Federalist 25 – Hamilton

I don’t do New Year’s resolutions, but I am going to try to make it my mission to post more regularly in general, but also to get through the Federalist Papers in a timelier manner, otherwise this series of posts will have occupied more time than the actual writing of the papers.

Anyway, with Federalist 25, Hamilton returns to the topic of national defense.  Previously he argued that the federal government was the proper place for the power of defense to be lodged.  In so doing, he rejects the idea that the states could handle this important duty.

It may perhaps be urged that the objects enumerated in the preceding number ought to be provided for by the State governments, under the direction of the Union. But this would be, in reality, an inversion of the primary principle of our political association, as it would in practice transfer the care of the common defense from the federal head to the individual members: a project oppressive to some States, dangerous to all, and baneful to the Confederacy.

I’ve highlighted the segment above because it is a very important point.  To Hamilton, and to most of his contemporaries in all likelihood, the primary purpose of government is to protect its citizens, and in the specific case of the federal government its primary purpose is to provide for the common defense.  This is a significant point of political theory about the proper role of government.

Hamilton proceeds to argue that individual states lack the requisite manpower to adequately defend their borders.  Certain states like New York are especially prone to foreign incursion and could not possibly be up to the task of defending itself, at least not without putting neighboring states at risk as well.  As he puts it:

The security of all would thus be subjected to the parsimony, improvidence, or inability of a part. If the resources of such part becoming more abundant and extensive, its provisions should be proportionally enlarged, the other States would quickly take the alarm at seeing the whole military force of the Union in the hands of two or three of its members, and those probably amongst the most powerful. They would each choose to have some counterpoise, and pretenses could easily be contrived. In this situation, military establishments, nourished by mutual jealousy, would be apt to swell beyond their natural or proper size; and being at the separate disposal of the members, they would be engines for the abridgment or demolition of the national authority.

Hamilton then makes an interesting point about vesting the power of national defense in the federal government as a means of keeping the citizens more vigilant.

Reasons have been already given to induce a supposition that the State governments will too naturally be prone to a rivalship with that of the Union, the foundation of which will be the love of power; and that in any contest between the federal head and one of its members the people will be most apt to unite with their local government. If, in addition to this immense advantage, the ambition of the members should be stimulated by the separate and independent possession of military forces, it would afford too strong a temptation and too great a facility to them to make enterprises upon, and finally to subvert, the constitutional authority of the Union. On the other hand, the liberty of the people would be less safe in this state of things than in that which left the national forces in the hands of the national government. As far as an army may be considered as a dangerous weapon of power, it had better be in those hands of which the people are most likely to be jealous than in those of which they are least likely to be jealous. For it is a truth, which the experience of ages has attested, that the people are always most in danger when the means of injuring their rights are in the possession of those of whom they entertain the least suspicion.

Because the people would be more attached to their local governments, that is precisely the reason not to entrust these entities with military power.  The natural jealousy of the federal government will put the people on guard against it to make sure it does not abuse its military power.

Hamilton turns to the objections against a standing army.  Critics of standing armies suggest that, at the very least, standing armies should be prohibited during times of peace.  As Hamilton points out, however, it will be difficult to judge when threats have sufficiently subsided to allow for the army to be disbanded.  Ultimately, this would be a judgment call of the national government, which in a sense will allow it an even greater ability to abuse its power.

This would be to admit that they might be kept up in time of peace, against threatening or impending danger, which would be at once to deviate from the literal meaning of the prohibition, and to introduce an extensive latitude of construction. Who shall judge of the continuance of the danger? This must undoubtedly be submitted to the national government, and the matter would then be brought to this issue, that the national government, to provide against apprehended danger, might in the first instance raise troops, and might afterwards keep them on foot as long as they supposed the peace or safety of the community was in any degree of jeopardy. It is easy to perceive that a discretion so latitudinary as this would afford ample room for eluding the force of the provision. The supposed utility of a provision of this kind can only be founded on the supposed probability, or at least possibility, of a combination between the executive and the legislative, in some scheme of usurpation. Should this at any time happen, how easy would it be to fabricate pretenses of approaching danger! Indian hostilities, instigated by Spain or Britain, would always be at hand. Provocations to produce the desired appearances might even be given to some foreign power, and appeased again by timely concessions. If we can reasonably presume such a combination to have been formed, and that the enterprise is warranted by a sufficient prospect of success, the army, when once raised, from whatever cause, or on whatever pretext, may be applied to the execution of the project.

Hamilton again displays an incredible ability to use the fears of his critics against them.  It would actually be worse, he argues, to prohibit raising a standing army during times of peace because the federal government could manufacture crises in order to justify overreaching.

On top of all this, it would be silly to prevent the country from being able to defend itself until it is too late.

If, to obviate this consequence, it should be resolved to extend the prohibition to the raising of armies in time of peace, the United States would then exhibit the most extraordinary spectacle which the world has yet seen, that of a nation incapacitated by its Constitution to prepare for defense, before it was actually invaded. As the ceremony of a formal denunciation of war has of late fallen into disuse, the presence of an enemy within our territories must be waited for, as the legal warrant to the government to begin its levies of men for the protection of the State. We must receive the blow, before we could even prepare to return it. All that kind of policy by which nations anticipate distant danger, and meet the gathering storm, must be abstained from, as contrary to the genuine maxims of a free government. We must expose our property and liberty to the mercy of foreign invaders, and invite them by our weakness to seize the naked and defenseless 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.

Aside from all this, the country cannot rely on the militias to act as the first line of defense.  Though he commends their service during the Revolutionary War, Hamilton states that even the militia members themselves would concede that the war would not have been won without a regular army.  Therefore, relying on the state militias to protect the country as a whole would put us all at severe risk.

Hamilton concludes with an interesting observation about restricting the government too tightly.  He provides historical and contemporary accounts of nations and states ignoring military provisions.  The Pennsylvania Bill of Rights, for example, declares that “standing armies are dangerous to liberty, and ought not to be kept up in time of peace.”  Yet the state, even during a time of peace,

from the existence of partial disorders in one or two of her counties, has resolved to raise a body of troops; and in all probability will keep them up as long as there is any appearance of danger to the public peace.

In the case of Massachusetts, it had to raise troops to put down Shays’s Rebellion.  This offers another lesson.

The particular constitution of Massachusetts opposed no obstacle to the measure; but the instance is still of use to instruct us that cases are likely to occur under our government, as well as under those of other nations, which will sometimes render a military force in time of peace essential to the security of the society, and that it is therefore improper in this respect to control the legislative discretion. It also teaches us, in its application to the United States, how little the rights of a feeble government are likely to be respected, even by its own constituents. And it teaches us, in addition to the rest, how unequal parchment provisions are to a struggle with public necessity.

Hamilton then cites a provision in the Lacedaemonian (Spartan) constitution barring any man from holding the post of admiral twice, and yet they circumvented this provision in order to allow Lysander to lead the Pelopennesian confederacy.  Based on this experience, Hamilton concludes:

This instance is selected from among a multitude that might be cited to confirm the truth already advanced and illustrated by domestic examples; which is, that nations pay little regard to rules and maxims calculated in their very nature to run counter to the necessities of society. Wise politicians will be cautious about fettering the government with restrictions that cannot be observed, because they know that every breach of the fundamental laws, though dictated by necessity, impairs that sacred reverence which ought to be maintained in the breast of rulers towards the constitution of a country, and forms a precedent for other breaches where the same plea of necessity does not exist at all, or is less urgent and palpable.

In short, it is absurd to shackle the government with prohibitions it cannot possibly observe.  The government will simply disregard these laws when necessary, making a joke of the constitution.  It is better to grant a somewhat broad array of powers that deal more effectively with reality.  If you do not grant a wide berth, the government will just ignore the limitations.  It is a rather startling argument, but it makes sense from a simple psychological perspective. In some ways it is like the overly strict parent who causes his child to rebel against all authority.  This is not an argument for government license, but rather a sensible call for a reasonable grant of power that is best left in the hands of the federal government.

Published in: on December 29, 2009 at 4:27 pm  Comments Off on Federalist 25 – Hamilton  
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