The Anti-Federalists on Standing Armies

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“He has kept among us, in times of peace, Standing Armies without the Consent of our legislatures.” ~ Declaration of Independence

The opponents of the Constitution, which history has mischaracterized as Anti-Federalists, had numerous reasons for rejecting the proposed Constitution. Although their central argument concerned the danger to liberty from a strong central government, they also wrote extensively against the Constitution’s provision for a standing army and federal control over the militia.

In Article I, Section 8, of the Constitution, it states that The Congress shall have Power

To raise and support Armies, but no Appropriation of Money to that Use shall be for a longer Term than two Years;

To provide and maintain a Navy;

To make Rules for the Government and Regulation of the land and naval Forces;

To provide for calling forth the Militia to execute the Laws of the Union, suppress Insurrections and repel Invasions;

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;

The Anti-Federalists Were Opposed to a Standing Army in Peacetime

The Anti-Federalist who called himself “Centinel” wrote a series of letters that appeared in the Philadelphia Independent Gazetteer in late 1787 and early 1788. He referred to standing armies in his second letter as “that grand engine of oppression.”

The “Federal Farmer” wrote a series of letters that were published in the Poughkeepsie Country Journal in late 1787 and early 1788. In his third letter, he lamented that under the new Constitution Congress “will have unlimited power to raise armies, and to engage officers and men for any number of years.” He then voiced his objection to standing armies:

I see so many men in American fond of a standing army, and especially among those who probably will have a large share in administering the federal system; it is very evident to me, that we shall have a large standing army as soon as the monies to support them can be possibly found. An army is not a very agreeable place of employment for the young gentlemen of many families.

He also stated in his thirteenth letter that “we all agree, that a large standing army has a strong tendency to depress and inslave the people.”

Essays signed “Old Whig” also appeared in Philadelphia’s Independent Gazetteer the same time as the letters from the “Federal Farmer.” In his second essay, he remarked that “this generation in America have seen enough of war and its usual concomitants to prevent all of us from wishing to see any more of it; — all except those who make a trade of war.” In his fifth essay, in the course of explaining how rulers can violate the rights of conscience, “Old Whig” stated that “the unlimited power of taxation will give them the command of all the treasures of the continent; a standing army will be wholly at their devotion.”

“Cato” wrote a series of letters that appeared in the New York Journal between September 1787 and January 1788. One of his complaints against the proposed new government was that “standing armies may be established, and appropriation of money made for their support, for two years.”

Those in the Pennsylvania ratification convention who objected to the proposed Constitution published their views in the Pennsylvania Packet and Daily Advertiser on December 18, 1787, as The Address and Reasons of Dissent of the Minority of the Convention of Pennsylvania to Their Constituents. In their address, these Pennsylvania delegates remarked that one of the helps to Congress completing “the system of despotism” is “when a numerous standing army shall render opposition vain.” The delegates in the minority also stated that in case the new government “must be executed by force,” the framers of the Constitution “have therefore made a provision for this purpose in a permanent STANDING ARMY, and a MILITIA that may be subjected to as strict discipline and government.” They objected to a standing army because

A standing army in the hands of a government placed so independent of the people, may be made a fatal instrument to overturn the public liberties; it may be employed to enforce the collection of the most oppressive taxes, and to carry into execution the most arbitrary measures. An ambitious man who may have the army at his devotion, may step up into the throne, and seize upon absolute power.

The Anti-Federalist who signed his 1788 essays in the Baltimore Maryland Gazette “A Farmer” gave historical examples in his second essay to show that “both political and civil liberty have long since ceased to exist in almost all the countries that now employ standing troops, and that their slavery has in every instance been effected and maintained by the instrumentality and invariable obedience of these living machines to their chief.” He mentions not only that in England “a standing army is declared to be contrary to their constitution, and a militia the only natural and safe defense of a free people,” but also that in America “the constitutions of all the States positively forbid any standing troops at all, much less laws for them.” For example:

Massachusetts: “And as in times of peace, armies are dangerous to liberty, they ought not to be maintained without the consent of the legislature.”

Pennsylvania & North Carolina: “And as standing armies in the time of peace, are dangerous to liberty, they ought not to be kept up.”

Maryland & Delaware: “That standing armies are dangerous to liberty, and ought not to be raised or kept without consent of the legislature.”

“A Farmer” also mused in this essay: “I was persuaded that the grave would have closed on my bones, before this question would be publicly proposed in America. — Are we then to look up to a standing army for the defence of this soil from foreign invasion?” In his sixth essay, he included as a “great and manifest” defect in the proposed government “the manifest danger to public liberty from a standing army, without limitation of number, in time of peace.”

The Anti-Federalist who used the name of “John DeWitt” wrote extensively about the evils of standing armies in a series of essays published in the Boston American Herald in late 1787:

They shall have also the power of raising, supporting and establishing a standing army in time of peace in your several towns, and I see not why in your several houses.”

Where lies the security of the people? What assurances have they that either their taxes will not be exacted but in the greatest emergencies, and then sparingly, or that standing armies will be raised and supported for the very plausible purpose only of cantoning them upon their frontiers? There is but one answer to these questions. — They have none.

The advocates at the present day, for a standing army in the New Congress pretend it is necessary for the respectability of government. I defy them to produce an instance in any country, in the Old or New World, where they have not finally done away the liberties of the people. — Every writer upon government, — Lock, Sidney, Hamden, and a list of other have uniformly asserted, that standing armies are a solecism in any government; that no nation ever supported them, that did not resort to, rely upon, and finally become a prey to them.

It is universally agreed, that a militia and a standing body of troops never yet flourished in the same soil. Tyrants have uniformly depended upon the latter, at the expense of the former. Experience has taught them, that a standing body of regular forces, where ever they can be completely introduced, are always efficacious in enforcing their edicts, however arbitrary.

There is no instance of any government being reduced to a confirmed tyranny without military oppression; and the first policy of tyrants has been to annihilate all other means of national activity and defence, and to rely solely upon standing troops.

It is very true, that the celebrated Mr. Wilson, a member of the Convention, and who we may suppose breathes, in some measure, the spirit of that body, tells you, it [a standing army] is for the purpose of forming cantonments upon your frontiers, and for the dignity and safety of your country, as it respects foreign nations. No man that loves his country could object to their being raised for the first of these causes, but for the last it cannot be necessary. GOD has so separated us by an extensive ocean from the rest of mankind, he hath so liberally endowed us with privileges, and so abundantly taught us to esteem them precious, it would be impossible, while we retain our integrity and advert to first principles, for any nation whatever to subdue us.

DeWitt also equated the “revenue, excise, impost and stamp officers” that would be introduced under the new Constitution with a standing army.

Patrick Henry (1736—1799), in his June 5 speech in the Virginia ratifying convention against adopting the Constitution, likewise denigrated standing armies: “A standing army we shall have, also, to execute the execrable commands of tyranny; and how are you to punish them? Will you order them to be punished? Who shall obey these orders? Will your mace-bearer be a match for a disciplined regiment?”

“Brutus” wrote more about the evils of standing armies than any other Anti-Federalist. Sixteen of his essays were published in the New York Journal from October 1787 to April 1788. In four of these essays (numbers 1, 8, 9, 10), he explains how the establishment and maintenance of standing armies breeds fear, is destructive to liberty, and should be viewed as a scourge to a country instead of a benefit. Since I have already explored at length the opinions of “Brutus” on this subject in a previous article (“Brutus on the Evils of Standing Armies“), I only present here something he said in his ninth essay on this subject:

That standing armies are dangerous to the liberties of a people was proved in my last number — If it was necessary, the truth of the position might be confirmed by the history of almost every nation in the world. A cloud of the most illustrious patriots of every age and country, where freedom has been enjoyed, might be adduced as witnesses in support of the sentiment. But I presume it would be useless, to enter into a laboured argument, to prove to the people of America, a position, which has so long and so generally been received by them as a kind of axiom.

The “Impartial Examiner” wrote essays for the Virginia Independent Chronicle in 1788. He twice refers to standing armies in his first essay:

It has ever been held that standing armies in times of peace are dangerous to a free country; and no observation seems to contain more reason in it. Besides being useless, as having no object of employment, they are inconvenient and expensive. The soldiery, who are generally composed of the dregs of the people, when disbanded, or unfit for military service, being equally unfit for any other employment, become extremely burthensome. As they are a body of men exempt from the common occupations of social life, having an interest different from the rest of the community, they wanton in the lap of ease and indolence, without feeling the duties, which arise from the political connection, though drawing their subsistence from the bosom of the state. The severity of discipline necessary to be observed reduces them to a degree of slavery; the unconditional submission to the commands of their superiors, to which they are bound, renders them the fit instruments of tyranny and oppression. — Hence they have in all ages afforded striking examples of contributing, more or less, to enslave mankind; — and whoever will take the trouble to examine, will find that by far the greater part of the different nations, who have fallen from the glorious state of liberty, owe their ruin to standing armies.

You will advert to the dangerous and oppressive consequences, that may ensue from the introduction of standing armies in times of peace; those baneful engines of ambition, against which free nations have always guarded with the greatest degree of caution.

The Anti-Federalists Were Opposed to Federal Control over the Militia

The “Impartial Examiner,” in his first essay, referenced above, explained his preference for a militia over a standing army:

It has been urged that they are necessary to provide against sudden attacks. Would not a well regulated militia, duly trained to discipline, afford ample security? Such, I conceive, to be the best, the surest means of protection, which a free people can have when not actually engaged in war. This kind of defence is attended with two advantages superior to any others; first, when it is necessary to embody an army, they at once form a band of soldiers, whose interests are uniformly the same with those of the whole community, and in whose safety they see involved every thing that is dear to themselves: secondly, if one army is cut off, another may be immediately raised already trained for military service. By a policy, somewhat similar to this, the Roman empire rose to the highest pitch of grandeur and magnificence.

What did the Anti-Federalists mean by a militia?

In the Virginia Declaration of Rights, which was written by George Mason (1725—1792) and adopted by the Virginia Constitutional Convention in 1776, it states:

That a well-regulated militia, composed of the body of the people, trained to arms, is the proper, natural, and safe defense of a free state; that standing armies, in time of peace, should be avoided as dangerous to liberty; and that in all cases the military should be under strict subordination to, and governed by, the civil power.

The militia was always regarded as such until the Militia Act of 1903, which created the modern National Guard, and the rise of gun-control advocates, who try to keep guns out of the hands of the citizenry by redefining the Second Amendment as merely affirming the states’ right to form National Guard-like militias. But the militia, as it is still defined in Title 10 of the U.S. Code, “consists of all able-bodied males at least 17 years of age and, except as provided in section 313 of title 32, under 45 years of age who are, or who have made a declaration of intention to become, citizens of the United States and of female citizens of the United States who are members of the National Guard.”

A well-regulated and well-armed militia under the control of the several states was viewed by the Anti-Federalists as being essential to secure the liberties of the people. They opposed not only a regular standing army, but also a federalized militia that would serve the same function.

In his fifth essay, referred to above, the Anti-Federalist who called himself “Old Whig” stated that our future rulers can invade our rights of conscience because of

the authority which is given them over the militia, by virtue of which they may, if they please, change all the officers of the militia on the continent in one day, and put in new officers whom they can better trust; by which they can subject all the militia to strict military laws, and punish the disobedient with death, or otherwise, as they shall think right: by which they can march the militia back and forward from one end of the continent to the other, at their discretion.

But “Old Whig” had another problem with federal control over the militia:

Let us instance one thing arising from this right of organizing and governing the militia. Suppose a man alledges that he is conscientiously scrupulous of bearing Arms. — By the bill of rights of Pennsylvania he is bound only to pay an equivalent for his personal service. — What is there in the new proposed constitution to prevent his being dragged like a Prussian soldier to the camp and there compelled to bear arms?

The “Federal Farmer,” in his eighteenth and last letter, which was published in the Poughkeepsie Country Journal in January of 1788, argued that only state militias could protect the powers and liberties of the states against a federal government with a standing army. He believed that “the powers to form and arm the militia, to appoint their officers, and to command their services, are very important; nor ought they in a confederated republic to be lodged, solely, in any one member of the government.” To put a check on the federal government, “the militia of any state shall not remain in the service of the union, beyond a given period, without the express consent of the state legislature.”

The Address of the minority in the Pennsylvania ratification convention was very strongly opposed to federal control over state militias:

The absolute unqualified command that Congress have over the militia may be made instrumental to the destruction of all liberty, both public and private; whether of a personal, civil or religious nature.

First, the personal liberty of every man, probably from sixteen to sixty years of age, may be destroyed by the power Congress have in organizing and governing of the militia. As militia they may be subjected to fines to any amount, levied in a military manner; they may be subjected to corporal punishments of the most disgraceful and humiliating kind; and to death itself, by the sentence of a court martial. To this our young men will be more immediately subjected, as a select militia, composed of them, will best answer the purposes of government.

Secondly, the rights of conscience may be violated, as there is no exemption of those persons who are conscientiously scrupulous of hearing arms. These compose a respectable proportion of the community in the state. This is the more remarkable, because even when the distresses of the late war and the evident disaffection of many citizens of that description inflamed our passions, and when every person who was obliged to risk his own life must have been exasperated against such as on any account kept back from the common danger, yet even then, when outrage and violence might have been expected, the rights of conscience were held sacred.

Thirdly, the absolute command of Congress over the militia may be destructive of public liberty; for under the guidance of an arbitrary government, they may be made the unwilling instruments of tyranny. The militia of Pennsylvania may be marched to New England or Virginia to quell an insurrection occasioned by the most galling oppression, and aided by the standing army, they will no doubt be successful in subduing their liberty and independency. But in so doing, although the magnanimity of their minds will be extinguished, yet the meaner passions of resentment and revenge will be increased, and these in turn will be the ready and obedient instruments of despotism to enslave the others; and that with an irritated vengeance. Thus may the militia be made the instruments of crushing the last efforts of expiring liberty, of riveting the chains of despotism on their fellow-citizens, and on one another. This power can be exercised not only without violating the Constitution, but in strict conformity with it; it is calculated for this express purpose, and will doubtless be executed accordingly.

These Pennsylvania delegates closed their arguments against the Constitution by offering fourteen propositions to their state convention. The eleventh one concerns the subject at hand:

That the power of organizing, arming and disciplining the militia (the manner of disciplining the militia to be prescribed by Congress) remain with the individual states, and that Congress shall not have authority to call or march any of the militia out of their own state, without the consent of such state, and for such length of time only as such state shall agree.

The Anti-Federalists Were Not Alone

It is not just the Anti-Federalists who were opposed to standing armies. James Madison, “The Father of the Constitution,” voiced his concern as well:

A standing military force, with an overgrown Executive will not long be safe companions to liberty. The means of defence against foreign danger, have been always the instruments of tyranny at home. Among the Romans it was a standing maxim to excite a war, whenever a revolt was apprehended. Throughout all Europe, the armies kept up under the pretext of defending, have enslaved the people.

Of all the enemies to public liberty, war is perhaps the most to be dreaded because it comprises and develops the germ of every other. War is the parent of armies; from these proceed debts and taxes; and armies, and debts, and taxes are the known instruments for bringing the many under the domination of the few.

Thomas Jefferson not only included standing armies in the Declaration of Independence as a component of British tyranny, he likewise despairingly described them elsewhere:

There are instruments so dangerous to the rights of the nation and which place them so totally at the mercy of their governors that those governors, whether legislative or executive, should be restrained from keeping such instruments on foot but in well-defined cases. Such an instrument is a standing army.

Were armies to be raised whenever a speck of war is visible in our horizon, we never should have been without them. Our resources would have been exhausted on dangers which have never happened, instead of being reserved for what is really to take place.

Nor is it conceived needful or safe that a standing army should be kept up in time of peace.

Newspapers editorialized after the American Revolution against standing armies, referring to them as “that great support of tyrants” and as a “manifest danger to public liberty.” This is because, as Lew Rockwell has well said, “America was born in love of liberty and opposition to a standing army. The two go together.”

The Evil of a Standing Army

The contemporary historian of the American Revolution, Mercy Otis Warren, in her History of the Rise, Progress, and Termination of the American Revolution (1805), described the true beginning of the American Revolution as when British troops arrived in Boston in 1768: “The troops arrived from Halifax. This was indeed a painful era. The American war may be dated from this hostile act; a day which marks with infamy the councils of Great Britain.”

Yet, the Federalist President Washington federalized the militia to suppress the 1794 Whiskey Rebellion, substituting an American army for a British one, and the Union Army occupied the South after the so-called Civil War. Advocates of a large standing army generally consider the former to be an isolated incident and the latter to be justified. Some even point to the Posse Comitatus Act of 1878, which limits the power of the national government to use the military for law enforcement purposes. True, but except when troops are used to quell domestic violence, except when troops are participating in the war on drugs, except when troops are engaged in homeland security activities, except when troops are used in major public emergencies, except when troops are utilized in the fight against illegal immigration, and except when troops are employed in fighting terrorism.

Proponents of a standing army are forgetting that governments have used standing armies, not just at home, but abroad as well. Both are equally destructive to liberty, for foreign wars demand enormous expenditures of the taxpayers’ money, require the sacrifice of life or limb of thousands of the country’s young men, and result in the suppression of civil liberties at home. This is why labor leader Samuel Gompers, a member of the Anti-Imperialist League, formed in 1898 in the midst of the Spanish-American War, could say:

I propose stating as succinctly as possible the grounds of our opposition to the so-called policy of imperialism and expansion. We cannot annex the Philippines without a large increase in our standing army. A large standing army is repugnant to republican institutions and a menace to the liberty of our own people. If we annex the Philippines, we shall have to conquer the Filipinos by force of arms, and thereby deny to them what we claim to ourselves — the right to self-government.

Rather than America’s military heritage being one of how the military has defended the country from attack, it is instead one of invasion, destabilization, occupation, subjugation, oppression, death, and destruction. Instead of the U.S. military defending our freedoms, the military has been at once the world’s policeman, fireman, social worker, bully, and busybody. Rather than the presence of the U.S. military guaranteeing peace and stability throughout the world, the presence of the U.S. military more often than not is the cause of war and instability around the globe. Instead of existing to defend the country, U.S. troops exist to serve as the president’s personal attack force, ready to obey his latest command to deploy to any country for any reason.

There are over 700 U.S. military bases on foreign soil. There are U.S. troops stationed in 159 different regions of the world in every corner of the globe. Foreign military bases and the stationing of troops abroad are for offensive military actions, not defensive ones. U.S. troops need to come home and then go home. But only a change in U.S. foreign policy can stop the evil that is America’s standing army.

All quotations from the Anti-Federalists are taken from Regnery edition of The Anti-Federalists: Selected Writings and Speeches, edited by Bruce Frohnen.

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