Federalist No. 8, by Alexander Hamilton, is a favorite of those who look to the “small-r” republican tradition of being suspicious of “standing armies,” and of the creeping militarism and even executive dictatorship that often dooms republics that are always on a war footing. And it’s true that Hamilton has all sorts of things to say that will resonate with our latter-day “civil libertarians.” For instance, that the pressures of war “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.” Or this: “It is of the nature of war to increase the executive at the expence of the legislative authority.”
But Hamilton won’t be seen mincing about at peace rallies, putting daisies in the muzzles of muskets. Nor does he think a nation can do entirely without a permanent military establishment, relying wholly on a citizen militia. His point is rather more subtle.
There is danger to freedom, Hamilton argues, in any nation that maintains a military establishment so large, relative to the national population, that it becomes both an intolerable fiscal burden on the citizenry and a potential tool of despotism in the hands of a dictator willing to politicize the army. What circumstances would bring about, justifiably, an army so large as to meet this description, creating a society in which “[t]he military state becomes elevated above the civil”? Weakness would bring it about—the felt vulnerability of a republic always threatened by its stronger neighbors. The individual states, if left adrift on their own in international relations, or even if chopped up into smaller federal unions, will feel such vulnerability and be compelled to militarize themselves, like the ancient Greek republics that were “nation[s] of soldiers.”
In a strong United States, on the other hand, the danger is reduced to the vanishing point. America can have an army large enough to communicate to other nations that we are not to be trifled with (augmented by a militia as needed), yet small enough relative to our population to pose little or no threat of a banana-republic-style coup d’etat. And so we get—and have largely had throughout our history—the best of both worlds: a military adequate for national defense, and the preservation of civil liberties at home.
Militarism is the counsel of weakness, while in strength there is safety for freedom.
(For explanation of this recurring feature, see here.)