Federalist 29 – Hamilton

Alexander Hamilton continues his series of papers concerning military matters with Federalist 29.  Here he turns his attention to the militia.  It is an essay that demonstrates how Hamilton’s own Revolutionary War experience influenced his thinking on such matters.  Hamilton and Washington frequently expressed their frustration with the military’s disorganization, and as such this is a subject near and dear to Hamilton’s heart.  This background informs Hamilton’s desire to create a centralized command structure, as explained in this first significant paragraph.

It requires no skill in the science of war to discern that uniformity in the organization and discipline of the militia would be attended with the most beneficial effects, whenever they were called into service for the public defense. It would enable them to discharge the duties of the camp and of the field with mutual intelligence and concert an advantage of peculiar moment in the operations of an army; and it would fit them much sooner to acquire the degree of proficiency in military functions which would be essential to their usefulness. This desirable uniformity can only be accomplished by confiding the regulation of the militia to the direction of the national authority. It is, therefore, with the most evident propriety, that the plan of the convention proposes to empower the Union to provide for organizing, arming, and disciplining the militia, and for governing such part of them as may be employed in the service of the United States, reserving to the states respectively the appointment of the officers, and the authority of training the militia according to the discipline prescribed by congress.

Hamilton bristles at criticism of this element of the Constitution, stating: “If a well-regulated militia be the most natural defense of a free country, it ought certainly to be under the regulation and at the disposal of that body which is constituted the guardian of the national security.”  As has been made manifest over the course of the preceding essays, Hamilton considers national defense one of if not the most important matter concerning the federal government.  The absence of a centralized authority controlling this defense force would weaken and imperil the Nation.

Next, Hamilton calls out his opponents for holding to a double standard.

The same persons who tell us in one breath, that the powers of the federal government will be despotic and unlimited, inform us in the next, that it has not authority sufficient even to call out the posse comitatus. The latter, fortunately, is as much short of the truth as the former exceeds it. It would be as absurd to doubt, that a right to pass all laws necessary and proper to execute its declared powers, would include that of requiring the assistance of the citizens to the officers who may be intrusted with the execution of those laws, as it would be to believe, that a right to enact laws necessary and proper for the imposition and collection of taxes would involve that of varying the rules of descent and of the alienation of landed property, or of abolishing the trial by jury in cases relating to it. It being therefore evident that the supposition of a want of power to require the aid of the posse comitatus is entirely destitute of color, it will follow, that the conclusion which has been drawn from it, in its application to the authority of the federal government over the militia, is as uncandid as it is illogical. What reason could there be to infer, that force was intended to be the sole instrument of authority, merely because there is a power to make use of it when necessary? What shall we think of the motives which could induce men of sense to reason in this manner? How shall we prevent a conflict between charity and judgment?

As would be the case in future constitutional disputes, Hamilton places much stock in the “necessary and proper” clause.  His interpretation of it is much more expansive than that of Madison, and would lead to conflict between the two during the Washington administration with regards to the National Bank.  Here again Hamilton expresses a very generous reading of the clause to permit what seems to be a rather extra-constitutional grant of power to the Executive.

Hamilton also dismisses fears that the militia could be turned into an outfit used by a would-be tyrant.  Hamilton embarks upon a discourse that explains that the militia will be comprised of part-time soldiers.  They will be principally dedicated to their personal affairs, and as such will not have substantial time to be set aside in one place in order to be trained, and if they are detained for any great period of time that will prove to be a drain on the country’s productive resources.  This is of course written at a time when the United States was principally an agricultural society consisting of a fairly small population.

That being the case, there will be a need for some elite cadre to stand ready at the helm in case of national emergency.

“But though the scheme of disciplining the whole nation must be abandoned as mischievous or impracticable; yet it is a matter of the utmost importance that a well-digested plan should, as soon as possible, be adopted for the proper establishment of the militia. The attention of the government ought particularly to be directed to the formation of a select corps of moderate extent, upon such principles as will really fit them for service in case of need. By thus circumscribing the plan, it will be possible to have an excellent body of well-trained militia, ready to take the field whenever the defense of the State shall require it. This will not only lessen the call for military establishments, but if circumstances should at any time oblige the government to form an army of any magnitude that army can never be formidable to the liberties of the people while there is a large body of citizens, little, if at all, inferior to them in discipline and the use of arms, who stand ready to defend their own rights and those of their fellow-citizens. This appears to me the only substitute that can be devised for a standing army, and the best possible security against it, if it should exist.”

Hamilton further dismisses fears about the militia being used for tyrannical purposes by employing a quasi-populist bit of rhetoric.

There is something so far-fetched and so extravagant in the idea of danger to liberty from the militia, that one is at a loss whether to treat it with gravity or with raillery; whether to consider it as a mere trial of skill, like the paradoxes of rhetoricians; as a disingenuous artifice to instil prejudices at any price; or as the serious offspring of political fanaticism. Where in the name of common-sense, are our fears to end if we may not trust our sons, our brothers, our neighbors, our fellow-citizens? What shadow of danger can there be from men who are daily mingling with the rest of their countrymen and who participate with them in the same feelings, sentiments, habits and interests? What reasonable cause of apprehension can be inferred from a power in the Union to prescribe regulations for the militia, and to command its services when necessary, while the particular States are to have the sole and exclusive appointment of the officers? If it were possible seriously to indulge a jealousy of the militia upon any conceivable establishment under the federal government, the circumstance of the officers being in the appointment of the States ought at once to extinguish it. There can be no doubt that this circumstance will always secure to them a preponderating influence over the militia.

It’s certainly a noble argument, and considering that Hamilton was a veteran himself who held warm affection for his fellow soldier, he almost undoubtedly would have been somewhat offended by the notion that soldiers would ever become tools of a tyrant.  What’s striking is that such a sentiment fly somewhat in the face of Hamilton’s own warnings that people do wrong even when they intend not to, and such thinking as expressed above seems to preclude the possibility that militia members could induced into believing that they are following a worthy cause even when they are not.

I also find the following paragraph a touch ironic.

In reading many of the publications against the Constitution, a man is apt to imagine that he is perusing some ill-written tale or romance, which instead of natural and agreeable images, exhibits to the mind nothing but frightful and distorted shapes Gorgons, hydras, and chimeras dire; discoloring and disfiguring whatever it represents, and transforming everything it touches into a monster.

Hamilton mocks the Constitution’s opponents for fear-mongering, yet he was no stranger to engaging in a bit of hyperbole in order to persuade fellow citizens of the absolute need to ratify the Constitution.  It’s a tradition that has indeed extended to this very day – namely accusing your opponents of doing precisely the same thing you’re doing.  That doesn’t mean that Hamilton was wrong, just that it is a bit funny to see this considering the source.

At any rate, Hamilton concludes by further dismissing what he feels are over-exaggerated claims about potential militia misdeeds.  And with that, Hamilton concludes his series on military matters, and will turn in the next paper to to the other matter near and dear to his heart: taxation and finance.

Published in: on April 9, 2010 at 2:32 pm  Comments Off on Federalist 29 – Hamilton  
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