The Ratification Debate: A Standing Army vs. the Militias
[This passage is excerpted from Murray N. Rothbard’s Conceived in Liberty, vol. 5, The New Republic: 1784–1791.]
One of the most important aspects of the proposed Constitution was its authorization for a permanent national standing army, a striking contrast to the simple reserve constituting the state militia. The standing army was a particular objection of the Antifederalists, who, in the liberal antimilitary tradition, believed such an army to be inimical to the liberty of the American people. In contrast, the ex-Continental Army officers, particularly the higher officers, yearned for the power, the pelf, and the prestige that would come to them once again, and this time permanently, should there be a standing army. The leading and most aristocratic ex-army officers were cohesively organized in the ultra-reactionary and militaristic Society of the Cincinnati, which looked for a European-type army established, preferably led by a hereditary officer caste. The ex-Continental Army officers and particularly their upper strata in the convention, eagerly welcomed and fought for the proposed Constitution as their long-awaited conduit to a caste status in a standing army. Elbridge Gerry, indeed, feared the power of the Cincinnati, and this was one of the reasons why Gerry (and George Mason) opposed the popular election of the president at the convention:
The ignorance of the people would put it in the power of some one set of men dispersed through the Union and acting in concert to delude them into any appointment…. such a Society of men existed in the Order of the Cincinnati. They were respectable, United, and influential.1
The ex-officer and Cincinnati support of the Constitution played a definite role in Pennsylvania. Ten delegates to the state convention were members of the Cincinnati, and all were Federalists; furthermore, of the ex-army officers among the delegates above the rank of captain, sixteen out of seventeen were Federalists. This, of course, combined nicely with the bulk of the wealthy and educated being in favor of the Constitution.
Professor Benton has done a study of the men of the ex-Continental Army officers in Pennsylvania. Of the top generals in the state, all—Arthur St. Clair, Richard Butler, Josiah Harmar, Anthony Wayne, Lewis Nicola—were all Cincinnatians, and Nicola and Wayne were such ultra-Federalists that they wanted George Washington to become King. More importantly, Benton analyzed a sample list of forty-four ex-Continental Army officers above the rank of major (comprising 41 percent of the total number), and fifty-five state militia officers of the same ranks (13 percent of the total number). Together, this comprised 19 percent of the total number of officers. Of the forty-four Continental officers, every single one was a Federalist, and thirty-two were members of the Cincinnati; in contrast, of the fifty-five high militia officers, only twenty-three were Federalist, thirty-two were Antifederalist, and only three chose to join the Cincinnati. Here is a clear contrast between the arch-federalism of the Continental officers and the absence of this trend among the far less militarily inclined officers of the state militia who were, furthermore, much less likely to acquire leading roles in a federal standing army.2
Despite the fact that the outcome of the convention was a foregone conclusion, the Antifederalists, led by the eminent radicals Robert Whitehill, William Findley, and John Smilie, put up a valiant struggle. The lengthy debate lasted from November 21 until December 15, the Federalists being unsurprisingly led by James Wilson. The Antifederalists denounced the Constitution as illegally eliminating the federation of sovereign states on behalf of a consolidated, tyrannical, and aristocratic national government; this absolute national power being funded by an unrestricted taxing power, the creation of a national standing army, supremacy clause, the necessary and proper clause, and the absence of a bill of rights. John Smilie trenchantly declared that “in a free Government there never will be Need of standing Armies, for it depends on the Confidence of the People. If it does not so depend, it is not free…. The [Constitutional] Convention knew this was not a free government; otherwise, they would not have asked the powers of the purse and sword [taxes and standing armies].” Smilie and Robert Whitehill effectively rebutted Wilson’s paradoxical sophistry that a bill of rights was unnecessary because the people retain all the
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