This paper continues from the last concerning the provision in the new Constitution allowing the government to maintain a standing army in peace time.
Some of the arguments Hamilton raises in this paper are repetitions or extensions of Federalist No.24. Hamilton reiterates that as important as the militias were in the war against Britain, they are not capable of a national defence against trained armies. A properly trained standing army is required to meet the threats of foreign powers and other threats unanticipated. Without the power to provide a national standing army within the constitution, the problem is raised as to how the nation would judge when it is and is not appropriate to maintain a standing army in times of peace. Apart from the obvious questions, such as how long a peace would have to be established for the prohibition against a standing army to take effect, or the anticipation of threats that have not yet degenerated into conflict that might require the raising of an army, there is the issue that governments would contrive reasons to maintain an army.
Hamilton makes the point that the United States of 1787 was actually surrounded by Indian nations and colonies of Britain and Spain. The motivation for keeping an army would seem obvious. But some States were under more threat than others, like New York, which would put an unequal burden on different States. Apart from this, the raising of armies by individual States in times of need would have the potential to create suspicion between States, thereby giving incentive to raise armies against the prohibitions of the Constitution,
and finally to subvert the constitutional authority of the Union.
This is a point Hamilton makes early in the paper and he returns to it at the end as well. For all his discussion about the need for standing armies, his real subject is the potential harm a poorly framed constitution could do. At the end of this paper Hamilton once again refers to classical Greece to make his point. The Lacedaemonians, he points out, had a prohibition that prevented any man serving as admiral twice. To overcome this prohibition in a time of need the State gave Lysander the nominal title of vice-admiral, with all the real powers of an admiral.
Hamilton has already made the same point about Pennsylvania and Massachusetts, two States he makes reference to in Federalist No.24. The Pennsylvanian Bill of Rights expressly prohibited standing armies yet they raised an army during peacetime, nevertheless, while Massachusetts raised troops to quell a rebellion without waiting for sanction from Congress. Hamilton’s point is
that nations pay little regard to rules and maxims calculated in their very nature to run counter to the necessities of society.
The danger to the Constitution, and therefore to the very Union, is that a constitution that is framed without regard to the realities of its nation’s situation will inevitably be overturned in times of crisis, and the precedent of ignoring the Constitution is dangerous, as every instance that it is ignored diminishes the document’s authority, and therefore the stability of the nation.
Hamilton makes the point by considering what would happen if their Constitution banned the raising of an army in peacetime (This is a solution to the problem of how long to maintain an army once a threat is past, or against apprehended danger). The situation is obviously ludicrous, for
the presence of an enemy within our territories must be waited for, as the legal warrant for the government to begin its levies of men for the protection of the state. We must receive the blow, before we could ever prepare to return it.
What the whole debate comes down to, it seems, is that to deny the government the power to levy troops or maintain an army in times of peace is to declare an open distrust of the government and the system within which it works. Clearly, a mistrust of the government exists in modern America and other nations – I remember Wako as well as the Bundy standoff over the government’s charging of grazing fees, which challenged the government’s constitutional right to grazing land. But Hamilton is writing not to address real world cynicism but the ideal at which government and society must aim in order to achieve order and safety. Whatever cynicism Hamilton may have allowed for, his point is strongly made in this observation:
We must expose our property and liberty to the mercy of foreign invaders, and invite them by our weakness to seize the naked and defenceless prey, because we are afraid that rulers, created by our choice, dependent on our will, might endanger that liberty, by an abuse of the means necessary to its preservation.
Therefore, Hamilton’s discussion about standing armies is also as much a discussion about the importance of framing a constitution that meets the needs of the nation from the start, otherwise America risks the unity and safety that it seeks.
17 May 2018