The Powers Necessary to the Common Defense Further Considered
For the Independent Journal.
Wednesday, December 19, 1787


To the People of the State of New York:

TO THE powers proposed to be conferred upon the federal government, in
respect to the creation and direction of the national forces, I have met
with but one specific objection, which, if I understand it right, is
this, that proper provision has not been made against the existence of
standing armies in time of peace; an objection which, I shall now
endeavor to show, rests on weak and unsubstantial foundations.

It has indeed been brought forward in the most vague and general form,
supported only by bold assertions, without the appearance of argument;
without even the sanction of theoretical opinions; in contradiction to
the practice of other free nations, and to the general sense of America,
as expressed in most of the existing constitutions. The proprietory of
this remark will appear, the moment it is recollected that the objection
under consideration turns upon a supposed necessity of restraining the
LEGISLATIVE authority of the nation, in the article of military
establishments; a principle unheard of, except in one or two of our
State constitutions, and rejected in all the rest.

A stranger to our politics, who was to read our newspapers at the
present juncture, without having previously inspected the plan reported
by the convention, would be naturally led to one of two conclusions:
either that it contained a positive injunction, that standing armies
should be kept up in time of peace; or that it vested in the EXECUTIVE
the whole power of levying troops, without subjecting his discretion, in
any shape, to the control of the legislature.

If he came afterwards to peruse the plan itself, he would be surprised
to discover, that neither the one nor the other was the case; that the
whole power of raising armies was lodged in the LEGISLATURE, not in the
EXECUTIVE; that this legislature was to be a popular body, consisting of
the representatives of the people periodically elected; and that instead
of the provision he had supposed in favor of standing armies, there was
to be found, in respect to this object, an important qualification even
of the legislative discretion, in that clause which forbids the
appropriation of money for the support of an army for any longer period
than two years a precaution which, upon a nearer view of it, will appear
to be a great and real security against the keeping up of troops without
evident necessity.

Disappointed in his first surmise, the person I have supposed would be
apt to pursue his conjectures a little further. He would naturally say
to himself, it is impossible that all this vehement and pathetic
declamation can be without some colorable pretext. It must needs be that
this people, so jealous of their liberties, have, in all the preceding
models of the constitutions which they have established, inserted the
most precise and rigid precautions on this point, the omission of which,
in the new plan, has given birth to all this apprehension and clamor.

If, under this impression, he proceeded to pass in review the several
State constitutions, how great would be his disappointment to find that
TWO ONLY of them[1] contained an interdiction of standing armies in
time of peace; that the other eleven had either observed a profound
silence on the subject, or had in express terms admitted the right of
the Legislature to authorize their existence.

Still, however he would be persuaded that there must be some plausible
foundation for the cry raised on this head. He would never be able to
imagine, while any source of information remained unexplored, that it
was nothing more than an experiment upon the public credulity, dictated
either by a deliberate intention to deceive, or by the overflowings of a
zeal too intemperate to be ingenuous. It would probably occur to him,
that he would be likely to find the precautions he was in search of in
the primitive compact between the States. Here, at length, he would
expect to meet with a solution of the enigma. No doubt, he would observe
to himself, the existing Confederation must contain the most explicit
provisions against military establishments in time of peace; and a
departure from this model, in a favorite point, has occasioned the
discontent which appears to influence these political champions.

If he should now apply himself to a careful and critical survey of the
articles of Confederation, his astonishment would not only be increased,
but would acquire a mixture of indignation, at the unexpected discovery,
that these articles, instead of containing the prohibition he looked
for, and though they had, with jealous circumspection, restricted the
authority of the State legislatures in this particular, had not imposed
a single restraint on that of the United States. If he happened to be a
man of quick sensibility, or ardent temper, he could now no longer
refrain from regarding these clamors as the dishonest artifices of a
sinister and unprincipled opposition to a plan which ought at least to
receive a fair and candid examination from all sincere lovers of their
country! How else, he would say, could the authors of them have been
tempted to vent such loud censures upon that plan, about a point in
which it seems to have conformed itself to the general sense of America
as declared in its different forms of government, and in which it has
even superadded a new and powerful guard unknown to any of them? If, on
the contrary, he happened to be a man of calm and dispassionate
feelings, he would indulge a sigh for the frailty of human nature, and
would lament, that in a matter so interesting to the happiness of
millions, the true merits of the question should be perplexed and
entangled by expedients so unfriendly to an impartial and right
determination. Even such a man could hardly forbear remarking, that a
conduct of this kind has too much the appearance of an intention to
mislead the people by alarming their passions, rather than to convince
them by arguments addressed to their understandings.

But however little this objection may be countenanced, even by
precedents among ourselves, it may be satisfactory to take a nearer view
of its intrinsic merits. From a close examination it will appear that
restraints upon the discretion of the legislature in respect to military
establishments in time of peace, would be improper to be imposed, and if
imposed, from the necessities of society, would be unlikely to be

Though a wide ocean separates the United States from Europe, yet there
are various considerations that warn us against an excess of confidence
or security. On one side of us, and stretching far into our rear, are
growing settlements subject to the dominion of Britain. On the other
side, and extending to meet the British settlements, are colonies and
establishments subject to the dominion of Spain. This situation and the
vicinity of the West India Islands, belonging to these two powers create
between them, in respect to their American possessions and in relation
to us, a common interest. The savage tribes on our Western frontier
ought to be regarded as our natural enemies, their natural allies,
because they have most to fear from us, and most to hope from them. The
improvements in the art of navigation have, as to the facility of
communication, rendered distant nations, in a great measure, neighbors.
Britain and Spain are among the principal maritime powers of Europe. A
future concert of views between these nations ought not to be regarded
as improbable. The increasing remoteness of consanguinity is every day
diminishing the force of the family compact between France and Spain.
And politicians have ever with great reason considered the ties of blood
as feeble and precarious links of political connection. These
circumstances combined, admonish us not to be too sanguine in
considering ourselves as entirely out of the reach of danger.

Previous to the Revolution, and ever since the peace, there has been a
constant necessity for keeping small garrisons on our Western frontier.
No person can doubt that these will continue to be indispensable, if it
should only be against the ravages and depredations of the Indians.
These garrisons must either be furnished by occasional detachments from
the militia, or by permanent corps in the pay of the government. The
first is impracticable; and if practicable, would be pernicious. The
militia would not long, if at all, submit to be dragged from their
occupations and families to perform that most disagreeable duty in times
of profound peace. And if they could be prevailed upon or compelled to
do it, the increased expense of a frequent rotation of service, and the
loss of labor and disconcertion of the industrious pursuits of
individuals, would form conclusive objections to the scheme. It would be
as burdensome and injurious to the public as ruinous to private
citizens. The latter resource of permanent corps in the pay of the
government amounts to a standing army in time of peace; a small one,
indeed, but not the less real for being small. Here is a simple view of
the subject, that shows us at once the impropriety of a constitutional
interdiction of such establishments, and the necessity of leaving the
matter to the discretion and prudence of the legislature.

In proportion to our increase in strength, it is probable, nay, it may
be said certain, that Britain and Spain would augment their military
establishments in our neighborhood. If we should not be willing to be
exposed, in a naked and defenseless condition, to their insults and
encroachments, we should find it expedient to increase our frontier
garrisons in some ratio to the force by which our Western settlements
might be annoyed. There are, and will be, particular posts, the
possession of which will include the command of large districts of
territory, and facilitate future invasions of the remainder. It may be
added that some of those posts will be keys to the trade with the Indian
nations. Can any man think it would be wise to leave such posts in a
situation to be at any instant seized by one or the other of two
neighboring and formidable powers? To act this part would be to desert
all the usual maxims of prudence and policy.

If we mean to be a commercial people, or even to be secure on our
Atlantic side, we must endeavor, as soon as possible, to have a navy. To
this purpose there must be dock-yards and arsenals; and for the defense
of these, fortifications, and probably garrisons. When a nation has
become so powerful by sea that it can protect its dock-yards by its
fleets, this supersedes the necessity of garrisons for that purpose; but
where naval establishments are in their infancy, moderate garrisons
will, in all likelihood, be found an indispensable security against
descents for the destruction of the arsenals and dock-yards, and
sometimes of the fleet itself.


1 This statement of the matter is taken from the printed collection of
State constitutions. Pennsylvania and North Carolina are the two which
contain the interdiction in these words: "As standing armies in time of
peace are dangerous to liberty, THEY OUGHT NOT to be kept up." This is, in truth, rather a CAUTION than a PROHIBITION. New Hampshire,
Massachusetts, Delaware, and Maryland have, in each of their bils of
rights, a clause to this effect: "Standing armies are dangerous to
liberty, and ought not to be raised or kept up WITHOUT THE CONSENT OF THE LEGISLATURE"; which is a formal admission of the authority of the Legislature. New York has no bills of rights, and her constitution says
not a word about the matter. No bills of rights appear annexed to the
constitutions of the other States, except the foregoing, and their
constitutions are equally silent. I am told, however that one or two
States have bills of rights which do not appear in this collection; but
that those also recognize the right of the legislative authority in this