Federalist No. 24

“And the arguments of those who, like the antifederalists, caution against an ever-expanding military with all of its accompanying externalities are quickly dismissed as the unpatriotic clamors of a “sinister and unprincipled opposition.”

Alexander Hamilton in Federalist 24 airs his frustration at the fear the opponents of the Constitution have concerning the new military power of the proposed national government. In short he cannot understand the cries of danger that emanated from antifederalists over the presence of standing armies in peacetime. He rhetorically states that a person just entering the debate at this point about standing armies must needs assume that the state governments “inserted the most precise and rigid precautions on this point, ” otherwise why would the opposition be so concerned now? But after discovering only North Carolina and Pennsylvania with constitutional provisions merely cautioning against, not expressly forbidding standing armies in peacetime, the impartial observer must suppose the “existing Confederation must contain the most explicit provisions against military establishments in time of peace; and a departure from this model, in a favorite point, has occasioned the discontent which appears to influence these political champions.” And predictably such an explicit caution is no where to be found.

General Hamilton has plans for a standing army (click for video)

Why? Why if Hamilton is correct, did the Articles of Confederation not contain a prohibition against standing peacetime armies? What power did the congress under the Articles have to raise and keep such an army? Why would the Articles of Confederation contain such language against standing armies if it had not the power to raise and maintain such? This lack of power to raise troops, highlighted for Hamilton in Shays’s Rebellion, was the very argument he was making in highlighting the defects of the first American Confederacy. He knew why such a provision against standing armies was not in that document, it didn’t need to be. And clearly the legislatures of the states reflected more closely the will of the voting majority and could be kept under some control when it came to appropriating monies for such an army. But any one who today seriously doubts the threat a large standing army poses to the republican structure of government has a very different conception of what it means to live in a federal republic. With the abandonment of the constitutional and republican principles upon which both the colonial and early federal periods were built being nearly complete, the idea that large standing armies pose a threat both culturally and politically is seen as absurd. And the arguments of those who, like the antifederalists, caution against an ever-expanding military with all of its accompanying externalities are quickly dismissed as the unpatriotic clamors of a “sinister and unprincipled opposition.” This makes logical sense, for those who desire to keep up an overwrought military establishment to police the world today are heirs of the Hamiltonian persuasion.

Of course threats exist as Hamilton points out but even he states that the forces needed in peacetime were “small garrisons on our Western frontier,” before and after the Revolutionary War. The key word is small or better yet his meaning is closer to proportional to the threat. But as we have seen Hamilton was more than delighted at the prospects of war with France in 1798. Indeed after Washington, he was the highest ranking leader of the US military, which should give pause to swallowing whole his argument for the necessity of a standing peacetime army.

In the end, I am not arguing for a full and complete dismantling of our military forces, only that we recognize there are dangers of a huge military force both to our politics and the world’s. I only wonder what need there is for an “empire of bases” all over the world today? In the aftermath of the Cold War need we continue to build up? I know we are at war with religious extremists but are there not better ways to practice preemptive prevention without disproportionately expanding that peculiarly aggressive martial spirit while at the same time growing our presence abroad? Res publica, non certe imperium.


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