Bench Memos

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The Perennial Publius, part 24


Publius returns, in Federalist No. 24, to a subject touched upon in No. 8—the danger of a standing army.  In the earlier essay the context was the necessity of Union, and the argument was that dis-Union into separate states or smaller confederacies would be more likely to necessitate large standing armies to compensate for weakness.  Now the context is the need for energy in the new government created by the proposed Constitution, and Hamilton begins a remarkable run of six essays defending that Constitution’s measures with respect to the raising, funding, and employment of military power.  What is remarkable, that is, at least to some of us today, is that Hamilton feels such a need to defend these features of the new government at such length.

It is not as though Hamilton is defensive, however, in the sense of feeling himself obliged to shore up a part of the new system particularly vulnerable to a just criticism.  On the contrary, he wishes his readers to liberate themselves from old fears that once made more sense than they now do.  The fear of large standing armies was an inheritance from the British experience, going back at least to the civil war of the seventeenth century if not earlier.  Much of the standard Whig doctrine on this subject sprang from this experience and from the American colonial experience of the 1760s and ’70s that spiralled into the Revolution.  Here, for instance, is the prominent Anti-Federalist “Brutus”:

“In despotic governments, as well as in all the monarchies of Europe, standing armies are kept up to execute the commands of the prince or the magistrate, and are employed for this purpose when occasion requires: But they have always proved the destruction of liberty, and are abhorrent to the spirit of a free republic.”

Hamilton’s effort to allay such fears is straightforward: in every case in which peacetime armies were engines of oppression, they were (as Brutus says) the creatures of “the prince or the magistrate.”  But under the Constitution, “the whole power of raising armies [is] lodged in the legislature, not in the executive.”  What’s more, in the nature of things, “restraints upon the discretion of the legislature in respect to military establishments would be improper to be imposed, and if imposed, from the necessities of society would be unlikely to be observed.”  Indeed, Hamilton mentions one place where a more or less permanent military establishment is needed, and where short-term militia rotations won’t do—“on our western frontier,” where we confront the “ravages and depredations of the Indians.”

In short, “Brutus” is wrong to say that a standing peacetime army is “abhorrent to the spirit of a free republic.”  It is abhorrent to freedom in non-republican governments.  But it is quite safe in a republic where it is subject to civilian control and exists only by virtue of an elected legislature’s creation and funding of it.

(For explanation of this recurring feature, see here.)


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