How Did The US So Completely Violate Its Own Constitutional Rules Against Standing Armies?

Last Updated on May 7, 2022 by Shaun Snapp

Executive Summary

  • Both the founding fathers, the federalists, and the antifederalists all vehemently opposed standing armies.
  • How did the US come to have the most dangerous standing army in the world?

Introduction

The term standing army is replete throughout the Federalist Papers and in the quotes from both the founding fathers and others involved in discussing the Constitution of the Bill of Rights. In this article, I will address how the US, while initially being entirely opposed to standing armies, eventually forgot about this restriction and came to have the world’s most expensive and most powerful military.

Our References

See our references for this article and related articles at this link.

Definition and Background on Standing Armies

Before we begin, it is helpful to understand exactly what a standing army is. This is explained in the following quotation.

A standing army is a permanent, often professional, army. It is composed of full-time soldiers who may be either career soldiers or conscripts. It differs from army reserves, who are enrolled for the long term, but activated only during wars or natural disasters, and temporary armies, which are raised from the civilian population only during a war or threat of war and disbanded once the war or threat is over. Standing armies tend to be better equipped, better trained, and better prepared for emergencies, defensive deterrence, and particularly, wars. The first Christian standing army since the fall of the Western Roman Empire to be paid with regular wages, instead of feudal levies, was established under King Charles VII of France in the 1430s while the Hundred Years’ War was still raging. As he realized that France needed professional reliable troops for ongoing and future conflicts, units were raised by issuing “ordonnances” to govern their length of service, composition and payment. These Compagnies d’ordonnance formed the core of the French Gendarmes that dominated European battlefields in the late 15th and early 16th centuries. – Wikipedia

Federalist No. 29 – Concerning the Militia (Alexander Hamilton)

This quote is taken from the above-listed Federalist Paper.

If standing armies are dangerous to liberty, an efficacious power over the militia, in the body to whose care the protection of the State is committed, ought, as far as possible, to take away the inducement and the pretext to such unfriendly institutions. If the federal government can command the aid of the militia in those emergencies which call for the military arm in support of the civil magistrate, it can the better dispense with the employment of a different kind of force. If it cannot avail itself of the former, it will be obliged to recur to the latter. To render an army unnecessary, will be a more certain method of preventing its existence than a thousand prohibitions upon paper. In order to cast an odium upon the power of calling forth the militia to execute the laws of the Union, it has been remarked that there is nowhere any provision in the proposed Constitution for calling out the POSSE COMITATUS, to assist the magistrate in the execution of his duty, whence it has been inferred, that military force was intended to be his only auxiliary.

This is a sentiment repeated throughout the Federalist Papers and in independent quotes by the founding fathers. The concept of militias was to eliminate the need for a standing army, which the founding fathers viewed as the pathway to tyranny.

This is explained in the following quotation, which is in an appendix to the PDF copy of the Federalist Papers from where I obtained these quotes.

2. Why were the provisions in the Constitution regarding the American military so controversial?

There is a long Anglo-American tradition of fear of standing armies, professional forces that serve during peacetime. It was widely believed that standing armies gave the government the ability to forcefully usurp power and violate the rights and liberties of the people. Standing armies stood in sharp contrast to militias, which were military forces made up of local volunteers who only served during times of war. Militias fit into the republican ideal of citizens defending their own land and freedom. Militias were thought to inspire and nurture republican virtues of independence and liberty, whereas standing armies were thought to make citizens overly dependent on professional soldiers.

And in this quotation.

Schwoerer’s “No Standing Armies!” Antiarmy Ideology in Seventeenth-Century England examines the hostility many English subjects held towards armies maintained in time of peace. English subjects had experienced firsthand the abuses of a standing army and valued a citizen militia that harked back to the days of Ancient Greece and Rome. Militias, made up of the citizenry, were far less likely to enforce unjust laws and suppress the populace because they were made up of the populace. The English viewed standing armies as “inconsistent with a Free Government, and absolutely destructive to the Constitution of the English Monarchy.”

English citizens across the spectrum of social and economic classes despised standing armies. Separated from Europe by a body of water, England watched in horror as standing armies on the Continent trampled liberties at the behest of tyrannical monarchs. This, paired with th few instances when England had standing armies solidified an already intense disdain for them. There were a variety of reasons many Englishmen hated standing armies. Soldiers serving in the army came from poor backgrounds and were likely to be criminals. The army under Elizabeth used a “recruitment system riddled with corruption and graft and operated so that vagabonds, misfits, and prisoners, who traded their sentence for service in the army, filled the regiments.”16 Elizabeth even said that the men in her army were “‘thieves [who] ought to hang.’”17 This conscription method continued well into the seventeenth century. As a result, many English subjects were less than enthusiastic about having armed criminals stationed in their towns. Even more problematic was the billeting of soldiers. Even the most loyal English subjects detested housing and feeding common criminals. Citizens expected the Crown to pay for quartering troops; yet, given the financial constraints involving warfare and the political ramifications of calling Parliament to levy funds, the Crown routinely neglected to pay for maintaining soldiers.

While the standing army had the potential to wreak havoc upon the population, it was equally capable of destroying free government. In 1648, troops under Colonel Thomas Pride removed members from Parliament who did not support the army. This coup d’état demonstrated that standing armies could quickly turn into “illegal instruments of power.”21 Schwoerer notes that between 1647 and 1660, the army in England either played an important role or directly interfered in the political activities of the government. With good reason, the populace feared that a standing army might eventually impose despotic government.

Collective right arguments emphasize historical animosity toward standing armies and reverence for militias. Although not all historians agree with the collective right moniker, they usually reject the premise that the Second Amendment provides unfettered access to firearms for private use. Instead, they argue, the Second Amendment establishes rights regarding the militia which many Americans at the time preferred over standing armies. The framers shared an antagonism toward standing armies that had origins in England. – Jeffery Campbell

What comes across very clearly is how anti-militaristic the people involved in discussions around how the US would be structured at the time. By modern standards, they would be considered “unpatriotic.” Today patriotism is in significant part measured by how much one supports military spending and military adventurism. I highly doubt even a tiny percentage of the present-day citizens of the US recognize how different the thinking was at the time after the Revolutionary War and in the modern era. While the thinkers of that time were debating if a standing army should even exist, in the contemporary period, the US spends 1/2 of the total global spending on its military.

The significant expansion of the US military occurred during and after WW2. Since that time, it appears that the original design of the US as outlined in this principle of not having standing armies in times of peace has been completely forgotten. Furthermore, the US courts have essentially prevented the maintenance and formation of militias. So we have no balance between the militias and the federal military as was promised by James Madison to keep states from leaving the Constitution. This appears to be a bait and switch on the part of the federalists. However, the federalists also opposed standing armies, as is explained in the following quotation.

Hamilton and many Federalists envisioned the United States similarly. With no hostile neighbors and an ocean separating it from Europe, the United States, in the minds of many Federalists, needed only a small standing army to provide sufficient time for the militia to rally. This argument convinced Hamilton so much that he speculated if Great Britain had been situated on the Continent, it would have need for a large military establishment and “would, in all probability, be at this day a victim to the absolute power of a single man.”

Hamilton’s views regarding the size of standing armies and the geographical protection afforded to the United States represented the majority of Federalist thought concerning what kind of military establishment the nation should have. – Jeffery Campbell

Federalist No. 45 – Alleged Danger From the Powers of the Union to the State Governments Considered (James Madison)

This quote is taken from the above-listed Federalist Paper.

Compare the members of the three great departments of the thirteen States, excluding from the judiciary department the justices of peace, with the members of the corresponding departments of the single government of the Union; compare the militia officers of three millions of people with the military and marine officers of any establishment which is within the compass of probability, or, I may add, of possibility, and in this view alone, we may pronounce the advantage of the States to be decisive.

This addresses an issue that Madison brings up repeatedly, which is the ability of the state militias to resist any federal military.

Militia Quotes from Federalist No 46: The Influence of the State and Federal Governments Compared (James Madison)

This quote is taken from the above-listed Federalist Paper.

Extravagant as the supposition is, let it however be made. Let a regular army, fully equal to the resources of the country, be formed; and let it be entirely at the devotion of the federal government; still it would not be going too far to say, that the State governments, with the people on their side, would be able to repel the danger.

James Madison proposes creating a small federal standing army.

Notice that the federal standing army should be able to be repelled by the states. This is curious because it is doubtful that any modern-day federally elected official would support this today. First, it would mean the US military would have to be so small it could be repelled by a state, and second, it means the state’s rights would exist to repel the US military!

Madison continues.

The highest number to which, according to the best computation, a standing army can be carried in any country, does not exceed one hundredth part of the whole number of souls; or one twenty-fifth part of the number able to bear arms. This proportion would not yield, in the United States, an army of more than twenty-five or thirty thousand men. To these would be opposed a militia amounting to near half a million of citizens with arms in their hands, officered by men chosen from among themselves, fighting for their common liberties, and united and conducted by governments possessing their affections and confidence. It may well be doubted, whether a militia thus circumstanced could ever be conquered by such a proportion of regular troops. Those who are best acquainted with the last successful resistance of this country against the British arms, will be most inclined to deny the possibility of it.

Madison here proposes a federal military versus militia ratio of 500,000/30,000 or 16.5 times. If we think of the modern era, the US military is enormous in number and its armaments. And the militias do not exist and have been made illegal by the US courts, and even the State National Guards are under federal control.

What Happened to the Restriction on a Standing Army?

Here is the constitutional restriction on the maintenance of standing armies.

Article I, Section 8, Clause 12:

[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; . . . – Congress.gov

How things have changed since this was written. It is curious how we aggressively debate the 2nd Amendment — however, there is no debate as to the US’s massive “standing army.” Isn’t a standing army unconstitutional? The founding fathers repeatedly point out, and the Federalist Papers repeatedly point out that standing armies are one of the origins of tyrannies. And that the militias should provide for the common defense. Let us review another quote.

(at the time a person writing anonymously under the name) “Brutus” also relied on historical examples to demonstrate the danger of standing armies. He referred to William Pulteney, a member of the House of Commons, who in 1758 gave a speech detesting the use of standing armies. In describing the many faults of a standing army, Pulteney touched on many of the themes espoused by Americans: standing armies were loyal only to their officers; they were detached from the body of the people; they disregard liberty and the rule of law; and, they were capable of enslaving their fellow countrymen.

Perhaps the most persuasive part of the speech detailed two instances in which standing armies subverted free governments. Pulteney praised Julius Caesar, commending his men for their brave and faithful service in combat and their excellent commanding officers who came from noble and wealthy lineages, and “yet that army enslaved their country.” Because of the blind obedience and discipline instilled in soldiers, they followed orders. Pulteney said “if an officer were commanded to pull his
own father out of his house, he must do it,” and Pulteney even went so far as to state that “if a body of musketeers with screwed bayonets, and with orders to tell us what we ought to do, and how we were to vote” were to enter the House of Commons, the fellow members of Parliament would be helpless to oppose them. – Jeffery Campbell

So why do we have one today?

And we have gone far beyond just having a standing army. We have 5,000 ICBMs. We have 47 nuclear missile submarines. We have over 700 military bases.

*Image from Jacobin

The US undermines governments around the world that are not in the interests of US businesses. We engage in surveillance of the world and surveil our citizens. 

Problem #1: Use of Mercenaries

We rely on mercenaries that are not subject to military courts. However, mercenaries were used to putdown Shay’s Rebellion by George Washington, which was a rebellion based upon non-payment and the property seizures of those who fought in the Revolutionary War. The claims of those who were part of Shay’s Rebellion were legitimate, and they were crushed with little concern for the underlying claims.

Problem #2: Unlimited Drone Strikes

We drone strike and bomb countries that we have declared war upon. In fact, the military’s plan is to use more drone strikes in the future in more locations, so it does not have to put soldiers in danger, and this will allow more illegal wars to be waged without casualties. Barack Obama showed that you could both engage in enormous numbers of illegal drone strikes, and still keep your Nobel Peace Prize.

Problem #3: Bioweapons Research

We engage in bioweapons research, even though we have signed agreements promising that we wouldn’t. We engage in it in 11 labs in the US (that we know of) and that is what the Wuhan Institute of Virology funding from the DOD and NIH was all about. So we also fund the bioweapons research of future possible hostile countries. The US was funding numerous bioweapons labs in Ukraine, which was yet another reason Ukraine was invaded by Russia, in 2022, as we cover in the article How the Story on Ukraine’s US Funded Bio Weapons Labs Keeps Changing.

Problem #4: The Military-Industrial Complex

Corrupt defense contractors highly control our war policy. Wars are routinely begun on pretenses (Afghanistan and Iraq come to mind as prominent examples). They then are continued through false claims of threats to US citizens and by lying about the progress being made to win “hearts and minds.” The donations from defense contractors are instrumental in keeping wars going that have absolutely nothing to do with the nation’s security.

Problem #5: Skip Getting Congressional Authorization

We routinely attack countries without the approval of Congress, a fact which is barely discussed. The last declaration of war was in WW2. The right to attack countries and wage war is now presumed to be the right of the executive.

Congressional Votes for Going to War

The following shows the votes held by congress to go to war.

Declaration of War in US History

CountryDateSenate VoteWWI or II?
Great BritainJun 17, 181219-13No
MexicoMay 12, 184640-2No
SpainApr 25, 1898UCNo
GermanyApr 4, 191782-6Yes
Austria-HungaryDec 7, 191774-0Yes
GermanyDec 11, 194188-0Yes
ItalyDec 11, 194190-0Yes
JapanDec 8, 194182-0Yes
BulgariaJun 4, 194273-0Yes
HungaryJun 4, 194273-0Yes
RumaniaJun 4, 194273-0Yes

*Table from Senate.gov

This table is amusing because, in the history of the US, only four wars not related to WW1 or WW2 were ever voted on by Congress. No war has ever not been approved, with the only close call being the Revolutionary War. Six of the eleven declarations of war are just against countries during WW2. Observe the declarations against Hungary, Romania and Bulgaria. This is because at the beginning of WW2 these countries aligned themselves with Germany.

Since WW2, there have been countless wars the US has prosecuted. The US dropped more bombs on Vietnam than were dropped by all sides in WW2 but without ever a declaration of war or a vote. The US is current fighting wars in Syria, Yemen and Somalia, wars that the the Pentagon tells the controlled establishment media not to cover. These are called secret or dirty wars.

So given all this, which is far beyond just having a standing army, why is how different our “standing army” has become from what is specified in the Constitution and Federalist Papers so widely accepted?

Federalist No. 46 – The Influence of the State and Federal Governments Compared (James Madison)

This quote is taken from the above-listed Federalist Paper.

Besides the advantage of being armed, which the Americans possess over the people of almost every other nation, the existence of subordinate governments, to which the people are attached, and by which the militia officers are appointed, forms a barrier against the enterprises of ambition, more insurmountable than any which a simple government of any form can admit of. Notwithstanding the military establishments in the several kingdoms of Europe, which are carried as far as the public resources will bear, the governments are afraid to trust the people with arms. And it is not certain, that with this aid alone they would not be able to shake off their yokes. But were the people to possess the additional advantages of local governments chosen by themselves, who could collect the national will and direct the national force, and of officers appointed out of the militia, by these governments, and attached both to them and to the militia, it may be affirmed with the greatest assurance, that the throne of every tyranny in Europe would be speedily overturned in spite of the legions which surround it.

Madison repeatedly states how an armed citizenry is superior to the European model or a relatively disarmed citizenry with large standing armies.

Madison continues.

Let us not insult the free and gallant citizens of America with the suspicion, that they would be less able to defend the rights of which they would be in actual possession, than the debased subjects of arbitrary power would be to rescue theirs from the hands of their oppressors.

Conclusion

The complete lack of coverage and discussion of how the US moved 180 degrees away from its original design as a nation that opposed standing armies as they were threats to the citizens and the states, to having a federal military that is a constant threat to other countries for which is only very rarely declares war but actively engages in war, is bizarre. There is an enormous amount of controversy and discussion around the 2nd Amendment, but virtual silence on how the US departed from its original foundation concerning its military. Before I performed this research, I had no idea that the US military in its current form is unconstitutional.