Constitution Sunday: “Brutus” VIII

“Brutus” VIII

New York Journal, January 10, 1788

In the draft of the Constitution was a clause that permitted the federal government to “borrow money on the credit of the United States, and to raise and support armies.” The author of an article in the New York Journal, using the pseudonym Brutus (undoubtedly referring to one of Julius Caesar’s assassins, Marcus Junius Brutus), warned of the consequences flowing from that clause. Not only did it leave open the possibility of the national debt growing so large as to exceed the country’s ability to repay, it allowed an “indefinite and unlimited” power to raise armies regardless of whether the country was at war.

At the heart of Brutus’ argument was that a standing army, during peacetime, essentially had no benefit to the people. He wrote that there was universal agreement on this premise, and one of the best pieces of rhetoric in support of the premise came from a speech delivered in the House of Commons by a Mr. Pultney: “a standing army is still a standing army by whatever name it is called; they are a body of men distinct from the body of the people; they are governed by different laws, and blind obedience, and an entire submission to the orders of their commanding officer, is their only principle.” Pultney continued, “Besides, sir, we know the passions of men, we know how dangerous it is to trust the best of men with too much power. Where was a braver army than that under Jul. Caesar? Where was there ever an army that had served their country more faithfully? That army was commanded generally by the best citizens of Rome, by men of great fortune and figure in their country, yet that army enslaved their country.”

Pultney concluded the argument: “If an army be so numerous as to have it in their power to overawe the parliament, they will be submissive as long as the parliament does nothing to disoblige their favourite general; but when that case happens I am afraid, that in place of the parliament’s dismissing the army, the army will dismiss the parliament.” It was this, stated Brutus, that best illustrated the risk of a standing army in the United States: a standing army endangered the “liberty and happiness of the community” and “would tend to destroy public liberty.” For Brutus, and like-minded Americans, the potential for tyranny—or an overbearing federal government—was too high if the draft Constitution were ratified. There remained too much potential for power to concentrate and then for someone to abuse that power in the same way that happened in Ancient Rome: at a time when there was relative calm and Julius Caesar commanded an army, he unprecedentedly marched his army into the capital, Rome, causing an exodus of the people in power and putting the Roman Republic on a path that culminated in his dictatorship in perpetuity and then his assassination. For Brutus, the Constitution needed a structure that would prevent, or minimize the chance of, such events befalling the newly born American Republic.

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