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The Federalist Papers No. 25

On this day in 1787, Federalist Paper No. 25 is published. The Federalist Papers are a collection of essays that were published in New York newspapers in late 1787 and early 1788. They argued FOR the new Constitution, then being considered for ratification by the states.

Alexander Hamilton (a.k.a. “Publius”) continues to argue that the national government should have power to raise a standing army, despite the general mistrust of such armies at that point in time.

The default back then, of course, was to give power to the state governments. So Publius tackles the question: Can state governments be responsible for standing armies, if and when they are needed? Publius argues “no.”

For one thing, the states are unevenly exposed to danger from foreign nations. (e.g., perhaps one state is close to a dangerous border, whereas another state is not.) This will put heavy financial obligations on some states, but not on others. It will also create a situation where some might be at risk if a border state does not invest properly in security. Publius summarizes the situation: “The security of all would thus be subjected to the parsimony, improvidence, or inability of a part.” Or, on the flip side, if one state invested heavily in security, such large armies might cause alarm in the other states. Would not the other States “quickly take the alarm at seeing the whole military force of the Union in the hands of two or three of its members”?

Publius notes the natural rivalry between the states and the national government: “[I]n any contest between the federal head and one of its members,” Publius observes, “the people will be most apt to unite with their local government.” This bias, combined with the existence of state-level military forces, will allow state governments to “subvert” the Union. The people’s liberty is safer if the army is under the control of the national government: The people are suspicious of the national government and will thus be on guard against encroachments on their liberty. By contrast, the people will be less suspicious of, and thus less on guard against, armies at the state level.

(Tangent: There it is again! That difference between 1787 Americans and 2014 Americans: They defaulted on state and individual responsibility. Too many modern Americans have the opposite default and seem to think that the national government can provide a cure for every woe.)

Assume, however, that a restriction on standing armies is to be created. Publius runs down a laundry list of problems that would arise in any attempt to define such a prohibition: “When armies are once raised what shall be denominated ‘keeping them up,’’ contrary to the sense of the Constitution? What time shall be requisite to ascertain the violation? Shall it be a week, a month, a year? Or shall we say they may be continued as long as the danger which occasioned their being raised continues? . . . Who shall judge of the continuance of the danger?” On the other hand, perhaps the prohibition would be made only on “raising” armies during times of peace. Such a rule still makes no sense. Should the nation be unable to prepare for its defense until such time as it is actually invaded? “We must receive the blow, before we could even prepare to return it”?

Publius concludes by noting instances in which an inadequate Constitution led governments to break their own law and to raise armies in times of public necessity. It is far better to write wise law in the first place. Publius observes, “[E]very 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.”

My post with more background on the Federalist Papers and their authorship can be found in the Federalist Paper No. 1 summary (see October 27 history post, here).