Federalist 29

Concerning the Militia

Daily Advertiser
Thursday, January 10, 1788
Alexander Hamilton

Summary

This essay, most likely written by Alexander Hamilton, responds to criticisms of the section of the proposed Constitution that gave the federal government the power to “provide for organizing, arming, and disciplining” the militia and to call forth the militia “to execute the Laws of the Union, suppress Insurrections and repel Invasions” (Article 1, Section 8 of the Constitution). Opponents of ratification argued that giving the federal government power over the militia would allow it to forcefully impose unjust laws, such as taxes, on the people. Many thought a federally-controlled militia was dangerously close to a An army composed of full-time, often professional, soldiers. Permanent—does not disband in times of peace.standing army. Revolution-era Americans associated the concept of a standing army with the British Army, which had attempted to enforce the unpopular colonial policies that helped trigger the revolution. In this essay, Alexander Hamilton distinguishes between the standing army, a professional fighting force and agent of the government, and the militia, a group of citizen-soldiers loyal to both their government and their communities. Hamilton argues that giving Congress the power to regulate the militia and command it in case of emergencies will discourage the federal government from seeking to establish a professional army. Rather than seeing the militia as a potential tool of power-hungry officials seeking to become tyrants, Hamilton believes that the militia will guard the citizenry against attempts to deprive them of their liberty by force. Throughout the essay, Hamilton has harsh words for his opponents: he accuses them of supplying illogical arguments, exaggerating, and fear-mongering.

Text

To the People of the State of New York:

THE power of regulating the militia, and of commanding its services in times of insurrection and invasion are natural incidents to the duties of superintending the common defense, and of watching over the internal peace of the United StatesConfederacy.

Translation

To the People of the State of New York:

The federal government has the responsibility to secure the common defense and internal peace of the United States. In order to fulfill this responsibility, it has the power to regulate the militia and command it in times of uprising and invasion.

It requires no skill in the science of war to discern that uniformity in the organization and discipline of the militia would be attended with the most beneficial effects, whenever they were called into service for the public defense. It would enable them to discharge the duties of the camp and of the field with mutual intelligence and amount toconcert an advantage of great importancepeculiar moment in the operations of an army; and it would fit them much sooner to acquire the degree of proficiency in military functions which would be essential to their usefulness. This desirable uniformity can only be accomplished by confiding the regulation of the militia to the direction of the national authority. It is, therefore, with the most evident good reasonpropriety, that the plan of the convention proposes to empower the Union "to provide for organizing, arming, and disciplining the militia, and for governing such part of them as may be employed in the service of the United States, RESERVING TO THE STATES RESPECTIVELY THE APPOINTMENT OF THE OFFICERS, AND THE AUTHORITY OF TRAINING THE MILITIA ACCORDING TO THE DISCIPLINE PRESCRIBED BY CONGRESS.'' It requires no military expertise to realize that common and consistent rules in training and discipline would allow the militia to better serve the public defense. Uniformity would enable the militia to operate in a coordinated, efficient manner in the camp and in the field, and it would allow them to become ready for battle quickly. This could only be accomplished under the direction of the national government. For this reason, the proposed Constitution empowers the federal government “to provide for organizing, arming, and disciplining the militia, and for governing such part of them as may be employed in the service of the United States, reserving to the states respectively the appointment of the officers, and the authority of training the militia according to the discipline prescribed by Congress.” [Article 1, Section 8]
Of the different grounds which have been taken in opposition to the plan of the convention, there is none that was so little to have been expected, or is so indefensibleuntenable in itself, as the one from which this particular provision has been attacked. If a well-regulated militia be the most natural defense of a free country, it ought certainly to be under the regulation and at the disposal of that body which is constituted the guardian of the national security. If standing armies are dangerous to liberty, an effectiveefficacious 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 justification forpretext 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 state officials (in particular judges)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. Out of all the criticisms of the proposed Constitution, the attacks on federal control of the militia are among the most surprising and illogical. Since the federal government is charged with protecting the national security, it ought to control the militia. After all, a well-regulated militia is the best method of defending a free country. Standing armies are dangerous to liberty, but giving the federal government control over the militia will dissuade the government from attempting to institute a standing army. Federal control over the militia will be sufficient to deal with emergencies requiring military force, so the federal government will have no reason to desire a more permanent army. But if it has no militia, it will be obliged to create an army. The militia renders a standing army unnecessary—and that is a more certain method of preventing the existence of a standing army than a thousand prohibitions on paper.
In order to cast disgust, revulsionan 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 citizens who could be called upon to help local law enforcement authorities impose orderPOSSE 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 option in case of emergency.auxiliary. There is a striking incoherence in the objections which have appeared, and sometimes even from the same quarter, not much calculated to inspire a very favorable opinion of the sincerity or fair dealing of their authors. The same persons who tell us in one breath, that the powers of the federal government will be autocratic, undemocraticdespotic and unlimited, inform us in the next, that it has not authority sufficient even to call out the POSSE COMITATUS. The latter, fortunately, is as much short of the truth as the former exceeds it. It would be as absurd to doubt, that a right to pass all laws NECESSARY AND PROPER to execute its declared powers, would include that of requiring the assistance of the citizens to the officers who may be intrusted with the execution of those laws, as it would be to believe, that a right to enact laws necessary and proper for the imposition and collection of taxes would involve that of varying the rules of kinship and inheritancerules of descent and of the transferalienation of landed property, or of abolishing the trial by jury in cases relating to it. It being therefore evident that the supposition of a want of power to require the aid of the POSSE COMITATUS is entirely destitute of color, it will follow, that the conclusion which has been drawn from it, in its application to the authority of the federal government over the militia, is as dishonest, misleadinguncandid as it is illogical. What reason could there be to infer, that force was intended to be the sole instrument of authority, merely because there is a power to make use of it when necessary? What shall we think of the motives which could induce men of sense to reason in this manner? How shall we prevent a conflict between charity and judgment? Opponents of ratification have made the power the federal government has to call up the militia seem like a terrible, disturbing thing. They argue that because no provision of the Constitution gives the government the power to require citizens to assist the authorities with law enforcement, using military force is the only option the federal government has for dealing with emergencies. This argument illustrates the incoherence of the various objections to the Constitution. The same critics who tell us in one breath, that the powers of the federal government are unlimited and will lead to tyranny, inform us in the next, that the federal government does not even have the power to oblige citizens to assist it. The former is as false as the latter is true. The right of Congress to pass all laws necessary and proper to execute its declared powers (Article 1, Section 8) clearly includes the power to require citizens to assist officers of the law in emergencies. However, the necessary and proper clause limits Congress’s power as well. For instance, Congress could not argue that altering laws regarding property inheritance falls under its power to enact laws necessary and proper for imposing and collecting taxes. Since the federal government has the power to require the assistance of the citizenry, it need only rely on military force to enforce its authority when absolutely necessary. What motive could possibly cause a reasonable person to argue to the contrary?
By a curious refinement upon the spirit of tendency to distrust concentrated governmental power, with the goal of preserving libertyrepublican jealousy, we are even taught to apprehend danger from the militia itself, in the hands of the federal government. It is observed that select corps may be formed, composed of the young and ardent, who may be rendered subservient to the views of arbitrary power. What plan for the regulation of the militia may be pursued by the national government, is impossible to be foreseen. But so far from viewing the matter in the same light with those who object to select corps as dangerous, were the Constitution ratified, and were I to deliver my sentiments to a member of the federal legislature from this State on the subject of a militia establishment, I should hold to him, in substance, the following discourse: Critics of the proposed Constitution have taken the legitimate fear of unlimited government power to levels so extreme that even the militia, under federal control, seems dangerous. They worry that smaller, elite forces would be formed, full of young and impressionable men who could be enticed to support a tyrant. I see things differently. It is impossible to know exactly what plan the national government will create to regulate the militia. But if I were asked to explain my views regarding the militia to a Congressman representing the State of New York, I would recommend the following course of action:
"The project of disciplining all the militia of the United States is as futile as it would be harmfulinjurious, if it were capable of being carried into execution. A tolerable expertness in military movements is a business that requires time and practice. It is not a day, or even a week, that will suffice for the attainment of it. To oblige the great body of the yeomanry, and of the other classes of the citizens, to be under arms for the purpose of going through military exercises and evolutions, as often as might be necessary to acquire the degree of perfection which would entitle them to the character of a well-regulated militia, would be a real grievance to the people, and a serious public inconvenience and loss. It would form an annual deduction from the productive labor of the country, to an amount which, calculating upon the present numbers of the people, would not fall far short of the whole expense of the civil establishments of all the States. To attempt a thing which would abridge the mass of labor and industry to so considerable an extent, would be unwise: and the experiment, if made, could not succeed, because it would not long be endured. Little more can reasonably be aimed at, with respect to the people at large, than to have them properly armed and equipped; and in order to see that this be not neglected, it will be necessary to assemble them once or twice in the course of a year. “Organizing and disciplining all the militiamen in the United States is impossible—and if it were possible, it would be harmful to the country. Developing military expertise takes time and practice over a long period of time. To require all citizens capable of serving in the militia to undergo enough military training to be accurately described as a “well-regulated militia” would be a real grievance to the people and society at large. It would result in an annual loss of productive labor, which would be a substantial expense for the States. The disruption to the workplace and economy would be too great for the citizenry to endure. A more reasonable goal would be to ensure that the people at large have the necessary weapons and to assemble them once or twice in the course of a year.
"But though the scheme of disciplining the whole nation must be abandoned as mischievous or impracticable; yet it is a matter of the utmost importance that a well-digested plan should, as soon as possible, be adopted for the proper establishment of the militia. The attention of the government ought particularly to be directed to the formation of a select corps of moderate sizeextent, upon such principles as will really fit them for service in case of need. By thus circumscribing the plan, it will be possible to have an excellent body of well-trained militia, ready to take the field whenever the defense of the State shall require it. This will not only lessen the call for military establishments, but if circumstances should at any time oblige the government to form an army of any magnitude that army can never be formidable to the liberties of the people while there is a large body of citizens, little, if at all, inferior to them in discipline and the use of arms, who stand ready to defend their own rights and those of their fellow-citizens. This appears to me the only substitute that can be devised for a standing army, and the best possible security against it, if it should exist.'' “Although it would be impossible—and undesirable—to have the whole nation undergo military training, it is still incredibly important to develop a plan as soon as possible that would establish the militia. The federal government should form a moderately-sized corps that would be sufficiently well-trained to take to the field to defend the State when necessary. The existence of this well-trained militia would dissuade proposals for a professional military establishment. However, if the federal government ever did form an army that posed a threat to the liberties of the people, the militia could mobilize itself to defend their own rights and those of their fellow citizens. A federally-regulated militia seems to be both the best substitute for a standing army, and the best defense against a standing army, if one was formed.”
Thus differently from the adversaries of the proposed Constitution should I reason on the same subject, deducing arguments of safety from the very sources which they represent as fraught with danger and damnationperdition. But how the national legislature may reason on the point, is a thing which neither they nor I can foresee. From the above discussion, one can see that I believe the militia can guard against attacks on liberty, while adversaries of the proposed Constitution see the militia as a source of danger. But of course, neither I nor these adversaries can predict how Congress will choose to institute the well-regulated militia.
There is something so far-fetched and so extravagant in the idea of danger to liberty from the militia, that one is at a loss whether to treat it with gravity or with mockeryraillery; whether to consider it as a mere trial of skill, like the paradoxes of experts in formal debatingrhetoricians; as a disingenuous trick, deceptionartifice to instil prejudices at any price; or as the serious offspring of political extremismfanaticism. Where in the name of common-sense, are our fears to end if we may not trust our sons, our brothers, our neighbors, our fellow-citizens? What shadow of danger can there be from men who are daily mingling with the rest of their countrymen and who participate with them in the same feelings, sentiments, habits and interests? What reasonable cause of apprehension can be inferred from a power in the Union to prescribe regulations for the militia, and to command its services when necessary, while the particular States are to have the SOLE AND EXCLUSIVE APPOINTMENT OF THE OFFICERS? If it were possible seriously to indulge a jealousy of the militia upon any conceivable establishment under the federal government, the circumstance of the officers being in the appointment of the States ought at once to extinguish it. There can be no doubt that this circumstance will always secure to them a controllingpreponderating influence over the militia. The idea of the militia being dangerous to liberty is so far-fetched that one cannot know whether to take it seriously. Is it argument for the sake of argument, fear-mongering, or political extremism? After all, who can we trust, if we cannot trust a militia made up of our brothers, our neighbors, our fellow-citizens? What can be feared from giving the federal government the power to enact regulations for the militia and command it when necessary, when only the states have the ability to appoint its officers? Even if there were reason to fear that the federal government would try to use the militia to take unwarranted powers, the power of the states over appointment of officers would prevent it. By controlling the appointment of officers, the states will always have a strong enough influence over the militia to check the power of the federal government.
In reading many of the publications against the Constitution, a man is apt to imagine that he is perusing some ill-written tale or romance, which instead of natural and agreeable images, exhibits to the mind nothing but frightful and distorted shapes Quote from John Milton's epic poem, "Paradise Lost" (1667). Refers to mythical monsters."Gorgons, hydras, and chimeras dire''; discoloring and disfiguring whatever it represents, and transforming everything it touches into a monster. The publications criticizing the Constitution sound like some badly written story. The effects of the proposed Constitution are distorted beyond recognition, instilling fear like fantastical monsters.
A sample of this is to be observed in the exaggerated and improbable suggestions which have taken place respecting the power of calling for the services of the militia. That of New Hampshire is to be marched to Georgia, of Georgia to New Hampshire, of New York to Kentucky, and of Kentucky to Lake Champlain. Nay, the debts due to the French and Dutch are to be paid in militiamen instead of French and Dutch currency (respectively)louis d'ors and ducats. At one moment there is to be a large army to overwhelm, take awaylay prostrate the liberties of the people; at another moment the militia of Virginia are to be dragged from their homes five or six hundred miles, to tame the republican contumacy of Massachusetts; and that of Massachusetts is to be transported an equal distance to subdue the stubbornrefractory haughtiness of the aristocratic Virginians. Do the persons who rave at this rate imagine that their art or their eloquence can impose any conceits or absurdities upon the people of America for unerring, always accurateinfallible truths? For example, consider the exaggerated and far-fetched suggestions regarding the federal government’s power to call for the services of the militia. Militiamen from New Hampshire are to be marched to Georgia, and from Georgia to Kentucky, and from Kentucky to the Canadian border. In fact, the debts due to the French and the Dutch will be paid in militiamen rather than in money. First, critics of the proposed Constitution warn that the liberties of the people will be destroyed by the power of a large army. But the next moment, they predict that the militiamen of Virginia will be dragged hundreds of miles to put down civilian unrest in Massachusetts—and that the Massachusetts militia will trek an equal distance to subdue the stubborn haughtiness of aristocratic Virginians. Do the people who make such ludicrous claims truly think they can fool the people of America with their clever-sounding arguments?
If there should be an army to be made use of as the engine of despotism, what need of the militia? If there should be no army, whither would the militia, irritated by being called upon to undertake a distant and hopeless expedition, for the purpose of riveting the chains of slavery upon a part of their countrymen, direct their course, but to the seat of the tyrants, who had meditated so foolish as well as so wicked a project, to crush them in their imagined literally, a strong defensive position such as a trench; in this case, well-protected powerintrenchments of power, and to make them an example of the just vengeance of an abused and incensed people? Is this the way in which individuals who wrongfully seize powerusurpers stride to dominion over a numerous and enlightened nation? Do they begin by exciting the detestation of the very instruments of their intended usurpations? Do they usually commence their career by cruel, unprovokedwanton and disgustful acts of power, calculated to answer no purposeend, but to draw upon themselves universal hatred and curses, denouncementexecration? Are suppositions of this sort the sober admonitions of discerning patriots to a discerning people? Or are they the inflammatory ravings of people who purposely stir up conflictincendiaries or distempered enthusiasts? If we were even to suppose the national rulers actuated by the most ungovernable ambition, it is impossible to believe that they would employ such preposterous means to accomplish their designs. If the federal government ordered the militiamen to march across the country and attack their own countrymen in order to take away their liberty, the militia would instead turn and attack the government. The tyrants attempting such a wicked plan would be deposed as an example of the vengeance of a maltreated, furious citizenry. Could a few power-hungry men use the militia to seize control of a populous and rational country? Would these men purposely undertake actions that would disgust the members of the militia, and bring upon them the universal hatred of the populace? Critics of the Constitution would say yes. Does that argument sound like the warning of a thoughtful patriot, or the inflammatory ravings of rabble-rousers and malcontents? Even if we accepted that the leaders of the federal government were victims to uncontrollable ambition, it is impossible to believe that they would use such preposterous means to seize power.
In times of insurrection, or invasion, it would be natural and proper that the militia of a neighboring State should be marched into another, to resist a common enemy, or to guard the republic against the violence of faction or sedition. This was frequently the case, in respect to the first object, in the course of the late war; and this mutual assistancesuccor is, indeed, a principal end of our political association. If the power of affording it be placed under the direction of the Union, there will be no danger of a weak, passivesupine and listless inattention to the dangers of a neighbor, till its near approach had superadded the incitements of self preservation to the too feeble impulses of duty and sympathy.

PUBLIUS.

In times of domestic unrest or invasion, it would be acceptable—even necessary—that the militia of one state be marched into a neighboring state in order to guard the republic from enemies internal and external. During the fight for independence from Britain, this was frequently necessary. In fact, that need was a key reason for the unification of the states under the Articles of Confederation. If this power is preserved in the federal government under the Constitution, the nation will not be left unprepared and defenseless in case of invasion.

PUBLIUS.

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