Constitution Sunday: Thomas Dawes, Jr. on Legitimate Standing Armies

Massachusetts Ratifying Convention

January 24, 1788

The Constitution empowers Congress to “raise and support Armies” with the limitation that any appropriation of money for raising and supporting armies must be limited to a two-year term (Article I, Section 8, Clause 12). At the Massachusetts Ratifying Convention, there was debate as to whether that authority should exist at all and whether it should be housed with Congress.

Thomas Dawes, Jr. arose and said that any objections to the clause empowering Congress were simply misplaced. Congress, according to Dawes, was the only place where that power should reside. No more evidence of that was necessary than the fact that English kings had held the power and raised armies without any consent of a legislature. In doing so, they “occasioned a great and just alarm through the nation.” An American President, although more limited in powers, was still in a position to do harm by raising and maintaining armies.

No such alarm would occur with the draft Constitution: every two years, there would be elections for members of Congress. Thus, “there is great propriety in its being restrained from making any grants in support of the army for a longer space than that of their existence.” The two-year term was also beneficial in itself. In England, where terms for members of the legislature lasted seven years, there was sufficient time for a relationship to be established between members of the legislature and leaders of the army “as might be unfavourable to liberty.” No such circumstance would be so likely to occur under the Constitution: the army’s appropriations would expire two years after being raised, “unless renewed by representatives, who at that time will have just come fresh from the body of the people.”

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