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The Federalist Papers and US National Security

How America’s founding fathers valued and prepared for US national security.

by | Jul 7, 2024 | Articles, Opinion, Politics

In 1787, not all 13 of the original colonies were enthusiastic about the proposed US Constitution. One of the sticking points was how the fledgling country was to “provide for the common defense,” a sentiment so prominent in the Preamble. A series of 85 essays, The Federalist Papers, were written to persuade the people of New York State and others to support ratifying the draft Constitution. Over 235 years ago, the founding fathers anticipated that the nation would face significant foreign threats, and they argued in favor of establishing a framework for national security.

The Federalist Papers Anticipated Future Defense Needs

With a defense budget exceeding $850 billion in Fiscal Year 2025 and the immense military complex the funding serves, it’s worth noting that our country’s Founding Fathers debated whether to have a standing army or rely on state militias. At the time of the constitutional convention, those who wanted the 13 states to hold the power individually rather than a central government opposed a standing army.

Alexander Hamilton was the principal advocate for a strong federal armed force. In Federalist #23, Hamilton explained:

“The authorities essential to the common defense are these: to raise armies; to build and equip fleets; to prescribe rules for the government of both; to direct their operations; to provide for their support. These powers ought to exist without limitation BECAUSE IT IS IMPOSSIBLE TO FORESEE OR DEFINE THE EXTENT AND VARIETY OF NATIONAL EXIGENCIES, OR THE CORRESPONDENT EXTENT AND VARIETY OF THE MEANS WHICH MAY BE NECESSARY TO SATISFY THEM.”

Hamilton asserted that the times they lived in were rife with danger to the security of all nations. He argued that hostilities facing early America “are infinite, and for this reason, no constitutional shackles can wisely be imposed on the power to which the care of it is committed.” Additionally, Hamilton argued that before the drafting of the US Constitution, the existing Articles of Confederation held implicitly an expectation that the 13 states would uniformly understand and acknowledge foreign threats and contribute voluntarily the resources necessary to meet the threat. “The experiment has, however, demonstrated that this expectation was ill-founded and illusory,” Hamilton wrote.

All states did not perceive threats in common and did not all feel obliged to contribute fighting men and resources. Consequently, Hamilton maintained the system in place at the time was “impractical and unjust.” Instead, the United States should have the authority and power “to levy troops; to build and equip fleets; and to raise the revenues which will be required for the formation and support of an army and navy, in the customary and ordinary modes practiced in other governments.”

Federalist Paper #46, written by James Madison, and #59, penned by Alexander Hamilton, explained one of the most crucial and abiding virtues of the US armed forces. As the Congressional Research Service explained in a report, “Federalist Papers 46 and 59 show that the Founding Fathers were also concerned about unitary executive control of the military. The desire to ensure that the military reflected, and was subordinate to, the will of the people therefore led to considerable congressional powers on matters concerning the armed services.”

Some States Worried Over Too Much Power in Federal Government

Nonetheless, many of the 13 original states feared the power of a strong federal government. Though not all the authors are known, a series of “Anti-Federalist” papers appeared in print, arguing against ratification of the draft constitution. Among the authors known to have objected to a strong federal government was Patrick Henry, who wrote a counterpoint essay published June 5, 1788, addressing the power and nature of the federal government.

Another Anti-Federalist author, using the pen name Brutus, challenged the necessity and prudence of a standing army. “Brutus No. 10” warns: “As standing armies in time of peace are dangerous to liberty, and have often been the means of overturning the best constitutions of government, no standing army, or troops of any description whatsoever, shall be raised or kept up by the legislature, except so many as shall be necessary for guards to the arsenals of the United States…” Brutus did allow that “the legislature shall be authorized to raise an army to be prepared to repel the attack; provided that no troops whatsoever shall be raised in time of peace, without the assent of two-thirds of the members, composing both houses of the legislature.” These and other objections to the draft Constitution failed to be persuasive.

Opponents of ratification were placated, however, with the addition in 1791 of the first ten amendments to the US Constitution, commonly referred to as the Bill of Rights. These amendments spelled out the fundamental freedoms afforded to Americans that limit the Federal Government.

It was 31 years after the ratification of the US Constitution that the wisdom of Hamilton, Madison, and John Jay conveyed in The Federalist Papers was vindicated. The ready and available US army defeated the British a second time. General Andrew Jackson led his American troops to victory at the famous battle of New Orleans. The value of an established, trained, and organized American military became the bulwark of US power worldwide. The framers of the US Constitution and the champions of its ratification created a governing ideological fortress that has kept America strong and safe.

The views expressed are those of the author and not of any other affiliate.

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