What are standing armies? What purpose does a standing military serve?
Standing armies are military forces of a nation. They remain in effect even if the country isn’t actively involved in a war or armed conflict.
Read more about the need for standing armies and what the Constitution says about them.
Standing Armies and the National Defense
The most important purpose of any government is to secure peace and protect its people from internal and external threats. Therefore, maintaining armed forces is essential to the survival of a nation.
Accordingly, the federal government under the Constitution would have the power to raise and equip armed forces. This was vitally important for the young United States. Although separated from Europe by the Atlantic Ocean, the US maintained frontiers with the colonial possessions of Britain, France, and Spain, not to mention the Indian nations that frequently allied with these European powers. Given the mutual hostilities between these powers and their competition for the untapped resources of the American West, it was not inconceivable that these nations could combine to make war on the US.
The only way the US could survive was through the creation of a standing army. Given their experience with British occupation during the Revolutionary War, however, this was something about which Americans of the time had great apprehension.
But the creation of standing armies in peacetime was not something to be feared, nor had it ever been explicitly prohibited, either by the Articles of Confederation or by the state constitutions themselves. Provisions prohibiting the national legislature from raising an army in peacetime were foolish because they left the country vulnerable to attack. The country would only be able to respond with force after it had been subjected to an assault.
Against a Standing Military
The proponents of disunion feared the encroachments of strong central government, most dreadfully represented by the institution of standing armies. But disunion wouldn’t prevent the formation of standing armies—in fact, it would all but guarantee it.
If the Union were to devolve into a smaller set of rival confederacies, each of those confederacies would be faced with the constant threat of military encroachment by the others. Under such circumstances, it would become necessary for each of them to raise standing armies, to be ready to defend their nation at a moment’s notice. This would again transform America into something like continental Europe—a political landscape marked by a series of heavily armed kingdoms and petty republics, where the soldier was elevated above the citizen. This development would naturally be dangerous to republican values.
By contrast, a strong Union would have no need to maintain a large standing military. It would not face internal threats, and the physical distance from Europe and its colonies would likewise make external threats unlikely. Local militias, run by free citizens, would be sufficient to maintain order.
The Threat of Civil War
The states themselves, if split into confederations, would devolve into mutual hostilities, particularly as some would inevitably grow to be stronger and more powerful than others. If history was any guide, they would quickly find themselves in competition with one another for scarce resources and resort to warfare.
If the Union were dissolved, the vast tracts of western lands, subject to competing claims by the states, would rapidly become the focus of war. History again showed that territorial disputes were one of the main causes of conflict. Publius did not have to imagine such a scenario taking place in North America—it was already happening, with hotly contested disputes between New York and the states of New England over land in what later became the state of Vermont.
An Agent of Liberty, Not an Opponent
Standing armies under the Constitution would not become agents of tyranny because they could only be raised by the legislative—not the executive—branch. As the legislative branch would be composed of members popularly and periodically elected, this would ensure that the people’s representatives retained control and would prevent the creation of a permanent military establishment—something much feared by Americans of the time.
The great extent of the country would further make it difficult for a national army to impose tyranny on the people. Likewise, the size of the country would make it difficult for a foreign power to invade and occupy it, which in and of itself, would reduce the need for a large standing army in the first place. But such a security could only be predicated on the continued survival of the Union—and the only way to secure that Union was through the adoption of the new Constitution.
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