The Idea of Restraining the Legislative Authority in Regard to the
Common Defense Considered
For the Independent Journal.
Saturday, December 22, 1788


To the People of the State of New York:

IT WAS a thing hardly to be expected that in a popular revolution the
minds of men should stop at that happy mean which marks the salutary
boundary between POWER and PRIVILEGE, and combines the energy of
government with the security of private rights. A failure in this
delicate and important point is the great source of the inconveniences
we experience, and if we are not cautious to avoid a repetition of the
error, in our future attempts to rectify and ameliorate our system, we
may travel from one chimerical project to another; we may try change
after change; but we shall never be likely to make any material change
for the better.

The idea of restraining the legislative authority, in the means of
providing for the national defense, is one of those refinements which
owe their origin to a zeal for liberty more ardent than enlightened. We
have seen, however, that it has not had thus far an extensive
prevalency; that even in this country, where it made its first
appearance, Pennsylvania and North Carolina are the only two States by
which it has been in any degree patronized; and that all the others have
refused to give it the least countenance; wisely judging that confidence
must be placed somewhere; that the necessity of doing it, is implied in
the very act of delegating power; and that 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. The opponents of the proposed Constitution combat, in this
respect, the general decision of America; and instead of being taught by
experience the propriety of correcting any extremes into which we may
have heretofore run, they appear disposed to conduct us into others
still more dangerous, and more extravagant. As if the tone of government
had been found too high, or too rigid, the doctrines they teach are
calculated to induce us to depress or to relax it, by expedients which,
upon other occasions, have been condemned or forborne. It may be
affirmed without the imputation of invective, that if the principles
they inculcate, on various points, could so far obtain as to become the
popular creed, they would utterly unfit the people of this country for
any species of government whatever. But a danger of this kind is not to
be apprehended. The citizens of America have too much discernment to be
argued into anarchy. And I am much mistaken, if experience has not
wrought a deep and solemn conviction in the public mind, that greater
energy of government is essential to the welfare and prosperity of the

It may not be amiss in this place concisely to remark the origin and
progress of the idea, which aims at the exclusion of military
establishments in time of peace. Though in speculative minds it may
arise from a contemplation of the nature and tendency of such
institutions, fortified by the events that have happened in other ages
and countries, yet as a national sentiment, it must be traced to those
habits of thinking which we derive from the nation from whom the
inhabitants of these States have in general sprung.

In England, for a long time after the Norman Conquest, the authority of
the monarch was almost unlimited. Inroads were gradually made upon the
prerogative, in favor of liberty, first by the barons, and afterwards by
the people, till the greatest part of its most formidable pretensions
became extinct. But it was not till the revolution in 1688, which
elevated the Prince of Orange to the throne of Great Britain, that
English liberty was completely triumphant. As incident to the undefined
power of making war, an acknowledged prerogative of the crown, Charles
II. had, by his own authority, kept on foot in time of peace a body of
5,000 regular troops. And this number James II. increased to 30,000; who
were paid out of his civil list. At the revolution, to abolish the
exercise of so dangerous an authority, it became an article of the Bill
of Rights then framed, that "the raising or keeping a standing army
within the kingdom in time of peace, UNLESS WITH THE CONSENT OF
PARLIAMENT, was against law."

In that kingdom, when the pulse of liberty was at its highest pitch, no
security against the danger of standing armies was thought requisite,
beyond a prohibition of their being raised or kept up by the mere
authority of the executive magistrate. The patriots, who effected that
memorable revolution, were too temperate, too wellinformed, to think of
any restraint on the legislative discretion. They were aware that a
certain number of troops for guards and garrisons were indispensable;
that no precise bounds could be set to the national exigencies; that a
power equal to every possible contingency must exist somewhere in the
government: and that when they referred the exercise of that power to
the judgment of the legislature, they had arrived at the ultimate point
of precaution which was reconcilable with the safety of the community.

From the same source, the people of America may be said to have derived
an hereditary impression of danger to liberty, from standing armies in
time of peace. The circumstances of a revolution quickened the public
sensibility on every point connected with the security of popular
rights, and in some instances raise the warmth of our zeal beyond the
degree which consisted with the due temperature of the body politic. The
attempts of two of the States to restrict the authority of the
legislature in the article of military establishments, are of the number
of these instances. The principles which had taught us to be jealous of
the power of an hereditary monarch were by an injudicious excess
extended to the representatives of the people in their popular
assemblies. Even in some of the States, where this error was not
adopted, we find unnecessary declarations that standing armies ought not
to be kept up, in time of peace, WITHOUT THE CONSENT OF THE LEGISLATURE.
I call them unnecessary, because the reason which had introduced a
similar provision into the English Bill of Rights is not applicable to
any of the State constitutions. The power of raising armies at all,
under those constitutions, can by no construction be deemed to reside
anywhere else, than in the legislatures themselves; and it was
superfluous, if not absurd, to declare that a matter should not be done
without the consent of a body, which alone had the power of doing it.
Accordingly, in some of these constitutions, and among others, in that
of this State of New York, which has been justly celebrated, both in
Europe and America, as one of the best of the forms of government
established in this country, there is a total silence upon the subject.

It is remarkable, that even in the two States which seem to have
meditated an interdiction of military establishments in time of peace,
the mode of expression made use of is rather cautionary than
prohibitory. It is not said, that standing armies SHALL NOT BE kept up,
but that they OUGHT NOT to be kept up, in time of peace. This ambiguity
of terms appears to have been the result of a conflict between jealousy
and conviction; between the desire of excluding such establishments at
all events, and the persuasion that an absolute exclusion would be
unwise and unsafe.

Can it be doubted that such a provision, whenever the situation of
public affairs was understood to require a departure from it, would be
interpreted by the legislature into a mere admonition, and would be made
to yield to the necessities or supposed necessities of the State? Let
the fact already mentioned, with respect to Pennsylvania, decide. What
then (it may be asked) is the use of such a provision, if it cease to
operate the moment there is an inclination to disregard it?

Let us examine whether there be any comparison, in point of efficacy,
between the provision alluded to and that which is contained in the new
Constitution, for restraining the appropriations of money for military
purposes to the period of two years. The former, by aiming at too much,
is calculated to effect nothing; the latter, by steering clear of an
imprudent extreme, and by being perfectly compatible with a proper
provision for the exigencies of the nation, will have a salutary and
powerful operation.

The legislature of the United States will be OBLIGED, by this provision,
once at least in every two years, to deliberate upon the propriety of
keeping a military force on foot; to come to a new resolution on the
point; and to declare their sense of the matter, by a formal vote in the
face of their constituents. They are not AT LIBERTY to vest in the
executive department permanent funds for the support of an army, if they
were even incautious enough to be willing to repose in it so improper a
confidence. As the spirit of party, in different degrees, must be
expected to infect all political bodies, there will be, no doubt,
persons in the national legislature willing enough to arraign the
measures and criminate the views of the majority. The provision for the
support of a military force will always be a favorable topic for
declamation. As often as the question comes forward, the public
attention will be roused and attracted to the subject, by the party in
opposition; and if the majority should be really disposed to exceed the
proper limits, the community will be warned of the danger, and will have
an opportunity of taking measures to guard against it. Independent of
parties in the national legislature itself, as often as the period of
discussion arrived, the State legislatures, who will always be not only
vigilant but suspicious and jealous guardians of the rights of the
citizens against encroachments from the federal government, will
constantly have their attention awake to the conduct of the national
rulers, and will be ready enough, if any thing improper appears, to
sound the alarm to the people, and not only to be the VOICE, but, if
necessary, the ARM of their discontent.

Schemes to subvert the liberties of a great community REQUIRE TIME to
mature them for execution. An army, so large as seriously to menace
those liberties, could only be formed by progressive augmentations;
which would suppose, not merely a temporary combination between the
legislature and executive, but a continued conspiracy for a series of
time. Is it probable that such a combination would exist at all? Is it
probable that it would be persevered in, and transmitted along through
all the successive variations in a representative body, which biennial
elections would naturally produce in both houses? Is it presumable, that
every man, the instant he took his seat in the national Senate or House
of Representatives, would commence a traitor to his constituents and to
his country? Can it be supposed that there would not be found one man,
discerning enough to detect so atrocious a conspiracy, or bold or honest
enough to apprise his constituents of their danger? If such presumptions
can fairly be made, there ought at once to be an end of all delegated
authority. The people should resolve to recall all the powers they have
heretofore parted with out of their own hands, and to divide themselves
into as many States as there are counties, in order that they may be
able to manage their own concerns in person.

If such suppositions could even be reasonably made, still the
concealment of the design, for any duration, would be impracticable. It
would be announced, by the very circumstance of augmenting the army to
so great an extent in time of profound peace. What colorable reason
could be assigned, in a country so situated, for such vast augmentations
of the military force? It is impossible that the people could be long
deceived; and the destruction of the project, and of the projectors,
would quickly follow the discovery.

It has been said that the provision which limits the appropriation of
money for the support of an army to the period of two years would be
unavailing, because the Executive, when once possessed of a force large
enough to awe the people into submission, would find resources in that
very force sufficient to enable him to dispense with supplies from the
acts of the legislature. But the question again recurs, upon what
pretense could he be put in possession of a force of that magnitude in
time of peace? If we suppose it to have been created in consequence of
some domestic insurrection or foreign war, then it becomes a case not
within the principles of the objection; for this is levelled against the
power of keeping up troops in time of peace. Few persons will be so
visionary as seriously to contend that military forces ought not to be
raised to quell a rebellion or resist an invasion; and if the defense of
the community under such circumstances should make it necessary to have
an army so numerous as to hazard its liberty, this is one of those
calamaties for which there is neither preventative nor cure. It cannot
be provided against by any possible form of government; it might even
result from a simple league offensive and defensive, if it should ever
be necessary for the confederates or allies to form an army for common

But it is an evil infinitely less likely to attend us in a united than
in a disunited state; nay, it may be safely asserted that it is an evil
altogether unlikely to attend us in the latter situation. It is not easy
to conceive a possibility that dangers so formidable can assail the
whole Union, as to demand a force considerable enough to place our
liberties in the least jeopardy, especially if we take into our view the
aid to be derived from the militia, which ought always to be counted
upon as a valuable and powerful auxiliary. But in a state of disunion
(as has been fully shown in another place), the contrary of this
supposition would become not only probable, but almost unavoidable.