The Federalist Paper Number 41

Many have argued against giving great power to a national government. Rarely do they note whether the powers are actually needed. Instead, they dwell on the troubles that must come with the advantages and on the possible abuses of these powers. Any power can be abused - and there are disadvantages to this transfer of power. But don't let these facts warp your good sense. The arguments against this transfer of power may showcase the arguer's intellect; they may excite the hot-headed or confirm the prejudices of the thoughtless; but cool-thinking and honest people know that even the best things in this world are not purely good. A set of alternatives, as a rule, does not include a perfect choice, but does include a better choice. In any political institution, power for the public good can be misapplied or abused.

As we know then, when deciding whether a government should be given a power, we must decide whether the power is needed for the public good. And, if so, then we must do the best we can to stop misuse of the power from harming the public.

To decide this matter, let's review the powers given to the national government. Let's split them into these areas:

  1. Security against other countries.
  2. Regulation of international commerce. (See Federalist Paper 42.)
  3. Keeping the states from fighting amongst themselves and regulation of interstate commerce. (See Federalist Paper 42, starting with "The powers included in the third class ...")
  4. Miscellaneous powers for general use. (See Federalist Paper 43.)
  5. Stopping the states from doing certain harmful things. (See Federalist Paper 44.)
  6. Ways to make these powers effective. (See Federalist Paper 44, starting with "The sixth and last ...")

This (Federalist) paper covers the 1st of these powers: why the proposed Constitution gives the national government these powers:

  1. the power to declare war on other countries,
  2. to grant letters of marque,
  3. to pay for and control the military,
  4. and to print and borrow money.

Security from outside danger is a basic part of any civilized society. It is a recognized and essential part of the American Union. The power to insure security from outside danger must be given to a national government.

Is the power to declare war necessary? No one argues otherwise. Anyway, the Articles of Confederation gives the existing confederated government this power.

Is the power to raise a military force necessary? You can't declare war without a military to back it up. And you need a military for self-defense.

But the Constitution gives the national government no definite limit to military spending - in both peactime and wartime. Is that necessary?

That question has been answered elsewhere so it need not be thoroughly covered here. The answer is obvious, anyway. How can we limit our defensive force when we cannot limit those who would attack us? If the Constitution could limit all other nations, organizations, and individuals, then it could safely limit our own government's power of self defense.

How can we have no means of self-defense unless we can stop every hostile nation from attacking? Only the limitations on external dangers can limit the size of a self-defense force. It's pointless to try to stop the instinct of self-preservation. In fact, it's worse than pointless. It plants the seeds of needed usurpations of power into the Constitution. And each time this power is usurped, the seeds will grow - and grow large. If one nation maintains a military ready for attacking others, then every nation within its reach - even the most peaceful - must build a comparable military. The 1400's, in Europe, were such a time. After Charles VII of France built a large army, even during peace time all other European nations had to follow suit. Even now, if every nation but one disbanded their military, that one would rule the rest. Recall that the experienced, standing armies of ancient Rome made Rome the ruler of her part of the world.

Just as true, the final victim of Roman military victories was loss of Roman freedom. And, with few exceptions, the liberties of Europeans (such as they are) have been the price of the European nations' military establishments. A standing, peacetime army is dangerous, though it may be needed. When small, a peacetime army is inconvenient. On a large scale it can kill its owner. On any scale, it needs watching. A wise nation will address all of these concerns. A wise nation will not rashly stop itself from insuring its safety. And a wise nation will cut the odds of being forced to do things dangerous to its citizens' liberties.

This wisdom is clearly stamped into the proposed Constitution. The Union itself, which it defines, removes excuses for a peacetime military. America united, without even a single soldier, is far more threatening to aggressive nations than an America disunited with a hundred thousand combat-ready veterans.

Some have said that British liberties have been saved because they have no excuse for a peacetime army. Great Britain is on an island and has a very strong navy. Therefore, either for real or contrived reasons, the government of Great Britain has never been able to cheat its public into a large peacetime army.

The United States is located a long way from the powerful nations of the world. That gives us a happy security. So long as we are united, a self-threatening peacetime army can never be plausibly needed.

But never forget that the states get this advantage because of the Union. The moment the Union dissolves, there will be a new order of things. The fears of the weaker states or the ambition of the stronger states will do to North America just what Charles VII did to Europe. Instead of getting the advantage from our situation that Great Britain gets from hers, America will look just like continental Europe. Everywhere, liberty will be crushed by standing armies and perpetual taxes.

In fact, the future of a disunited America will be even worse than that of Europe. In Europe the dangers are confined to other European nations. There are no other superior nations on the globe to meddle with European nations, to encourage them to plot and fight amongst themselves. But in America, the miseries from internal emotions, contentions, and wars would only be a part of our troubles. European nations, being stronger than America, would give us plenty of extra trouble.

You can't overdraw this bleak picture. Every person who loves peace, every person who loves his country, every person who loves liberty should always have this picture to see. Seeing it, everyone will cherish in his heart a strong attachment to the Union of America, and will highly value the means to keep it.

Next to a Union, the best guard against the danger of standing armies is the limit on how long military budgets stand between votes. The Constitution has such a limit. Let's note one argument against this part of the Constitution:

The argument is that Great Britain limits military budgets to one year. So our proposed Constitution should do likewise. But is this really the case? Those who make this argument know that the British Constitution does not limit their legislature at all. Our Constitution, though, ties our legislature down to two years.

If the argument were stated truthfully, it would be this: The terms of military budgets are unlimited by the British Constitution. But, in practice, they have been for single years. Now, in Britain, members of the House of Commons are elected for seven years. And a large portion of them are elected by a small portion of the population. and, the electors (who vote for members of the House of Commons) are in the pockets of the representatives themselves. And, the representatives are in the Crown's pocket. And, this crew is constitutionally allowed to raise money for the military for any length of time - but they do not dare to do so for more than one year. Now, on the other hand, our representatives are elected by all of the people for only two years, not seven. So can't we trust them to budget the military for two years?

A bad cause betrays itself. The leadership of the opposition to the federal government is a clear example of this. Of all the blunders which they have made, the most striking is the attempt to co-opt people who worry about standing armies. By doing so, they have drawn much attention to this important subject. After we examine the subject, we will see that:

  1. The Constitution has effective guards against the danger of standing armies.
  2. Nothing short of a Constitution such as ours can save America from each State having its own standing army.
  3. The total cost of all of these states' armies must be at least as much as that of any army needed by a united and efficient government.

All know that we must maintain a navy. So that part of the Constitution has been spared attack. Indeed, this is one of America's greatest blessings: like Great Britain, the greatest source of our strength against danger from abroad (a united navy) can never be turned by a treacherous government against our own liberties.

People who live along the coast are all deeply interested in naval protection. So far, they have slept quietly in their beds. Their property has not been stolen by pirates. Seaside towns have paid no ransoms to avoid being burned down. This is not because the existing government has the power to stop such things. It's simply good luck. You New York readers are, perhaps, most at risk from the sea. A very important part of New York is an island. The main part of the state is penetrated by a large, navigable river for more than a 100 miles. Most of its wealth and commercial value lies within easy reach of foreign enemies, or even daring pirates. Too, should there be war in Europe (which seems likely), some of it will spill over to us. The maritime states cannot hope for much help from the present, phantom government. And even if they each mount enough of a defense, it will cost them each so much that they will have nothing left to defend.

The power to raise armies has been elsewhere explained and justified.

The power of taxing and borrowing money is needed for national defense, so it can be thrown into the same class. This power has been examined elsewhere. I think that it has become clear that this power is necessary in both the extent and form given to it by the Constitution. But what of the argument that this power ought to be for tariffs only? Well, tariffs will always be a valuable source of income. For some time they must be a main source. At the moment, tariffs are an essential part of government income. But, we would be mistaken if we did not realize these things:

The design of a government built for the long run must take such things into account.

Some, who agree that the federal government must have taxation power, have based very fierce attacks on the Constitution's wording - "to lay and collect taxes, duties, imposts, and excises, to pay the debts, and provide for the common defense and general welfare of the United States." They argue that these words amount to a blank check. Those who argue this are straining too hard for any possible objection to the Constitution. Want proof? See how low they stoop with this argument:

If the Constitution had no other words on the powers of Congress, then this argument might have some weight. Though why would the Constitution be written this way? If you meant to say "Congress has the power to destroy freedom of the press, trial by jury, etc. etc.", would you write "Congress may raise money for the general welfare?"

But how can the Constitution's words mean "Congress has a blank check" when what is said in general terms is immediately followed by the specifics? And by no longer pause than a semi-colon! To understand a piece of writing, would you ignore the clear and precise expressions and only pay attention to the general and indefinite terms? And why would the particular powers be mentioned at all if they - and all others - were meant to be included with the preceding general power. Nothing is more natural nor more usual than to first use a general phrase, and then to explain it in detail. So we must choose between either:

The detailed explanation in the Constitution has nothing whatever to do with the preceding general meaning. It is only meant to mislead.
Those who argue thus mean to mislead.

Take your pick.

This objection to the Constitution is even stranger since the Constitution's language appears to be a copy from the Articles of Confederation! The 3rd article of that document says "their common defense, security of their liberties, and mutual and general welfare." The terms of the 8th article are still more of the same: "All charges of war and all other expenses that shall be incurred for the common defense or general welfare, and allowed by the United States in Congress, shall be defrayed out of a common treasury," etc. Similar language occurs in the 9th article. Now, try reading either of these articles as arguers against the new Constitution read the Constitution. Don't they give the existing, Confederated Congress power to legislate in all cases whatsoever?

Ok. These people argue that the new Constitution gives Congress too much power. But the Articles of Confederation contain the same language. So, what if, right now, the Confederated Congress were to use this language to justify a power-grab? Would these same people then argue that it's OK to do so? Ahhh. How difficult it is for error to escape its own condemnation!

James Madison.
Federalist Papers Translated by Alex Robinson.
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Last modified March 23, 2024