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 #8, the original text of which can be read here: http://thomas.loc.gov/home/histdox/fed_08.html
Originally published November 20, 1787 by “Publius” – who was in this case, Alexander Hamilton.
So let’s assume that the Union breaks up. The individual States would have all the same feelings and tendencies that other nations do – they may go to war at some times, and be at peace in others. What would that situation look like?
At least initially, wars between the States would be much worse than we are used to. Most of the countries of Europe have large (and oppressive, and expensive) militaries that have been around for years. They’ve also surrounded their countries with forts. A potential invader expends an awful lot of effort to capture small forts and towns of little long-term military value.
Here, we have no such forts. We are also wary of the idea of standing armies. It wouldn’t take much preparation (and would not encounter much resistance) for the larger States to simply take over the smaller ones. Looting would be pervasive in such conflicts. Safety from this kind of lawless behavior would be a powerful political influence. It would be no time at all before the people willingly trade in some of their freedom in order to have secure borders.
Some people will tell you that the Constitution doesn’t prohibit standing armies (so it must therefore allow them). In truth, they would be very hard to keep up under the proposed government. Once we dissolve the Union though, standing armies would become commonplace and necessary – the threat of war would be too high for them not to be. The smaller States will be hit by this defensive build-up the hardest – they may even give their executives more power making them almost king-like in the process. This could even make the small States a threat to the larger ones. An arms race would inevitably begin, turning our fresh start into a carbon-copy of Europe.
This is the clear lesson of history. I’m not sitting here distorting the meaning of our new Constitution (which puts the people in charge).
The historians among us may ask why ancient Greece never developed standing armies. There are a few points here: First, the Greek people were by and large all soldiers – today we concentrate on commercial pursuits and don’t have time for that. Second, we have a lot more money now and complex financial systems that allow the growth of professional standing armies.
Realize also that if a country is not threatened with invasion frequently, even if it has an army, it doesn’t need to be very large or used often, so the citizenry has little to fear from it. A small army can put down an occasional angry mob, but can’t suppress the whole country. The opposite is also true – if security threats are constant, the military needs to be on alert at all times. The power of the army increases as the rights of the people decrease. It doesn’t take long for such a place to turn into a police state.
Think of Britain: being an island with a great navy, it doesn’t face constant threats. Since no huge standing army is needed, none exists. Their army is large enough only to delay an attack for enough time for the militia to organize. This has led to a great deal of freedom for British citizens. We are far away from Europe – only a few relatively weak British and Spanish colonies are near us. We’re in an even better situation than the British isles. If we can remain unified, we can enjoy the same liberty. If we split up, it won’t take long for us to start re-living the bloody history of continental Europe.
If any reasonable person gives this issue serious thought, he’ll surely come to the conclusion that the petty objections to the Constitution are out-weighed by the harsh reality of separation. If we let that happen, the imagined “catastrophes” some think the Constitution will cause, would be almost instantly replaced by a much scarier reality.