Federalist No.24

The Powers Necessary To The Common Defense Further Considered

Wednesday, December 19, 1787

Alexander Hamilton


There is a legal fiction, usually described as a reasonable person, used to suggest a standard of action or thought for a person of average intelligence who is using reasonable care and judgment. Hamilton comes up with his own version in this paper: A stranger to our politics, who was to read our newspapers at the present juncture, without having previously inspected the plan reported by the convention. Hamilton presses his stranger to the problem of whether proper provisions have been made in the new Constitution against standing armies in times of peace. The concern voiced by those critical of the new Constitution is that the legislative arm of government should be restrained in military matters, which would be of greatest relevance in times of peace when the means to support an army would fall most heavily upon the legislature. Hamilton’s stranger would assume from his limited knowledge that either standing armies be kept in times of peace, or that on the executive branch should have the power to levy armies without recourse to legislative approval. This is evident of the various opinions published in the printed debate of the period.


Hamilton’s stranger would find, however, that upon looking at the proposed Constitution that the whole power of levying armies lies with the legislature, not executive, and that far from allowing standing armies without limit, the new Constitution limits the appropriation of money in peace time for no longer than two years. Further to this, the new Federal Constitution has not strayed too far from most of the State Constitutions which informed it. Of the thirteen states, only two Constitutions speak against standing armies and the Articles of Confederation, essentially the old Federal Constitution, did not limit the right of the legislature to maintain a standing army, either.


The conclusion which Hamilton’s reasonable stranger must reach, he argues, is that in the matter of debate in newspapers speaking against the right of the legislature to maintain a standing army, that there has been too much the appearance of an intention to mislead the people by alarming their passions, rather than to convince them by arguments addressed to their understandings.


Having addressed the specious arguments upon which his opponents rely, Hamilton spends the rest of his essay considering the need for a standing army to ensure the peace and security of the nation and its trade. He discusses the potential threats of other European colonies which were still on the American mainland, including settlements subject to Britain. Hamilton cites the Indian tribes as potential dangers to American interests and argues that improvements in navigation (John Harrison’s 1761 chronometer was the culmination of a long line of watch makers who had worked upon the problem of accurately measuring longitude) essentially made Europe and other potential enemies neighbours, in much the same way that we say the internet and jet travel have made the world smaller. Added to this is the problem of frontier regions and the threat to trade, much of which needed garrisons and forts for protection. Hamilton argues that America cannot afford to be complacent.


Nor can the country afford to rely upon militias to safeguard its interests. Militia troops have families and occupations which they must neglect to serve, contributing to increased expenses in the rotation of militia troops, their training, not to mention costs to the economy through neglected industry. The alternative, Hamilton points out, is a permanent corps, which is essentially a standing army. Hamilton concedes that a strong navy would mitigate the need for a strong standing army to an extent, but America is not in that position in 1787.

8 May 2018