Hamilton and Madison: Security Against a Standing Army

Before the United States Constitution was ratified by the states, there was a discussion in print concerning its merits and possible effects. The State of New York was reluctant to ratify, at least partly because of concerns about the potential abuse of power by the national government. The response to this was printed as the Federalist Papers for consideration by the general populace.

The Federalist Papers were written by John Jay, Alexander Hamilton, and James Madison. It’s not too much to suppose that they represent an authentic and original understanding of the Constitution.

Hamilton wrote The Federalist, Number 29, “Concerning the Militia.” It addresses a general distrust in standing armies, and especially in national control of the same. A “militia” is a body of armed men who are not soldiers by profession, but have been called together for the common defense. Hamilton suggests that properly organized local militias, available for national needs, would make a standing army unnecessary.

As Hamilton points out, it would be thoroughly impractical to discipline all the militia (armed citizenry) of the United States. Therefore, it is not a suitable proposition for the general defense of the nation. However, the state ought to organize its own militia “of limited extent,” which ought to render a standing national army unnecessary. He writes:

This will not only lessen the call for military establishments, but if circumstances should at any time oblige the government to form an army of any magnitude that army can never be formidable to the liberties of the people while there is a large body of citizens, little, if at all, inferior to them in discipline and the use of arms, who stand ready to defend their own rights and those of their fellow-citizens. This appears to me the only substitute that can be devised for a standing army, and the best possible security against it, if it should exist.

Alexander Hamilton considered the local armed citizenry of each state to be security against the abuses of a national standing army. Isn’t that interesting? How far we’ve come from that time, yet reasoning like this led to the adoption of our nation’s Constitution — the same Constitution that our (national) soldiers still swear to defend thus:

I (insert name), having been appointed a (insert rank) in the U.S. Army under the conditions indicated in this document, do accept such appointment and do solemnly swear (or affirm) that I will support and defend the Constitution of the United States against all enemies, foreign and domestic, that I will bear true faith and allegiance to the same; that I take this obligation freely, without any mental reservation or purpose of evasion; and that I will well and faithfully discharge the duties of the office on which I am about to enter, so help me God.

James Madison, in The Federalist, Number 46, compares his vision of state government to federal government. It’s fascinating. There, he addresses the same question that Hamilton had addressed in number 29. I quote at length, as he mentions several points of interest.

Extravagant as the supposition is, let it however be made. Let a regular army, fully equal to the resources of the country, be formed; and let it be entirely at the devotion of the federal government; still it would not be going too far to say, that the State governments, with the people on their side, would be able to repel the danger. The highest number to which, according to the best computation, a standing army can be carried in any country, does not exceed one hundredth part of the whole number of souls; or one twenty-fifth part of the number able to bear arms. This proportion would not yield, in the United States, an army of more than twenty-five or thirty thousand men. To these would be opposed a militia amounting to near half a million of citizens with arms in their hands, officered by men chosen from among themselves, fighting for their common liberties, and united and conducted by governments possessing their affections and confidence. It may well be doubted, whether a militia thus circumstanced could ever be conquered by such a proportion of regular troops. Those who are best acquainted with the last successful resistance of this country against the British arms, will be most inclined to deny the possibility of it. Besides the advantage of being armed, which the Americans possess over the people of almost every other nation, the existence of subordinate governments, to which the people are attached, and by which the militia officers are appointed, forms a barrier against the enterprises of ambition, more insurmountable than any which a simple government of any form can admit of. Notwithstanding the military establishments in the several kingdoms of Europe, which are carried as far as the public resources will bear, the governments are afraid to trust the people with arms. And it is not certain, that with this aid alone they would not be able to shake off their yokes. But were the people to possess the additional advantages of local governments chosen by themselves, who could collect the national will and direct the national force, and of officers appointed out of the militia, by these governments, and attached both to them and to the militia, it may be affirmed with the greatest assurance, that the throne of every tyranny in Europe would be speedily overturned in spite of the legions which surround it. Let us not insult the free and gallant citizens of America with the suspicion, that they would be less able to defend the rights of which they would be in actual possession, than the debased subjects of arbitrary power would be to rescue theirs from the hands of their oppressors. Let us rather no longer insult them with the supposition that they can ever reduce themselves to the necessity of making the experiment, by a blind and tame submission to the long train of insidious measures which must precede and produce it.

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