Mini-Federalist #24 – The Powers Necessary to the Common Defense Further Considered

This is a continuation of a series of posts that are intended to be shorter, more understandable versions of the Federalist Papers. This post deals with Federalist #24, the original text of which can be read here:

Originally published December 19, 1787 by “Publius” – who was in this case, Alexander Hamilton.

There is only one argument that I’ve heard against the military powers granted to the Federal government in the proposed Constitution, and that is that there doesn’t seem to be enough protection against the creation of standing armies. Let me speak to that point.

This objection is only vaguely asserted, with no real facts to back it up. It goes against the historical evidence of every other free nation, and against the general will of our citizens. It seems like what these people want is for us to limit the power of the legislature when it comes to military affairs. With the exception of a few State constitutions, this idea is almost unheard of, and nearly universally rejected.

If you were learning about our political system for the first time by reading the current newspapers, you’d think that either the proposed Constitution explicitly requires us to have a standing army, or that the power to decide whether we have one lies with the President – while Congress has no say in the matter.

Of course, if the same person read the actual proposed Constitution, he’d see how wrong this initial impression is. Congress (a body that is partly elected by the people themselves) has the power to raise armies, not the President. Congress’ power even has a caveat: that no appropriation of money can be made for the army for greater than a 2-year term. When you really look at it, this is a solid protection against an unnecessary standing army.

With this in mind, our hypothetical political neophyte might then assume that the fury of these objections is based on the fact that our citizens are so worried about their freedom, that their current (or previous) governments’ charters must have included very specific and explicit limitations on the formation of standing armies. The fact that those traditional, explicit limits have somehow been left out of this proposed Constitution is what all the fuss is about.

Naturally, he’d be led to look at the States’ constitutions for evidence to support his assumption. What he’d find is that only 2 of those charters put an explicit limitation on standing armies. The rest either don’t mention the subject at all, or explicitly allow them.

Even after all this, he might think, “Well there must be some reason for all this panic!” He wouldn’t be able to bring himself to think that this is all just political wrangling on the part of people who are opposed to the new Constitution. “The answer must be held in the Articles of Confederation”, he may say, “surely the specific prohibition of standing armies that is lacking in the proposed Constitution has to be contained there!”

Imagine his surprise to discover that while the Articles restricted the States in that capacity, they make no mention of preventing the Federal government from forming standing armies. At this point, it would become absolutely clear to him that this objection is rooted in nothing more than political show-boating and fear-mongering. If anything, this proposed Constitution provides better security against the danger, and it at least deserves a fair and honest hearing based on the facts. This hypothetical observer would have to conclude that it looks like the opponents of the proposed Constitution are more interested in misleading people with emotional appeals, rather than convincing them with rational arguments.

Even if there is no historical or popular support for our opponents’ point of view, it is still worth taking a closer look at. If we did put a more explicit limitation on the formation of standing armies, it would probably end up being harmful (if not outright ignored).

It’s true that we’re far from Europe, but even on this continent, we’ve got British territories to the north and Spanish ones to the south. Both have islands in the Caribbean. We have sometimes-aggressive Native-American tribes to our west who are likely to ally with the British or Spanish against us. Improvements in shipping and communication will in effect make the world smaller. These facts, combined with the knowledge that Britain and Spain have two of the best navies in the world, and that it isn’t totally improbable that an alliance may form between them in the future, you can see that critical danger may arise at any time.

We’ve had to keep a guard on our western border ever since the Revolution. Obviously we need to keep this up as a defense against the native tribes. How are we going to man those forts? Either with militia who are sent to the frontier – away from their homes, families and jobs (which would be at least impractical and expensive, if not outright dangerous) – or with a small standing army. We should leave these options open to the wisdom of the legislature, and not force them to go with the much more troublesome militia-only route.

As we become a stronger nation, Britain and Spain will probably start keeping more troops on the continent to look out for their own interests. It would be wise for us to have enough men available in our frontier forts to counter that threat. Some key places – either because of their military or commercial importance – should definitely be strongly occupied at all times in order to prevent them from being taken by our rivals.

If our economy continues to rely on trade – or even if we just want to protect our shores – we need to have a navy. With a navy comes a need for port facilities and seacoast forts. Eventually, once we get a stronger naval presence, we may be able to get rid of the coastal forts, but at the start they will be necessary to protect us.

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