The Propriety of the Standing Army:
Brutus versus Hamilton and Madison
The debates over the constitution between 1787 and 1788 dealt with many topics. One of the most harshly debated topics was over the Federalist faction seeking the existence of a standing army. The Anti-Federalist forces, led by Brutus, argued against it. This paper will summarize both arguments from the primary sources only, and then argue the opinion of the writer between them.
The Anti-Federalists were the defenders of liberty and decentralization. The basic argument here is that the standing army is, in itself, an attack on liberty. The government will then begin ruling not by consent, but by fear (Brutus, 1787, I). Once the state realizes that it does not need consent, it can rely on brute force to compel obedience. The Constitution will then be subverted by those who manage to gain control over the army for their own purposes.
Brutus quotes from a Mr. Putney, and his remarks mirror those of Brutus himself. Putney holds that the mentality of an army is radically different from the American mentality. The American is free, the soldier is not, the American challenged laws, the soldier blindly follows them, the American views politics as local, the soldier, as centralized, etc (Brutus, 1788, VII). The military mentality here, as such, is under attack as being to radically different from the average American. In consequence, the soldier becomes something other than an American, he becomes a foreigner because he lives under different rules and is a regimented being (Brutus, 1788, IX). The military mind, in other words, is not a free mind, and hence, not an American one.
As far as national defense is concerned, Brutus sweeps away the typical arguments for preparedness. First, he holds that any European army would have to traverse a great ocean to reach America, giving the US plenty of time to muster troops (Brutus, 1788, VII). Brutus is not opposed to the existence of a small police force that would guard the border and arsenals, and this would be the nucleus of an army in any kind of emergency (Brutus, 1788, X). This is as far as he will go in granting the Federal state any kind of military force. In other words, if the population needs to be coerced to obey, the state is already illegitimate.
Brutus also makes use of two historical examples, both challenged later by Hamilton. In Letter IX (1788), Brutus makes reference to both the end of the Roman Republic under Julius Caesar and the reversal of the victory of the “parliamentary” army under Cromwell and the Protectorate. Both of these are telling examples. Both of these show that an army controls the government, and in fact, chooses the government regardless of the consent of the population or the form of government employed. No one was more “democratically” minded than the Parliamentary forces under Cromwell, but once the latter had full power when his forces defeated the royalists, the Lord Protector ruled directly with military force. Hence, if such a democratically minded force could be so corrupted and so quickly, what chance does America have? The same is true among the Romans. The strong and prosperous republic was overthrown by the desire of a victorious army to place emperors in power, their own generals who they related to far greater than to the civilian politicians. These are serious challenges that must be met by the Federalist forces.
The bulk of the argumentation of the Federalists on the question of standing armies is done by Alexander Hamilton. He is largely responding to Brutus rather than creating arguments of his own. But the basic structure of the argument here is that first, the army is needed to be ready for any kind of invasion, and secondly, that the nature of the proposed constitution is such that a large and independent-minded force is not likely to be created or funded.
In a response to Brutus, Hamilton holds that the decentralized militias (“irregulars”) are a far greater threat to liberty than a disciplined army (Hamilton, 1787, VIII). If anything, the highly decentralized constitution demanded by the anti-Federalist forces will permit and demand not merely one standing army, but 13 (cf. Federalist LXXXV), since the states might begin fighting each other. Liberty is more to be feared from many small armies without central control than one central army funded by the representatives of the states. In both Federalist XVI and XXVIII Hamilton holds that the army raised by the Federal system is in fact raised by states that make up that system. Hence, there is no reason to hold that the states will permit the existence of a huge establishment that would threaten their interests and independence. Even more, any army that is raised by the Federal system will, if it becomes independent in its policies, will be challenged by the 13 militias raised by the states (Hamilton, 1788, XXVIII).
There are other barriers to the creation of a large and threatening Federal army. First, the fact that the armies will be funded not by the executive (as was the case in Brutus’ historical examples) but by the Legislature, specifically, the House of Representatives, the most representative of either house (Hamilton, 1788, XXIV). Furthermore, it will also be te case that an army should be raised and funded in specific terms, that is, in spaces of 2 years, for example, thereby maintaining a strong financial control over the armed forces. In addition, the states are authorized not merely to send representatives to fund the federal state, but further, are in charge of promoting officers, a strong check on the “independence” of an armed force. Lastly, Hamilton notes, that an armed citizenry will be the final check against an army gone out of control. A country filled with armed men is an unlikely target for a federal armed force (Hamilton, 1788, XXIX).
In Madison’s case (cf. Federalist XLI), he offers two arguments to supplement Hamilton. First, that the armies of Europe (and he is concerned with Spain and England) are large and well trained. The US cannot disband any kind of armed force while those predatory powers are still lurking, and some still on American soil (e.g. Florida or Canada). Second, Madison holds that a united citizenry will never have anything to fear from a standing army. In other words, a citizenry that is united in the defense of liberty can defeat all comers. Lastly, like Hamilton, Madison holds that a standing army should be under the strict supervision of the House in the duration of fixed terms for funding and mobilization. In other words, the House would pass bills that raise a small army for a period of two years, and two years later, that bill would be up for renewal. This would leave the necessary army completely dependent upon the House for support (Madison, 1788, XLI).
Insofar as the historical examples used by Brutus, Madison rejects them both, in that, in neither case, the Roman Republic or the Parliamentary forces in the English Civil War, was a real republic there to be defended. The Parliament in England was not a republican institution: I twas controlled by an handful of electors. The same with t he Roman Senate. Hence, these are not relevant examples in dealing with the armed forces of the nation. In both cases, the armies involved were part of a corrupt oligarchy. In the American case, this army will be under the control of an upright, agrarian citizenry who loves liberty.
While showing great respect for the Libertarians among the anti-Federalists, it seems clear today that the Federalist faction was correct. A strong, prepared and disciplined armed force, financed by the people’s representatives through the House of Representatives, is no danger to liberty, it in fact, defends it. The armies of the enemies of America, then or now, have no interest in abandoning their armed force, their predatory ways or their loathing of libertarianism. The arguments of Brutus need to be taken seriously, and it is precisely his love for liberty that forced the Federalist to put the armed services of America under strict civilian control, with a 200+ year record of non-involvement in politics.
Ketcham, Ralph, ed. The Anti-Federalist Papers and the Constitutional Convention Debates. Signet, 1986
Rossiter, Clinton, ed. The Federalist Papers. Signet, 2003.