Constitution Sunday: “Publius,” The Federalist XLI [James Madison]

Independent Journal (New York)

January 19, 1788

Engineering a coup can be difficult. Usually, it requires a military to not only lose faith in the civilian government but to organize an overthrowing of that government. Democratic republics fear this prospect as much as any other type of government. Although democratic republics are better suited for allowing their citizens to vent their anger—through the vote, protest, and other expressions of speech—and presumably have a healthier, happier citizenry as a result, the threat still lingers. And during any period of American history, the potential for a standing army—one of permanence and at times one of substantial size—has raised the specter of a military coup on top of the obvious dedication of resources needed to support a standing army.

James Madison took on this issue under the pen name Publius and noted the dangers of having a standing army. He observed “that the liberties of Rome proved the final victim to their military triumphs, and that the liberties of Europe, as far as they ever existed, have with few exceptions been the price of her military establishments.” He continued: “A standing force therefore is a dangerous, at the same time that it may be a necessary provision. On the smallest scale it has its inconveniences. On an extensive scale, its consequences may be fatal.” It is for this reason that it is a topic that requires “laudable circumspection and precaution.” Although America would have a different dynamic than continental Europe—by having oceans serving as buffers—there remained the potential need for a military to quell domestic threats as well as those posed by neighboring countries.

Regardless, Congress needed the power to restrict standing armies, and the House of Representatives’ power of the purse was how that restriction would come about. The Constitution, at Article I, Section 8, Clause 12, states that Congress has the power “[t]o raise and support Armies, but no Appropriation of Money to that Use shall be for a longer Term than two Years[.]” This clause ensured that the people could elect representatives to the House of Representatives with each election cycle for that chamber and effectively voice what contours a standing army should have by virtue of its funding or lack thereof. It is not a clause that entirely disposes of the risk of a military coup, but it is one that mitigates the risk by putting the funding of the military in one chamber of the legislative body—insulated from the executive branch’s command of the military. Mitigating this risk may be an imperfect approach, but it has led to over 200 years of stability between the military and the federal government.

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