The Founding Fathers – and Freud – Warned Against Standing Armies
The Founding Fathers distrusted standing armies.
For example, James Madison said:
In time of actual war, great discretionary powers are constantly given to the Executive Magistrate. Constant apprehension of War, has the same tendency to render the head too large for the body. 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.
Madison also noted that never-ending war tends to destroy both liberty and prosperity:
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. In war, too, the discretionary power of the Executive is extended; its influence in dealing out offices, honors, and emoluments is multiplied: and all the means of seducing the minds, are added to those of subduing the force, of the people. The same malignant aspect in republicanism may be traced in the inequality of fortunes, and the opportunities of fraud, growing out of a state of war, and in the degeneracy of manners and of morals, engendered by both. No nation could preserve its freedom in the midst of continual warfare.
Freud also argued that when men gave up the primal drive to protect ourselves, our families and our communities – and that power was transferred to standing armies – it disempowered us and made us weak psychologically.
Look at America today: Freud might have been right.
What the Constitution says about "standing armies"
The Founding Fathers under Article 1, Section 8 called upon Congress to call up the militia to defend the nation. They wanted no permanent standing army. They realized that is a dangerous tool that could turn on the people, or be used to build empire.
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.
Sorry, gun nuts, you’re on the wrong side of our Founding Fathers.
For example, in a tirade against CNN’s Piers Morgan, Alex Jones argued, “The Second Amendment isn’t there for duck hunting. It’s there to protect us from tyrannical government.”
It’s an argument that’s often echoed by gun nuts – as though their fully-loaded AR-15 with 100-bullet drum will keep them safe from Predator drones and cruise missiles. If indeed this is the true intent of the 2nd Amendment, protection from the government, then here’s the newsflash: you guys are woefully outgunned. And the 2nd Amendment would have allowed you to own a cannon and a warship, so America today would look more like Somalia today with well-armed warlords running their own little fiefdoms in defiance of the federal government.
But luckily, this was never the intent of the 2nd Amendment. Our Founding Fathers never imagined a well-armed citizenry to keep the American government itself in check. It was all about protecting the American government from both foreign and domestic threats.
The James Madison resolution on the issue clearly stated that the right to bear arms “shall not be infringed” since a “well-regulated militia” is the “best security of a free country.”
Virginia’s support of a right to bear arms was based on the same rationale: “A well regulated Militia composed of the body of the people trained to arms is the proper, natural and safe defence of a free State”
Ultimately, as we know the agreed upon 2nd Amendment reads: “A well regulated militia being necessary to the security of a free state, the right of the people to keep and bear arms shall not be infringed.”
That reads like a conditional statement. If we as a fledgling new nation are committed to our own security, then it’s best we have a regulated militia. And to maintain this defensive militia, we must allow Americans to keep and bear arms.
The other defensive option would have been a standing army.
But at the time, our Founding Fathers believed a militia was the one best defense for the nation since a standing army was, to quote Jefferson, “an engine of oppression.”
Our Founding Fathers were scared senseless of standing armies. It was well-accepted among the Members of Congress during that first gun debate that “standing armies in a time of peace are dangerous to liberty.” Those were the exact words used in the state of New York’s amendment to the gun debate.
Later, in an 1814 letter to Thomas Cooper, Jefferson wrote of standing armies: “The Greeks and Romans had no standing armies, yet they defended themselves. The Greeks by their laws, and the Romans by the spirit of their people, took care to put into the hands of their rulers no such engine of oppression as a standing army. Their system was to make every man a soldier and oblige him to repair to the standard of his country whenever that was reared. This made them invincible; and the same remedy will make us so.”
Had the early framers of the Constitution embraced a standing army during times of peace, then there would be no need for a regulated militia, and thus no need for the 2nd Amendment.
Instead, they openly opposed a standing army during times of peace. Want proof? In the entire Constitution, there are no time limits on the power of Congress to raise money and pay for anything – except an Army. We can have a Navy forever. We can have roads or bridges or post offices or pretty much anything else that supports the "general welfare" without limit and in perpetuity. But an Army? That had to be re-evaluated every two years, when all spending for the past two years of army was zeroed out. It's right there in Article 1, Section 8, line twelve reads that Congress has the power: "To raise and support Armies, but no Appropriation of Money to that Use shall be for a longer Term than two Years."
The Founders knew, from watching the history of Europe, that military coups by a standing army were a greater threat to a nation that most other nations. So they required us to re-evaluate our army every two years.
But without an army, how would we defend ourselves?
With a locally-based, well-regulated - under the control of local authorities, who answer to national authority - militia. Today, we call this the National Guard.
Article 1, Section 8, line 16 of the Constitution doesn't put that two-year limit on the National Guard militia. Instead, it says, Congress has the right to: "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."
And make no mistake about it – that militia was to be used to protect our "we the people" government both from foreign armies and from Americans who want to overthrow the government of the United States. Again, line 15 says Congress has the power to: "To provide for calling forth the Militia to execute the Laws of the Union, suppress Insurrections and repel Invasions." Nothing in there about taking down the US government.
As a member of a National Guard militia, the 2nd Amendment is more of a civic duty than a personal right.
Again, it was all about defense of the state – not defense against the state.
In fact, during that first gun debate, the state of New Hampshire introduced an amendment that gave the government permission to confiscate guns when citizens “are or have been in Actual Rebellion.” To those early legislators in New Hampshire, the right to bear arms stops as soon as those arms are taken up against our "we the people" government.
Just ask the ancestors of those who participated in the Whiskey Rebellion. In 1794, armed Americans took up guns against what they viewed as a tyrannical George Washington administration imposing taxes on whiskey. President Washington called up 13,000 militia men, and personally led the troops to squash the rebellion of armed citizens in Bedford, Pennsylvania. No Army. No right to have guns to overthrow the oppressive US government.
But, more than 200 years later, gun nuts like Alex Jones somehow believe the 2nd Amendment was created for, not against, those American who committed treason and took part in the Whiskey Rebellion. And they’re threatening another rebellion should the government ban the sale of assault weapons and high-capacity magazines.
As a red-faced Alex Jones yelled at Piers Morgan, “Hitler took the guns, Stalin took the guns, Mao took the guns, Fidel Castro took the guns, Hugo Chavez took the guns. And I’m here to tell you, 1776 will commence again if you try to take our firearms!”
Besides being factually inaccurate – Hitler actually encouraged the ownership of guns, for example - this is the dangerous line of attack used by the gun nuts today.
The biggest similarity between America today and colonial American prior to the revolutionary war is the transnational corporate stranglehold on our economy. Back then it was the British East India Company. Today its transnational behemoths like Goldman Sachs, GE, Wal-Mart, and BP.
But violent revolution is never the answer. Even the Boston Tea Party revolt against the East India Company wasn't violent.
Peaceful resistance is the most powerful response to tyranny. Just ask those Egyptians who peacefully huddled together in Tahrir Square until their kleptocratic ruler, Hosni Mubarak, eventually gave into the pressure and stepped down. Had these idealistic young men and women whipped out the NRA's assault weapons, there would have been a massacre instead of a revolution.
History tells us the power of peaceful revolution, from Jesus to Gandhi to MLK, but very few stories of successful violent revolution. Even the French Revolution, an imitation of ours, failed – as you can see in the movie Les Miserables, which takes place after the kings have come back to power.
Nothing is more effective, and nothing frightens the powers that be more, than large-scale peaceful resistance: young people, old people, mothers with strollers, the rich, the poor, people of all religions and races, joined together in common and peaceful cause. A million unarmed people will do more to bring about revolution than 300 million guns in America.
So let’s be sure to not fall into that hysterical argument being pushed by Alex Jones and other gun nuts that our nation’s salvation depends on each of us being armed to the teeth and ready to take on our own government. That was never the intention of the 2nd Amendment.
You say you want a revolution? Join a grassroots peaceful movement.
Madison elaborates his thoughts on "standing armies."
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 community.
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 well informed, 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 defense.
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.