Few ideas were more widely accepted in early America than that of the danger of peacetime standing armies. This anti-standing army sentiment motivated colonial opposition to post-French and Indian War British policies, intensified after the Boston Massacre, influenced the writings of most founding fathers, and remained politically relevant well after the Revolutionary War ended. This sentiment remained largely unchallenged until the introduction of the U.S. Constitution to the public for ratification. The Constitution’s “army clause,” which allowed the U.S. Congress to raise and support armies with biennial funds, sparked a nation-wide debate that pitted tradition against innovation, precedent against necessity, and federalism against nationalism.
After providing an overview of the English ideological origins of American anti-standing army sentiment, it is possible to more fully appreciate the pseudonymous debates between Federalists, who defended the army clause, and Anti-Federalists, who mostly opposed it. This analysis reveals an interesting split between Federalist writers on how they address the anti-standing army norm. A select group of Federalists, including Alexander Hamilton, challenged the prevailing notion that standing armies are protected against by maintaining weak confederacies. Hamilton believed this explanation directly contradicted the federalist system that Anti-Federalists sought to preserve, and took advantage of this contradiction to further his primary political objective: creating a national government that supersedes the influence of the individual states. Hamilton and his likeminded peers thought that an irrational fear of standing armies stood in the way of the creation of a great nation state.
English Origins of Anti-Standing Army Sentiment
To better understand the intellectual inheritance of revolutionary America’s antipathy for standing armies, it is important to examine the gradual emergence of English distrust towards soldiers and government military policies in the early seventeenth century. Even before England entered into the expansive military conflicts of the 1600s, there was a common belief that the country, by nature of its island status and past experiences, did not require a professional army. Guarded by a convenient stretch of sea and patrolled by the well-regarded Royal Navy, the nation saw little purpose in a large military establishment. Public perception of England’s naval prowess, largely advanced by Queen Elizabeth I’s famous defeat of the “invincible” Spanish Armada, helped justify a lack of interest in land forces. Furthermore, the armies assembled under Queen Elizabeth I and during the Thirty Years War were made up of men from the “lowest reaches of society.” After these criminals and vagrants returned home from service, apathetic local officials neglected them, leaving them to wander and cause mischief wherever they settled. The prevalence of these “soldiers” left a very poor impression in the minds of the public, who came to associate soldiers and armies with mismanagement, lawlessness, and danger.
This apprehension to establish a professional and lasting army influenced the thoughts and writings of Parliamentarians during the English Civil War. Of the many issues the Royalists and Parliamentarians argued over, none seemed as pressing as the debate over the power of raising armed forces. In its “Nineteen Propositions,” Parliament attempted to reign in the King’s prerogative by, among other things, disbanding his “unnecessary” guard left over from the Irish Rebellion of 1641 and requiring him to transfer command of the kingdom’s militia. He refused both propositions on the grounds that they would void historic precedent, weaken his authority, and upset the governing balance between the King, the Lords, and the Commons. This publicized disagreement between the King and Parliament fostered a pamphlet war in which Henry Parker distinguished himself with his ideas on parliamentary supremacy, derivation of power from the people, and the need for parliament and the king to check one another. The inability for either branch to effectively check the other was demonstrated by the King’s ability to raise his own private guard, prevent Parliament from maintaining its own militia for defense, and forcefully exercising his own will despite the wishes of Parliament. Parker believed this faulty system of checks was “contrary to the originall, end, and trust of all power and Lawe,” because it allowed for a “vast and arbitrary” royal prerogative with no tangible accountability. The constitutional conundrum sparked by this improper system of checks inevitably led to the English Civil War, which broke down common intellectual evaluations of English society, politics, and constitutionalism and set the foundation for creative ideas to take shape, such as the anti-standing army argument.
After the Civil War had been fought and won by the Parliamentarians, public fear of rowdy soldiers, dangerous armies, and ineffective constitutional checks did not readily dissipate. In fact, these fears culminated during the rule of Oliver Cromwell and King James II and ultimately led to the Glorious Revolution and subsequent passage of the English Bill of Rights, which sought to guarantee that “raising or keeping a standing army within the kingdom in time of peace, unless it be with consent of Parliament, is against law.” The widely reported abuses of standing armies under both Cromwell and King James II helped standardize anti-standing army sentiment. Political writers like John Trenchard promoted this view by writing that Cromwell’s standing army “expell’d that Parliament under which they had fought … destroy’d the Government they before set up, and brought back Charles the Second.” Similarly, King James II’s corrupt army allowed him to attempt to “invade and destroy both” the constitution and the interests of the public. This view was not at all uncommon, as “what could have otherwise been expected from … Men of dissolute and debauched principles … who make Murder their Profession” and “stir up the Ambition of Princes.” To Trenchard and many other Whig writers, standing armies were historically bodies of trouble not only in England, but also in the ancient civilizations of Greece and Rome. There was something inherently wrong with peacetime standing armies, they could easily be exploited by ambitious men or a faulty constitution. To fix this, Trenchard insisted that “the Constitution must either break the Army, or the Army will destroy the Constitution.” He suggests that it must be explicitly clear in a constitution what the government’s limitations are in regards to the raising and maintenance of an army in peacetime, lest that army be able to overwhelm the system that created it.
These same concerns that dominated country party thought in the late seventeenth and early eighteenth centuries, became prevalent in America after 1763. At the conclusion of the French and Indian War, the British government, determined to protect its newly earned landholdings, decided to maintain a force of around 10,000 troops in the colonies. On this fact alone, colonists became worried. Perceiving themselves as Englishmen, they believed their rights, as set down in the English Bill of Rights, were being violated by the presence of a standing army. Had most colonists not been as widely read in Whig political thought, British actions might not have raised as many red flags as it did. As Clinton Rossiter wrote, the “uncompromising Whiggery” of the widely read Cato’s Letters, authored by John Trenchard and Thomas Gordon, helped tremendously “to stir colonial hearts” in opposition to any measure that infringed upon their liberty as Englishmen. As the British government continually increased restrictions upon the colonies, incidents involving armed forces played out and helped to excite colonial fervor. The Boston Massacre, in which a group of British soldiers killed five Boston residents, allowed radical colonists to find an evocative rallying point to demonstrate the applicability of these ideas. Standing armies were not just a distant political debate, they were tangibly dangerous entities that could act against the liberties of innocent people. So universally contemptible was the British standing army in the colonies, that a grievance against unauthorized standing armies was included in the Declaration of Independence. This anti-standing army sentiment persisted well after independence and the Revolutionary War, playing a significant role in the ratification debates for the U.S. Constitution.
Anti-Federalists and Federalists Debate on Standing Armies
After the Confederation Congress unanimously called for the state legislatures to form ratifying committees to debate the adoption of the proposed Constitution, there was immediately a “birth” of a “most interesting division of the people.” Those in favor of adoption, referred to as Federalists, faced the challenge of defending a document intended to replace a government founded on widely held revolutionary and republican ideals. The Anti-Federalists, as they came to be known, attempted to resist the creation of an overbearing central government that would severely restrict the role of states in national matters. Standing armies, because of their historic association with centralized authority and strong ties to revolutionary thought, proved to be an important debate point for both groups. To the Federalists, the ability of the Congress to “to raise and support Armies” with funds appropriated for no “longer Term than two Years,” was necessary for defending the country from foreign enemies and maintaining security within its borders. To the Anti-Federalists, this was a grievous enlargement of the national government’s independence from state legislatures and left the door open for future abuses of a potential standing army.
Although the writings of the Anti-Federalists were diverse in their interpretations and responses to the Constitution, they generally held three core principles. First, they advocated for constitutional textualism, demanding that the Constitution be accessible and explicit in how it separated the powers delegated to each branch. Second, they valued federalism and sought to preserve the states’ influence in the operation of the central government. Third, they constantly referred to history and advocated against the repetition of past mistakes. While it is difficult to find writers who truly represent the multiple Anti-Federalist perspectives presented during the ratification debates, two pseudonymous authors—the Federal Farmer and Brutus—took distinct stances on the army clause through the lens of these three core principles.
While not as widely discussed by as many Federalists as Brutus, the Federal Farmer in multiple “Letters to the Republican,” critiqued the army clause because of its allowance of wide interpretations and its unprecedented dismissal of America’s federalist tradition. In his October 10, 1787 letter, he explained how the clause’s implicit language could be abused by an unresponsive Congress or a group of ambitious men. “When an army shall once be raised for a number of years,” he stated, “it is not probable that it will find much difficulty in getting congress to pass laws for applying monies to its support.” The Federal Farmer recognized that “a power to raise armies must be lodged some where,” but he insisted that allowing Congress to possess a vague two-year appropriations power over the military with just a “bare majority of so few men without any checks” was problematic. It opened multiple pathways from which Congress could unilaterally pursue the creation of a standing army. In this way, the clause would alter the established precedent set by the Articles of Confederation, in which nine states were required to assent to a Congressional request to raise armed forces. To ensure that the Constitution is “most comfortable to the federal plan, and safest” to the liberties of the people, the Federal Farmer recommended that the clause be improved by setting a limit on the maximum number of troops allowed in peace and war, with any additional troops to be raised by the state legislatures on the express intent of a “special majority” of Congress. He argued that his proposed revision “seems to be founded in the true spirit of a federal system,” because it properly divided “those powers we can with safety, lodge … in no one member of the government alone.” Important in his revision of the clause was his acknowledgment that the union should possess more powers than it did in the Articles, but that this enlargement of authority should not come without clear and specific limitations imposed by the states.
Like the Federal Farmer, Brutus criticized the army clause’s implicit language, but he distinguished his position by referencing disastrous standing armies from British and Roman history. Throughout several of his sixteen letters, Brutus probed the mistakes of the past, referenced the lessons learned, and applied them to his contemporary situation to pinpoint the clause’s shortcomings. Examining “the faithful pages of history,” Brutus related that “an army, lead by Julius Caesar” changed the Roman “free republic … into that of the most absolute despotism.” Similarly in post-Civil War Britain, “the same army,” that “vindicated the liberties of that people from the encroachments and despotism of a tyrant king, assisted Cromwell, their General, in wresting from the people, that liberty they had so dearly earned.” He referenced these two well-known histories to demonstrate the ease by which constitutional systems like Rome and Britain could crumble from the existence of a standing army. To preemptively disprove any assumptions that America was different from these countries, Brutus directly quoted an English Member of Parliament who believed that one of the primary lessons learned from European and Roman history is that “it is indeed impossible that the liberties of the people in any country can be preserved where a numerous standing army is kept up.” Brutus further suggested that America would succumb to the fate of Rome or Britain if the clause’s language was not specified. Despite his acknowledgment of thefederal government’s necessary ability to raise forces in order to fill garrisons and immediately repel enemy attacks, Brutus proposed an amendment that would limit these forces to the bare essentials and allow no augmentation without two-thirds majority support in both houses of Congress. This revision revealed Brutus’s understanding of the necessity and benefits of union, while also reflecting his caution in allowing for the unilateral creation of a force capable of overthrowing or influencing the federal government. To avoid falling for past mistakes, he recommended refining the language of the Constitution so that it could be misconstrued by Congress or abused by a future American Caesar or Cromwell.
In his ninth letter, Brutus presumed that “it would be useless, to enter into a laboured argument, to prove to the people of America,” that standing armies are detrimental to a people’s liberty, “a position, which has so long and so generally been received by them as a kind of axiom.” Yet, not every American in the late 1780s seemingly subscribed to “the great principles of the late revolution.” Even though many Federalists conformed their writings and thoughts to the anti-standing army norm, some, like Alexander Hamilton, chose to disregard it. These two groups of Federalists agreed that the new government required flexibility in the army clause. Where they differed was in their treatment of the Anti-Federalist’s preference for preserving a federal system meant to check the centralized creation of a standing army. Jointly writing under the nom de plume Publius, James Madison and Alexander Hamilton embodied this split in the Federalist’s defense of the army clause. Both were concerned about shoring up America’s defense and allowing Congress to raise a small, necessary military to maintain security and deflect any possible threats. Individually, however, they responded to America’s standing army “axiom” very differently—with Madison respecting the federalist precedent and Hamilton ignoring it.
Madison’s contributions to The Federalist and speeches in the Virginia ratifying convention reveal a deep tension between his interests in protecting and securing the union and of keeping the central government accountable to the individual states. In his defense of the army clause, he suggested that these two interests could coexist under the proposed system. Responding to the arguments of Anti-Federalists, Madison in The Federalist No. 41 conceded that “the liberties of Europe, as far as they ever existed, have, with few exceptions been the price of her military establishments.” By broaching the subject of standing armies in a manner that is in line with mainstream Anti-Federalist thought, Madison conveyed to his politically divided audience that he understood the historic threat standing armies posed to liberties. Still, he believed that a standing army was necessary. Expanding on this idea in a speech given before the Virginia ratifying convention, Madison explained that if “congress be not invested with this power, any powerful nation, prompted by ambition or avarice, will be invited, by our weakness, to attack us;” because “such an attack, by disciplined veterans, would certainly be attended with success, when only opposed by irregular, undisciplined militia.” His frank assessment of the weak situation of the United States relayed to the convention the necessity of maintaining a small standing force. This necessity was further supported, he remarked, by the experience of the individual states “in the course of the late war,” where “the weak parts of the union were exposed, and many states were in the most deplorable situation, by the enemy’s ravages.” To make up for the shortcomings of the recruitment and funding of the Continental Army and address the potential threats of foreign enemies, Madison supported the army clause as a means of balancing states’ interests with national flexibility. While he connected with Anti-Federalists by wishing “there were no necessity of vesting this power in the general government,” he also placated many of their fears by explaining how “the general will never destroy the individual governments.” This conviction must be “strengthened” he argued, by “an attention to the construction of the senate” and a realization that the members of the House of Representatives were “taken from the same men from whom those of the state legislatures are taken.” Abuses by the central government are not more likely to infringe upon state governments or even the people’s rights because the Congress, which raises armies and appropriates funds, originates from the states and is partially influenced by state legislatures. To Madison, the proposed system of government was not an affront to federalism and did not ignore the traditions of the past. Instead, it sought to involve individual states in a process meant to energize the central government’s ability to react to immediate threats to the union. Should this power be suspected of abuse, the states still maintain a procedural check.
Compared with Madison’s defense of the army clause, Hamilton, in his contributions to The Federalist, shared many of the same motivating factors for changing the status quo, but demonstrated a distinct lack of concern for the historic role state governments played in checking the creation of an American standing army. He agreed with Madison that a newly birthed America faced many threats, namely the “savage tribes on our Western frontier.” Hamilton further believed that the capability of the military under the Articles of Confederation was not robust, nor flexible enough to defend the union from rebellions. Recalling “the conduct of Massachusetts” during Shay’s Rebellion, he described how “that State (without waiting for the sanction of Congress as the articles of the confederation require) was compelled to raise troops to quell a domestic insurrection, and still keeps a corps in pay to prevent a revival of the spirit of revolt.” To Hamilton, Shay’s Rebellion demonstrated an important flaw with the Articles. Multiple layers of unnecessary restrictions were placed upon the national legislature and hindered any immediate response to pressing problems. The Constitution’s solution to this problem, the army clause, sought to provide the Congress greater flexibility in its ability to raise and maintain a peacetime military force. Unable or unwilling to advertise this clause with a specific emphasis on how it preserved federalism or involved the state legislatures, Hamilton bluntly claimed that there was no precedent to back up Anti-Federalists positions. He stated that “a careful and critical survey of the articles of Confederation” revealed that “these articles … restricted the authority of the State legislatures” but “had not imposed a single restraint on that of the United States.” If this were true, he imagined that most individuals would consider Anti-Federalist “clamors as the dishonest artifices of a sinister and unprincipled opposition.” In fact, any perusal of the Articles would reveal that Hamilton’s interpretation of the document was at the very least specious. While the Articles did limit the state legislatures in some respects, they clearly restricted the ability of the U.S. Congress to “engage in war” or determine “the number of land or sea forces to be raised” unless nine state legislatures agreed. Whether intentional or inadvertent, Hamilton misconstrued the language of the Articles and discredited any Anti-Federalist criticisms of the Constitution that based their arguments off of legislative precedent. In doing so, he ignored the federalist tradition that helped shape the Articles and greatly influenced the thinking of his political opponents.
Explaining the Hamiltonian Split from Anti-Standing Army Sentiment
When viewed through a narrow lens, Hamilton’s defense of the army clause comes across as dismissive of tradition and even reminiscent of Caesar, according to some of his contemporaries. However, when examined from the broader scope of Hamilton’s plan for an ideal America, his nationalist rhetoric becomes justifiable. Far from being one of the “crafty and aspiring despots,” Hamilton distinguished himself as a nationalist who desired to rebalance the distribution of power between state governments and the proposed national government. While Madison and other Federalists sought to convince others of the viability of a “compound republic,” Hamilton sought to introduce his view of the nation-state to a historically sectionalized country.His iconoclastic plan intended to strengthen national unity by deemphasizing America’s federalist past and instilling legitimacy in the national government.
To fully appreciate Hamilton’s plan it is essential to understand what he believed to be endangering the nation. Entering into the ratification debates, Hamilton understood there to be two types of threats facing the U.S., both of which would be exacerbated if not for the army clause. The first threat, foreign powers testing the strength of an underdeveloped and largely unprotected U.S., was largely shared by Anti-Federalists and Federalists alike. The second threat was, as Richard H. Kohn describes it, a conglomerate of “centrifugal forces inherent in a weak central government.” To Hamilton and his select group of likeminded peers, these forces were fueled by the federal system formally established under the Articles. States took advantage of the amount of influence they could exercise, expanded their authority to be the “immediate and visible guardian of life and property,” and consequently attracted the “popular obedience and attachment” of their respective residents. This was problematic for multiple reasons. Should the states become too powerful and removed from the national government, they could secede, weaken the union, and potentially promote the creation of a precarious, European-like balance of power in America. Additionally, the weakening of the union could allow for the organization of rowdy, dangerous mobs with little fear of repercussion or resistance from the central government. These two threats of foreign encroachment and civil division or usurpation helped persuade Hamilton that the army clause could be an effective tool within his envisioned national government.
From Hamilton’s perspective, the constitutional objectives of providing for the common defense and ensuring domestic tranquility could not be achieved without reducing the influence of the “dangerous rivals to the power of the Union,” the states. In regards to debate over the army clause, he sought to accomplish this by ignoring or criticizing the country’s federalist past and by directly supporting provisions that would relocate individuals’ loyalties from the states to the nation. As mentioned above, Hamilton would not mitigate his thoughts to better persuade the sympathies of those opposed to the Constitution. Unlike Madison who acknowledged the federal precedent and the prevailing American distaste for standing armies, Hamilton only recognized standing armies as potentially dangerous during civil conflict. In The Federalist No. 8, Hamilton suggested that the belief that standing armies could be produced from the terms of the army clause “is, at most, problematical & uncertain.” Instead, “standing armies must inevitably result from a dissolution of the confederacy.” Here Hamilton blatantly disagreed with the Anti-Federalist presupposition that standing armies originate from a strong central government, and proposed that they actually originate from weaker states within confederacies seeking to compete with stronger ones. He made this argument precisely to demonstrate that the reasoning behind the anti-standing army sentiment held by so many Anti-Federalists was directly at odds with the federalist system they sought to preserve. In this light, Hamilton did much more than just ignore the federalist precedent: he openly challenged it. After examining the flaws of federalism and applying them to his analyses, Hamilton then employed a nationalistic rhetoric to help defend provisions, like the army clause, which helped shift individuals’ loyalties from their states to the national government. Hamilton attempted to build a national identity by focusing his defense of this clause on problems that would affect multiple, if not every state’s residents. He discussed foreign powers interested in establishing a better foothold in America. He talked about the border conflicts that would arise with Native Americans. Even when he mentioned the domestic uprisings in specific states, he directly connected these problems as part of a larger network of issues undermining the union. By focusing on these problems of the union, Hamilton invited his audience to stop thinking about themselves within the context of their states. He showed them how their lives could be easily impacted on the national level, and in doing so, he sowed the seeds of what he hoped wouldl become a national identity forged from the recognition of interest in common defense.
Fear of standing armies played an influential role in shaping American creative political thought before, during, and after the Revolutionary War. Its establishment as a prominent tenet of eighteenth century English Whiggism guided colonists in their opposition against the restrictive measures of the new government under King George III. Anti-standing army sentiment helped motivate independence and significantly shaped the federal balance of power established under the Articles of Confederation. This connection between federalism and anti-standing army sentiment remained unchallenged until the ratification debates of the U.S. Constitution. Eager to implement an energized and efficient system of government, a select group of Federalists led by Alexander Hamilton sought to disparage the prevailing ideological connection of federalism and anti-standing army sentiment. Explaining how these two ideas were not only unrelated but also contradictory, Hamilton distinguished himself from other Federalists, such as James Madison, who still believed federalism offered safety from centralized standing armies. He sought not to persuade his audience of the federal nature of the army clause. Instead he justified the clause as a necessary solution for all of America’s foreign and indigenous threats. Only by convincing his audience of the importance of their collective national interests, could Hamilton hope to create a truly national government capable of providing for the common defense and ensuring domestic tranquility.
Richard H. Kohn, “The Constitution and National Security: Intent of the Framers,” The United States Military under the Constitution of the United States, 1789-1989, ed. Richard H. Kohn(New York, NY: New York University Press: 1991), 81.
N. A. M. Rodger, “Queen Elizabeth and the Myth of Sea-Power in English History,”Transactions of the Royal Historical Society, vol. 14 (2004), 157. www.jstor.org/stable/3679312.
John Trenchard,An Argument Shewing that a Standing Army is Inconsistent with a Free Government, and absolutely destructive to the Constitution of the English Monarchy(London: 1697), 28; and John Trenchard and Thomas Gordon, Cato’s Letters, or Essays on Liberty, Civil and Religious, and Other Important Subjects. ed. Ronald Hamowy (Indianapolis: Liberty Fund, 1995). vol. 3.
James Madison, “A Candid State of Parties, September 22nd, 1792” originally published in the National Gazette, The Papers of James Madison Digital Edition, ed. J. C. A. Stagg (Charlottesville, VA: University of Virginia Press, Rotunda, 2010).
Federal Farmer, “Letters to the Republican, 8 November 1787,” The Documentary History of the Ratification of the Constitution Digital Edition, ed. John P. Kaminski, Gaspare J. Saladino, Richard Leffler, Charles H. Schoenleber and Margaret A. Hogan (Charlottesville, VA: University of Virginia Press, 2009).
Alexander Hamilton, “The Federalist No. 24,” originally published in the New York Independent Journalon December 19, 1787, The Documentary History of the Ratification of the Constitution Digital Edition, 42.
Alexander Hamilton, “The Federalist No. 25,” originally published in the New York Packeton December 21, 1787, The Documentary History of the Ratification of the Constitution Digital Edition, 62-63.
Alexander Hamilton, “The Federalist No. 17” originally published in the New York Independent Journalon December 5, 1787, The Documentary History of the Ratification of the Constitution Digital Edition, 354.