On this day in 1787, Federalist Paper No. 26 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”) is still discussing standing armies. Yes — again! He’s continued this discussion for three papers in a row, which might seem tedious at first glance. But he has an underlying point to make, which remains critically important even today. Indeed, we discuss it constantly in the context of the NSA and similar efforts.
In short, how do you safely balance “the energy of government with the security of private rights”? How do you give the government enough power to defend the country, while ensuring that individual rights are respected?
Publius is honestly more trusting of the national government than many of us are today—and certainly more trusting than many of the anti-Federalists were in 1787. Please remember that he was facing the problem of a national government that was not powerful enough, whereas we face the opposite problem.
Publius argues that giving the legislature adequate power to defend the public is necessary, and “it is better to hazard the abuse of that confidence than to embarrass the government and endanger the public safety by impolitic restrictions on the legislative authority.”
At the end of the day, Publius relies upon a few factors to protect the public from intrusions on their liberty:
First, the power to raise and fund standing armies is left with a popularly elected legislature, as opposed to an executive who might use the army for oppressive purposes. Second, the Constitution provides that the military can be funded for only two years at a time. Thus, he assumes the matter will always be before the public: “As often as the question comes forward, the public attention will be roused and attracted to the subject . . . and if the majority should be really disposed to exceed the proper limits, the community will be warned of the danger.” Third, Publius relies upon the State legislatures to protect liberty when the national government assumes too much power. He believes that they will be “not only vigilant but suspicious and jealous guardians of the rights of the citizens against encroachments from the federal government.” Fourth, he relies upon the fact that big armies, which threaten liberty, cannot be instantly created. They are formed over time. Thus, it would require “not merely a temporary combination between the legislature and executive, but a continued conspiracy for a series of time.”
In short, to the degree that we feel our national government has become too invasive “for our own good” and “for national security,” this paper would suggest that the fault is entirely our own. We, the public (along with our state legislatures), watched it happen and did nothing to stop it.
Publius assumed that we would be better educated about constitutional principles and that we would be jealous guardians of our own liberty!
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).