Federalist No.26

The Idea of Restraining The Legislative Authority In Regard To The Common Defense Considered

Saturday, December 22, 1787

Alexander Hamilton


This paper builds upon a point made in Federalist No.25, that it is necessary to place trust in a government. In my notes on that paper I tried to separate the natural inclination to be cynical towards governments that modern society experiences from the argument Hamilton was making. In this paper Hamilton furthers the argument that a government needs to be trusted, and that a well-written constitution can provide the checks and balances for that to happen.


The issue is still the question of whether the Federal Government should have the power to maintain a standing army in times of peace. Hamilton argues in the affirmative and states, that a power equal to every possible contingency must exist somewhere in the government. For Hamilton, that somewhere lies with Congress, the legislative arm of government.


He makes a comparison with England, which by a long historical process diminished the king’s right to raise and keep armies until the revolution which made the consent of parliament necessary. Hamilton is making a direct correlation with the American system, the king being akin to the executive magistrate, or President, while parliament equates with Congress.


Hamilton points out that only two States, Pennsylvania and North Carolina, prohibit standing armies (an issue he addresses in the previous paper, regarding the danger to the Constitution of having to override this prohibition), while the declaration by other States that standing armies ought not to be kept up, in time of peace, without the consent of the legislature to be superfluous, if not absurd, to declare that a matter should not be done without the consent of a body, which alone had the power of doing it. His point is that the declaration is not needed since America does not have the same history as England, given that it is writing its constitution anew, while the English had to assume those rights for parliament.


Hamilton points out that the proposed constitution has a check against the fears that a long-standing army in times of peace had the potential to threaten liberty. The new Constitution allows for the appropriation of funds for an army for two years only. Hamilton argues that this gives the House of Representatives and Senate the power to question and curtail funds to a standing army, thereby giving the system needed oversight. Regular elections would make it unlikely that any conspiracy would ever allow anyone with a long-term goal to make the army their instrument, nor was it likely that a conspiracy would long go unnoticed. Added to this, it would be unlikely that an army large enough to act independent of funds from the legislative body could be formed. Hamilton concedes that it might happen in times of war or insurrection, but that circumstance is outside the parameters of the debate, which discusses only armies during times of peace, and would likely mean circumstances were beyond the power of a constitution to address it, anyway.


What all this argument boils down to is that a population must trust its elected government to govern on its behalf, and that to keep the nation safe, it must have a standing army, even in times of peace. The alternative is a population that does not trust its government, and Hamilton argues that a people who cannot trust their government are not fit to be governed:

It may be affirmed without the imputation of invective, that if the principles they [those opposed to the legislative’s power to authorise a standing army in times of peace], on various points, could so far obtain as to become the popular creed, they would utterly unfit the people of this country for any species of government whatever.

This is the argument that underlies all Hamilton has to say on this matter in this paper. That if people believed the two-year restriction upon the allocation of funds for standing armies was not sufficient oversight, that if they believed a conspiracy against the people could be formulated within the democracy and that no one would notice or bother to call it out, then there is no point in a Federal Government:

If such presumptions can fairly be made, there ought at once to be an end of all delegated authority. The people should resolve to recall all the powers they have heretofore parted with out of their own hands, and to divide themselves into as many States as there are counties, in order that they may be able to manage their own concerns in person.

Hamilton’s argument recognises that the act of government is a compact between the government and its people. That power is ceded to those who govern on behalf of the people, and that to limit the trust that that implies calls into question the very basis upon which a government is formed and by which a national identity is forged.

18 May 2018