Debate in the Virginia Ratifying Convention

John Zumbrunnen

Professor John Zumbrunnen, University of Wisconsin-Madison

A key part of the context for resistance to quartering troops in private homes was the broader and older concern with standing armies as a threat to republican liberty. Below is an excerpt from the debate about the new constitution in Virginia. George Mason expresses this concern and James Madison replies. Madison’s reply rests in part on the idea of a citizen militia that would make a standing army unnecessary — a link back to the second amendment.

Debate in the Virginia Ratifying Convention

June 14, 1788

[Mr. Mason.] No man has a greater regard for the military gentlemen than I have. I admire their intrepidity, perseverance, and valor. But when once a standing army is established in any country, the people lose their liberty. When, against a regular and disciplined army, yeomanry are the only defence,–yeomanry, unskilful and unarmed,–what chance is there for preserving freedom? Give me leave to recur to the page of history, to warn you of your present danger. Recollect the history of most nations of the world. What havoc, desolation, and destruction, have been perpetrated by standing armies! An instance within the memory of some of this house will show us how our militia may be destroyed. Forty years ago, when the resolution of enslaving America was formed in Great Britain, the British Parliament was advised by an artful man, who was governor of Pennsylvania, to disarm the people; that it was the best and most effectual way to enslave them; but that they should not do it openly, but weaken them, and let them sink gradually, by totally disusing and neglecting the militia. [Here Mr. Mason quoted sundry passages to this effect.] This was a most iniquitous project. Why should we not provide against the danger of having our militia, our real and natural strength, destroyed? The general government ought, at the same time, to have some such power. But we need not give them power to abolish our militia. If they neglect to arm them, and prescribe proper discipline, they will be of no use. I am not acquainted with the military profession. I beg to be excused for any errors I may commit with respect to it. But I stand on the general principles of freedom, whereon I dare to meet any one. I wish that, in case the general government should neglect to arm and discipline the militia, there should be an express declaration that the state governments might arm and discipline them. With this single exception, I would agree to this part, as I am conscious the government ought to have the power.

They may effect the destruction of the militia, by rendering the service odious to the people themselves, by harassing them from one end of the continent to the other, and by keeping them under martial law.

The English Parliament never pass a mutiny bill but for one year. This is necessary; for otherwise the soldiers would be on the same footing with the officers, and the army would be dissolved. One mutiny bill has been here in force since the revolution. I humbly conceive there is extreme danger of establishing cruel martial regulations. If, at any time, our rulers should have unjust and iniquitous designs against our liberties, and should wish to establish a standing army, the first attempt would be to render the service and use of militia odious to the people themselves–subjecting them to unnecessary severity of discipline in time of peace, confining them under martial law, and disgusting them so much as to make them cry out, “Give us a standing army!” I would wish to have some check to exclude this danger; as, that the militia should never be subject to martial law but in time of war. I consider and fear the natural propensity of rulers to oppress the people. I wish only to prevent them from doing evil. By these amendments I would give necessary powers, but no unnecessary power. If the clause stands as it is now, it will take from the state legislatures what divine Providence has given to every individual–the means of self-defence. Unless it be moderated in some degree, it will ruin us, and introduce a standing army.

[Mr. Madison.] Mr. Chairman, I most cordially agree, with the honorable member last up, that a standing army is one of the greatest mischiefs that can possibly happen. It is a great recommendation for this system, that it provides against this evil more than any other system known to us, and, particularly, more than the old system of confederation. The most effectual way to guard against a standing army, is to render it unnecessary. The most effectual way to render it unnecessary, is to give the general government full power to call forth the militia, and exert the whole natural strength of the Union, when necessary. Thus you will furnish the people with sure and certain protection, without recurring to this evil; and the certainty of this protection from the whole will be a strong inducement to individual exertion. Does the organization of the government warrant a belief that this power will be abused? Can we believe that a government of a federal nature, consisting of many coëqual sovereignties, and particularly having one branch chosen from the people, would drag the militia unnecessarily to an immense distance? This, sir, would be unworthy the most arbitrary despot. They have no temptation whatever to abuse this power; such abuse could only answer the purpose of exciting the universal indignation of the people, and drawing on themselves the general hatred and detestation of their country.

I cannot help thinking that the honorable gentleman has not considered, in all its consequences, the amendment he has proposed. Would this be an equal protection, sir, or would it not be a most partial provision? Some states have three or four states in contact. Were this state invaded, as it is bounded by several states, the militia of three or four states would, by this proposition, be obliged to come to our aid; and those from some of the states would come a far greater distance than those of others. There are other states, which, if invaded, could be assisted by the militia of one state only, there being several states which border but on one state. Georgia and New Hampshire would be infinitely less safe than the other states. Were we to adopt this amendment, we should set up those states as butts for invasions, invite foreign enemies to attack them, and expose them to peculiar hardships and dangers. Were the militia confined to any limited distance from their respective places of abode, it would produce equal, nay, more inconveniences. The principles of equality and reciprocal aid would be destroyed in either case.

I cannot conceive that this Constitution, by giving the general government the power of arming the militia, takes it away from the state governments. The power is concurrent, and not exclusive. Have we not found, from experience, that, while the power of arming and governing the militia has been solely vested in the state legislatures, they were neglected and rendered unfit for immediate service? Every state neglected too much this most essential object. But the general government can do it more effectually. Have we not also found that the militia of one state were almost always insufficient to succor its harassed neighbor? Did all the states furnish their quotas of militia with sufficient promptitude? The assistance of one state will be of little avail to repel invasion. But the general head of the whole Union can do it with effect, if it be vested with power to use the aggregate strength of the Union. If the regulation of the militia were to be committed to the executive authority alone, there might be reason for providing restrictions. But, sir, it is the legislative authority that has this power. They must make a law for the purpose.

The honorable member is under another mistake. He wishes martial law to be exercised only in time of war, under an idea that Congress can establish it in time of peace. The states are to have the authority of training the militia according to the congressional discipline; and of governing them at all times when not in the service of the Union. Congress is to govern such part of them as may be employed in the actual service of the United States; and such part only can be subject to martial law. The gentlemen in opposition have drawn a most tremendous picture of the Constitution in this respect. Without considering that the power was absolutely indispensable, they have alarmed us with the possible abuse of it, but have shown no inducement or motive to tempt them to such abuse. Would the legislature of the state drag the militia of the eastern shore to the western frontiers, or those of the western frontiers to the eastern shore, if the local militia were sufficient to effect the intended purpose? There is something so preposterous, and so full of mischief, in the idea of dragging the militia unnecessarily from one end of the continent to the other, that I think there can be no ground of apprehension. If you limit their power over the militia, you give them a pretext for substituting a standing army. If you put it in the power of the state governments to refuse the militia, by requiring their consent, you destroy the general government, and sacrifice particular states. The same principles and motives which produce disobedience to requisitions, will produce refusal in this case.

The restrictions which the honorable gentlemen mentioned to be in the British constitution are all provisions against the power of the executive magistrate; but the House of Commons may, if they be so disposed, sacrifice the interest of their constituents in all those cases. They may prolong the duration of mutiny bills, and grant supplies to the king to carry on an impolitic war. But they have no motives to do so; for they have strong motives to do their duty. We have more ample security than the people of Great Britain. The powers of the government are more limited and guarded, and our representatives are more responsible than the members of the British House of Commons.

Source: http://press-pubs.uchicago.edu/founders/documents/a1_8_12s27.html

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