Constitution Sunday: “Brutus” X

New York Journal

January 24, 1788

History is replete with military coups. At a time when a country’s government has grown weak, the temptation to make drastic change can become overwhelming. Sometimes, rather than wait for the next election, the military makes its move—to the detriment of the democracy, the people, and the chances for protecting the people’s rights. There are some who believe that the best way to prevent such coups is to prohibit having a standing army altogether. In 1788, an author, using the pen name Brutus, saw that the liberties of the people faced imminent threat if there was a “large standing army” allowed in the United States and made the case that the Constitution should prohibit such an army as it created too much of a danger to the viability of the Republic.

Brutus wrote that his readers need not look any further than Britain and Rome for cautionary tales. In Ancient Rome, Julius Caesar had “destroyed” the liberties of the people by leading an army against the Roman Republic, “whose fame had sounded, and is still celebrated by all the world,” and turned that republic into “the most absolute despotism.” A similar situation occurred in Britain: the same army that “vindicated the liberties of that people from the encroachments and despotism of a tyrant king, assisted Cromwell, their General, in wresting from the people, that liberty they had so dearly earned.”

Any reader, after thinking of Brutus’ examples, could doubt whether those were analogous or even applicable to the United States. Anticipating this, Brutus wrote: “You may be told, these instances will not apply to our case:—But those who would persuade you to believe this, either mean to deceive you, or have not themselves considered the subject.” In other words, these things can happen to any country at any time; they aren’t isolated events that just happened in Britain and Rome; they’re events that happen due to human nature. At the time Brutus wrote, it was a moment in which it was difficult to see the fallibility of the army; the United States’ army had just defended the country against the British and had earned the people’s respect; “no country in the world ever had a more patriotic army,” wrote Brutus. But each country’s military—including Rome’s and Britain’s—had some form of patriotism and respect; there could be no assurance that patriotism and respect would alone protect the country against a military coup.

Further, there remained a question of whether a country may sufficiently defend itself against outside aggressors if that country did not keep a standing army. Brutus wrote that particularly given the fact that formal declarations of war had then, “in modern times,” fallen into disuse, a country could not hope to raise an army upon another country commencing its attack. By the time American soldiers had been called to action, the enemy could have taken the capital. Brutus recognized this problem and admitted that there was no easy answer. He supposed that perhaps the government could use its discretion in maintaining some troops at “important frontier posts, and to guard arsenals”—reasonable proposals for Eighteenth Century America but difficult to envision as the country grew in size and influence. Then, according to Brutus, there should have been a requirement “that no troops whatsoever shall be raised in time of peace, without the assent of two thirds of the members, composing both houses of the legislature.”

Although no such requirement exists, the Constitution does put the onus on Congress. Article I, Section 8, Clause 12 states that Congress shall have the power to “raise and support Armies, but no Appropriation of Money to that Use shall be for a longer Term than two Years; . . . .” With this clause having the effect of creating a standing army, albeit renewable every two years, one has to wonder whether Brutus would approve of this arrangement—even with the people, through their representatives, being empowered to adjust the size and strength of the army.

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