead.”

Speaking of the Right To Bear Arms, as the original Constitution provided no guarantee of this most stereotypically American right– and because of how distastefully most Americans at the time found the idea of standing armies– the Virginia convention also suggested the following amendment… “The People have a right to keep and bear arms; that a well-regulated militia, composed of the body of the people trained to arms, is the proper, natural, and safe defense of a free state; that standing armies, in time of peace, are dangerous to liberty, and therefore ought to be avoided, as far as the circumstances and protection of the community will admit; and that, in all cases, the military should be under strict subordination to, and governed by, the civil power.”


Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )


Connecting to %s