Anyone wondering about the intent of America’s founders on whether or not the U.S. ought to be participating in protracted foreign interventions has an easy reference to their thinking. The Army Clause in the U.S. Constitution says simply and plainly “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….” No appropriation should last longer than two years. Meaning the founders expected Congress to critically reassess such spending regularly. The meaning of that clause has been lost on serial appropriators who every year rubber-stamp continued involvement in myriad nations’ domestic struggles. Here on the Heritage Foundation web site you can read a detailed analysis of The Army Clause by Mackubin Owens of the U.S. Naval War College.
For most Americans after the Revolution, a standing army was one of the most dangerous threats to liberty. In thinking about the potential dangers of a standing army, the Founding generation had before them the precedents of Rome and England. In the first case, Julius Caesar marched his provincial army into Rome, overthrowing the power of the Senate, destroying the republic, and laying the foundation of empire. In the second, Cromwell used the army to abolish Parliament and to rule as dictator. In addition, in the period leading up to the Revolution, the British Crown had forced the American colonists to quarter and otherwise support its troops, which the colonists saw as nothing more than an army of occupation. Under British practice, the king was not only the commander in chief; it was he who raised the armed forces. The Framers were determined not to lodge the power of raising an army with the executive.
Many of the men who met in Philadelphia to draft the Constitution, however, had the experience of serving with the Continental Line, the army that ultimately bested the British for our independence. Founders like George Washington, James Madison, and Alexander Hamilton were also acutely aware of the dangers external enemies posed to the new republic. The British and Spanish were not only on the frontiers of the new nation. In many cases they were within the frontiers, allying with the Indians and attempting to induce frontier settlements to split off from the country. The recent Shays’s Rebellion in Massachusetts had also impelled the Framers to consider the possibility of local rebellion.
The “raise and support Armies” clause was the Framers’ solution to the dilemma. The Constitutional Convention accepted the need for a standing army but sought to maintain control by the appropriations power of Congress, which the Founders viewed as the branch of government closest to the people.
The compromise, however, did not satisfy the Anti-Federalists. They largely shared the perspective of James Burgh, who, in his Political Disquisitions (1774), called a “standing army in times of peace, one of the most hurtful, and most dangerous of abuses.” The Anti-Federalist paper A Democratic Federalist called a standing army “that great support of tyrants.” And Brutus, the most influential series of essays opposing ratification, argued that standing armies “are dangerous to the liberties of a people…not only because the rulers may employ them for the purposes of supporting themselves in any usurpation of powers, which they may see proper to exercise, but there is a great hazard, that any army will subvert the forms of government, under whose authority, they are raised, and establish one, according to the pleasure of their leader.” During the Virginia ratifying convention, George Mason exclaimed, “What havoc, desolation, and destruction, have been perpetrated by standing armies!” The Anti-Federalists would have preferred that the defense of the nation remain entirely with the state militias.
Read more here.
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