Mini-Federalist #25 – The Same Subject Continued: 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 #25, the original text of which can be read here: http://thomas.loc.gov/home/histdox/fed_25.html

Originally published December 21, 1787 by “Publius” – who was in this case, Alexander Hamilton.

Some people might suggest that the States (while taking direction from the Federal government) should have responsibility for the common defense. The problem with this idea is that it throws the whole system on its head. Not only is it potentially dangerous and burdensome for the States to handle this task, it defeats the purpose of having a Union in the first place.

We are surrounded by foreign nations – it’s not like only specific States are on the borders. All the States face the same danger, so why not have a common government to deal with them? There are some States that face a slightly higher danger and therefore have more responsibility to defend their neighbors (like New York because of its long border with Canada) – this burden isn’t fair to New York, though. And if New York isn’t up to the task of defending that whole border by itself (which it isn’t) that puts every other State in jeopardy, too. Even if New York was up to the task, wouldn’t it be trouble for one State to have such an over-powering military all to itself? Wouldn’t its neighbors be nervous enough that they might build larger military forces than they actually need to counter the threat from other States? It isn’t hard to see how this could lead to friction amongst ourselves. There are a lot of things that are bad about this idea.

We’ve already discussed that the States will be fighting for power with the Federal government regularly. In any such conflict, the local government will probably win out. If those governments also control their own militaries, they would certainly have too much power against the Federal government. It’s also going to be worse for the freedom of the people. It’s better to have the military be under the control of the Federal government (which the people are more likely to be skeptical of) than under the individual States. History teaches us that the most dangerous people are the ones that we trust.

With the understanding that heavily-armed States would be dangerous to the Union, the framers of the Articles of Confederation restricted the States from having armies and navies. In reality, this rule is effectively ignored just like the quota system for revenue.

There are other issues with this idea, too. What proponents of it are trying to do is prevent standing armies during peacetime. But does this prohibit raising armies as well as maintaining them? If it applies to maintaining, how is that going to be determined? Are they only allowed to be maintained for a brief period, or until the crisis is over? Under such a system, couldn’t armies exist in times of peace, and if so, wouldn’t that go against the literal words of the prohibition? Who is going to be the judge of what “time of peace” means? Obviously the Federal government would have to be the judge of this, so how much of a restriction would this be really, if it can be circumvented so easily?

The only thing this is defending against, in reality, is the unlikely event that the legislature and the executive co-operate to make trouble. And if that happened, it would be extremely easy to come up with phantom threats that we need to defend against. The Native-American tribes (incited by Britain or Spain) will be a ready scapegoat. Such a diabolical government may even nudge those foreign powers into making the first attack.

We could restrict the Federal government from raising an army during peacetime, but then, we’d just be creating a country that can’t even prepare to defend itself against an imminent invasion. Formal declarations of war aren’t always issued. We may not know that we’re at war until we’re invaded, and we may not legally be able to even prepare to act until it’s too late. All the preventative and preparatory measures that other countries use would be illegal for ours. Our homes and freedoms would be at the mercy of any foreign nation – and all because we don’t trust the people we chose to run our own country!

People might counter that the militia should be the rightful, able, and ready defenders of the country. But we know from our experience in the Revolution that this isn’t true – we needed an army for our defense then, and we’d be stupid to give credence to that argument now. A militia is no match against a well-trained and well-equipped army. An army would be cheaper, too. During the Revolution, the militia performed great service, but they know that they couldn’t have done it alone. War can best be won by veteran soldiers who know what they’re doing.

Any policy of violence (because they just don’t work) will ultimately fail. Think of Pennsylvania – its constitution prevents it from having standing armies in peacetime, but it has raised one anyway because of small rebellions in a few of its counties. Or what about Massachusetts? it raised a force (that it has kept around to date) in order to deal with a similar insurrection without getting Congressional approval first like the Articles of Confederation require. This just goes to show, we may actually need a military force during peacetime – we shouldn’t absolutely prevent the legislature from having that option. And think of the lesson here – a weak Federal government isn’t going to be respected, and rules on paper aren’t going to mean anything if the people think they need something else.

Returning to history, it was an important aspect of the Lacedaemonian commonwealth that no one could be Admiral twice. But when the Peloponnesians had been beaten by the Athenians in a naval battle, they called for Lysander (who had led them to victory years before) to be given that title a second time. In order to get around the restriction, he was given the Admiral’s powers, but under the title Vice Admiral. This perfectly illustrates the point above – the rules will be broken if society thinks it should break them. If we’re smart, we won’t make rules that we know will be broken, because it will only lead to further infringements on the other laws whenever a politician claims that it is “necessary”.

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