Essay on Federalist No. 8

Introduction

Before getting to the plain language summary of Federalist No. 8, I’d like to take a moment to voice my disagreements and intrigue with some statements made by Alexander Hamilton in Federalist No. 8. They are as follows.

1. Hamilton makes an important observation when he writes “The disciplined armies always kept on foot on the continent of Europe, though they bear a malignant aspect to liberty and economy, have, notwithstanding, been productive of the signal advantage of rendering sudden conquests impracticable.” The important point to understand here is that powerful armies are not good for the economy and liberty per se. They are harmful to liberty and the economy but are tolerated because they are useful for protecting property against foreign enemies. In other words, armies are a necessary evil, to be avoided as far as possible. They are not something beneficial in and of themselves but only to the extent that they provide protection. Military spending is not a stimulus to the economy and an over-sized military is definitely harmful to liberty.

2. Hamilton writes “In this country the scene would be altogether reversed. The jealousy of military establishments would postpone them as long as possible. The want of fortifications, leaving the frontiers of one state open to another, would facilitate inroads. The populous States would, with little difficulty, overrun their less populous neighbors. Conquests would be as easy to be made as difficult to be retained. War, therefore, would be desultory and predatory.” This whole line of reasoning is a non sequitur. It does not necessarily follow that failure to maintain the Union would lead to total war between the states. In fact, with the Civil War we see the opposite effect: maintaining the Union causing total war. The nations of Europe never banded together to fight a war of independence against a foreign oppressor. The states did. This act surely engendered some brotherhood between the states and would have prevented them from undertaking missions of plunder against their brothers, willy nilly. Further, the act of simply sending representatives to a constitutional convention in and of itself showed a spirit of cooperation that would not be conducive to wars against each other. Even  if the new constitution wasn’t adopted, there was good communication, honest debate, and a spirit of compromise between the states that would have acted to detain the wars that Hamilton describes.

3. In discussing the danger of attack from an external enemy Hamilton writes “Even the ardent love of liberty will, after a time, give way to its dictates.” This is a big problem and it is as true today as it was in Hamilton’s time. No people should ever sacrifice their “ardent love for liberty” for any reason. Once the rulers know what will cause the people to give up their liberty, they will use that knowledge to manipulate the citizens and deprive them of their rights. A good example is the War on Terror. The government manipulated the fears of American citizens to pass legislation and undertake wars that violate first principles of the United States and stand in extreme contradiction of the Constitution. Undeclared wars, torture, illegal search and seizure, illegal spying, detainment without a fair trial, outrageous taxes, debasement of the currency and many more violations of our rights have been undertaken in the name of protecting us from foreign enemies. Indeed, we have sacrificed our liberty for safety and a people who do so, as Benjamin Franklin taught, deserve neither.

4. Hamilton points out that during times of war people “resort for repose and security to institutions which have a tendency to destroy their civil and political rights.” Similar to point 2 above we must note that wars are not good things in and of themselves. They are a necessary evil that will “have a tendency to destroy their civil and political rights.” Wars must only be undertaken to protect ourselves from attack. Offensive wars should never be fought under any circumstance. Liberty is our most important possession and it should never be sacrificed so that politicians can fight wars to enrich lobbyists and glorify themselves.

5. Hamilton makes the important observation that “it is of the nature of war to increase the executive at the expense of the legislative authority.” War makes the executive branch stronger because a society must centralize its decision making during times of military conflict. Dictators throughout history have used wars to strengthen their position. This is another reason why countries should only fight defensive wars.

6. In a very illuminating passage on the ascendancy of the military in society, Hamilton writes “The continual necessity for their services enhances the importance of the soldier, and proportionably degrades the condition of the citizen. The military state becomes elevated above the civil. The inhabitants of territories, often the theatre of war, are unavoidably subjected to frequent infringements on their rights, which serve to weaken their sense of those rights; and by degrees the people are brought to consider the soldiery not only as their protectors, but as their superiors.” Here is another reason to avoid constant war. Soldiers transform from our defenders into our masters. Instead of being looked upon as a person doing a job, they transform into demigods who can do no wrong. The military will violate our rights so commonly that we will forget what are rights really are.

Summary

The purpose of this federalist paper is to take a look at what types of conflicts would occur between the states if the legal union between them were to be dissolved. There would definitely be conflicts and it is impossible to imagine a scenario under which the separate states could live in harmony. All nations that live in close proximity to one another, but do not share a common government, are bound to fall prey to animosities and eventually war.

In the time period right after the states separated from one another, the conflicts would be especially intense.  This is what happens when two nations that don’t have permanent, standing militaries, fight against each other. As an example, let us take a look at the nations of Europe. Even though their standing militaries threaten liberty and harm the economy, they do keep European countries from trying to invade their neighbors on a whim. This is contrary to what happened between the Europeans during the beginning stages of their statehood when they constantly fought ill planned wars of conquest.  The European nations are also well fortified, which keeps invasions from happening. There are big walls and defensive barriers protecting those nations from attack. It isn’t worth the all the trouble for would be invaders to try to break through the fortifications. Its too much work.  However, back before the fortifications were built, an invading army could run straight through to the interior of the country before the victim even knew what was going on. Nowadays, a relatively small army, with the help of it’s military posts, can keep a very large invading army outside of its borders with much less effort. As a result, the wars in Europe are no longer huge wars of conquest with kings and emperors warring against each other but rather regional skirmishes. One or two cities may be taken back and forth but nothing happens on a large scale.

In the United States, the scene would  be much different. There are no standing armies to make states think twice before invading each other. There are no fortifications, making it easy for states to penetrate deep into the territory of other states. It would be quite easy for larger states to occupy smaller states. Victories would be so easy to obtain that no states would hesitate to pursue them.  The wars would be wars of plunder. Non-professional soldiers would pillage their victims and leave destruction in their wake. Atrocities committed by individuals would be characteristic of these wars.

Although the scenario put forth above is accurate, it wouldn’t continue for long. The most important concern of nations is protecting themselves from foreign enemies. People are even willing to sacrifice their precious liberties to be safe from foreign attack. Fear of death and destruction and the never ending sense of danger that accompany war will cause even a people who are intensely jealous of their liberties to “resort for repose and security to institutions which have a tendency to destroy their civil and political rights.” People are willing to be safer but less free.

To protect a nation, an army and fortifications are needed. Many believe that there are no restrictions against a standing army in the new constitution. As such, it would be completely legal to establish a permanent army.  However, there are hurdles that must be overcome if a standing army is to be established under the new constitution. On the other hand, standing armies “must inevitably result from a dissolution of the Confederacy.” There would be constant war and a state of danger which would require military establishments. Smaller states would have to do all they could to protect themselves against larger states with greater resources. They would make up for having less troops by having a more systematic military establishment, better trained troops, and by building stronger fortifications. The executive branch of small state governments would be empowered which would make their governments more and more like monarchies. After all, “it is of the nature of war to increase the executive at the expense of the legislative authority.”

The states which are quickest in building up their militaries will have an advantage over their neighbors. Even though a state has a much smaller population, it can, under an active and focused government, build a powerful and well disciplined militarily, which will allow it to defeat larger states with more natural resources. In fact, there are many examples of this happening throughout history. It is obvious, however, that no large and dignified state would allow its smaller neighbors to maintain such an advantage for very long. Those states would also empower their governments to build strong and well-disciplined armies in order to regain military advantages. Before long, every state would turn over increasing amounts of power to their governments. The United States would end up under the same tyranny that Europe suffers under. It is highly likely that this scenario would play out exactly as described if the Union were to be dissolved.

The warnings above are not mere speculations put forth based on weaknesses in the new constitution, under which all power is placed in the hands of the people and their representatives. Rather, they are logical results based on the true nature of human behavior.

As an objection to the conclusion reached above, we can take a look at the ancient republics of Greece. They were constantly at war with each other but no standing armies were ever established. Many different replies can be given to this objection.  The people of the United States are a hard working, entrepreneurial people. Most of their time is spent on doing business and is “devoted to the improvements of agriculture and commerce.” As such, the people of the United States are not natural soldiers. On the other hand, the Greeks were a nation of soldiers. Means of finance, which have been greatly improved by increased quantities of gold and silver, commercial activity, and credit along with a change in the customs of nations have changed the entire nature of war. Professional soldiers, separate from the other citizens of a nation, are now the ones who do the actual fighting in wars.

There is also a big difference between the armies of those countries who are under the constant threat of an internal rebellion and those who are not. In a nation under the constant threat of rebellion, the rulers must always maintain a well disciplined and alert military. For nations not constantly threatened by upheavals, the rulers must have a good reason for keeping a standing army, if they even decide to maintain an army at all.  In a nation where there isn’t much of an internal threat, the people are not in danger of having to sacrifice their liberties to military domination. They will be unaccustomed to giving up their freedom in order to put down rebellions. Their government will run smoothly and they will not be bothered by the problems that come with internal uprisings. Such a nation will have an army so small that the people won’t be threatened by it. The people will not be used to looking to the military for protection nor accustomed to being under military rule. As a result, they will “neither love nor fear the soldier.” In fact, they will look upon the military as a “necessary evil” and be ready at all times to stand up against any infringements upon their rights. Under such circumstances, the military could be useful to the executive in putting down small uprisings or minor internal dispute. It would never be able to impose its will on the entire people.

In a country that lives under the constant threat of revolution, the opposite of everything described above occurs. The government will be in a constant state of agitation and will always be prepared to stomp out insurrections. Armies must be big enough to fight off threats at any given moment. As a result of being in constant service to the community, the soldier will come to be glorified. Citizens will come to be looked upon as weak and helpless. “The military state becomes elevated above the civil.” Citizens of the nation will be accustomed to constant war. Their rights will be violated so regularly that the citizens will come to devalue their rights. Eventually, the military will be looked upon not only as defenders but as rulers. In fact, it is quite easy for the citizens of a nation that is constantly at war to view the soldiery as their masters. Once this happens, it is very difficult for the citizenry to stand up to the military and take back their rights.

Great Britain is an example of a country that is not very susceptible to threats from abroad. As an island country with a strong navy, a foreign invasion is highly unlikely. The result is that Great Britain does not require a large standing army. All that is required is a big enough army to fight off any sudden attacks until the militia can be deployed. A larger army than this is not demanded by the circumstances and would not be acceptable to the citizens of Great Britain. In addition, there have been no revolutions or internal uprisings for quite some time that would call for the establishment of a large standing army. The result of all of this is the abundant liberty that the people of that country enjoy, even though their politicians are self-serving and corrupt. However, had Great Britain been located on the European continent she would have had to build up a great standing army to protect herself from her neighbors. If that had happened it is likely that “she, like them, would in all probability be, at this day, a victim to the absolute power of a single man.” Of course, it is always possible that citizens can lose their liberties in other ways. In the case of Great Britian, however, the army is to small for their citizens to fall under a military dictatorship.

If the United States is “wise enough to preserve the Union”, we too can live under a pleasant and undisturbed existence. Europe is far away. European colonies in close proximity to us are too weak to present any true dangers. This situation does not call for large standing armies. If the Union breaks apart and the states form their own separate nations or join together to form a number of separate confederacies, “we should be, in a short course of time, in the predicament of the continental powers of Europe.” We would be forced to sacrifice our liberties in order to fight wars against each other.

The ideas presented here are not idle speculations. They are serious issues that must be considered by “every prudent and honest man of whatever party.” Any man who takes the time to sincerely reflect upon these ideas and contemplate our circumstances will put aside any minor objections that he may have and will come to support the proposed constitution. For, if the constitution is rejected, the Union will probably be dissolved. Minor and trivial arguments against the constitution must give way to “the more substantial forms of dangers, real, certain, and formidable.”

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