The Original Compromise: What the Constitution's Framers Were Really Thinking

By David Brian Robertson | Go to book overview

16
National Security and Foreign Policy

The delegates were determined to strengthen the government’s power to defend the nation from foreign enemies and to quell domestic uprisings such as Shays’s Rebellion. Almost half of the specific Congressional powers enumerated in the Constitution authorized national security measures.

But national power to put down a rebellion also could enable national troops to impose martial law indefinitely, or quash any dissent. The relative roles of the states and the national government in national security got caught up in conflicts among republicanism, national ambitions, and state prerogatives. Broad nationalists generally sought to broaden national and presidential powers in foreign and military affairs. Narrow nationalists pressed the Convention to leave substantial military power in the hands of the existing militias under state control. The delegates’ compromises on military and diplomatic power deliberately left some boundaries between state and national authority obscure while creating additional complexity in American policy-making.


The Military

The delegates sought a stronger defense against foreign invasion and internal sedition, “the great objects” of the national government.1 In Alexander Hamilton’s view, “No Government could give us tranquility & happiness at home, which did not possess sufficient stability and strength to make us respectable abroad.”2 But a strong, permanent (or “standing”) national army posed a grave threat to the republic. The executive power to wage war and command the military was an invitation to tyranny. The power to make peace could result in the surrender of huge territories, or even entire states, to a foreign adversary.

The delegates agreed to vest potentially strong national military powers in the new national government. When the Convention approved the power to create and support an army and navy, Elbridge Gerry objected that “there was no check here against standing armies in time of peace,” and he could not consent to allowing the size of the military to be unlimited. He proposed a fixed number of two or three thousand national troops in peacetime.3 Delegates with actual military experience found Gerry’s proposal unreasonable. General Pinckney “asked whether no troops were ever to be raised until an attack should be made on us?” George Washington allegedly “suggested a countermotion that ‘no foreign enemy should invade the United States at any time, with more than three thousand troops.’”4 Jonathan Dayton indicated that since preparations for war usually were made in peacetime, he had no objections to “restrictions consistent with these ideas.”5 Hugh Williamson thought that limiting the funds for the military would serve “as the best guard in this case.”6 The delegates unanimously rejected the motion to limit the size of the army in peacetime.

The Convention made four other decisions that strengthened national military power. First, the delegates approved Gerry’s suggestion that the national government be authorized to issue “letters of marque,” that is, government commissions to private ships to seize the merchant vessels of enemy nations (a normal part of naval warfare in the eighteenth century). They denied states the authority to issue these letters of marque.7 Second, they accepted a minimal constraint on military expenditures, limiting appropriations to two years or less.8 Gerry objected to the proposal because it “implied there was to be a standing army” which was dangerous and unnecessary.9 Roger Sherman agreed with Gerry that there should be a reasonable restriction on the number and continuance of an army in time of peace but argued that the two-year duration of Congress made the two-year rule more practical.10 Third, they passed up the opportunity to add language condemning a standing army. George Mason sought to strengthen the state militias by adding a statement that such support would better secure “the liberties of the people against the danger of standing armies in time of peace.”11 James Madison, who used the potential danger of a standing army to emphasize the seriousness of the national crisis on June 29, supported the proposal to disapprove of a national army in peacetime.12 Gouverneur Morris “opposed the motion as setting a dishonorable mark of distinction on the military class of Citizens.”13 The motion was defeated handily. Fourth, the delegates agreed that the national government could make laws concerning piracy, crimes at sea, the rules of military capture, and counterfeiting.14 The delegates, then, allowed the national government substantial authority to protect national security. They were much less willing to allow that authority to intrude on the states’ military prerogatives.

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