Although we typically observe the date of its signing on September 17, 1787, as Constitution Day, it was on this day 230 years ago, March 4, 1789, when the U.S. Congress formed by the Constitution held its first session.
Bad weather postponed a counting of the Electoral College ballots until April 6th (George Washington received all 69 votes cast), and his formal inauguration ceremonies in New York City took place on April 30, 1789. Washington delivered remarks following his swearing in as the nation’s first chief executive before a joint session of Congress.
However, it was Washington’s farewell address, delivered not as a spoken speech but rather as a lengthy missive published in Philadelphia’s Daily American Advertiser on September 19, 1796, that has had a more lasting impact. The public reading of Washington’s Farewell every year has become one of the Senate’s most cherished traditions.
Several passages speak to Washington’s skepticism of standing armies. The Revolutionary War hero, for example, advised his countrymen to “avoid the necessity of those overgrown military establishments which, under any form of government, are inauspicious to liberty, and which are to be regarded as particularly hostile to republican liberty.”
Washington’s contemporaries shared these concerns. At the Constitutional Convention, James Madison warned “A standing military force, with an overgrown Executive will not long be safe companions to liberty.” He went on,
The means of defence against foreign danger, have been always the instruments of tyranny at home. Among the Romans it was a standing maxim to excite a war, whenever a revolt was apprehended. Throughout all Europe, the armies kept up under the pretext of defending, have enslaved the people.
The government established 230 years ago today reflected these sentiments. For example, the Constitution grants Congress the authority to maintain a navy, but to only raise armies as necessary. It further limited the power to wage open-ended wars by prohibiting appropriations of more than two years to support such armies.
Colorado College’s David Hendrickson notes that this did not prohibit a standing army, per se. Alexander Hamilton in Federalist 24, for example, pointed to the need “for keeping small garrisons on our Western frontier” and explained that these would be staffed not by militiamen, but rather by a small professional army.
Washington had sketched out in May 1783 his vision for what a small permanent force would entail.
Altho’ a large standing Army in time of Peace hath ever been considered dangerous to the liberties of a Country, yet a few Troops, under certain circumstances, are not only safe, but indispensably necessary. Fortunately for us our relative situation requires but few. The same circumstances which so effectually retarded, and in the end conspired to defeat the attempts of Britain to subdue us, will now powerfully tend to render us secure.
By which, he meant, geography:
Our distance from the European States in a great degree frees us of apprehension, from their numerous regular forces and the Insults and dangers which are to be dreaded from their Ambition.
He reiterated these sentiments in a letter to a friend in 1788. “Separated as we are by a world of water from other Nations,” he wrote, “if we are wise we shall surely avoid being drawn into the labyrinth of their politics, and involved in their destructive wars.”
Washington was equally clear on what type of foreign policy he favored, and not merely what he was against. “The great rule of conduct for us, in regard to foreign nations,” he explained in his Farewell Address, “is in extending our commercial relations to have with them as little political connection as possible.” As the nation’s power grew—as he was sure that it would—potential belligerents would be more inclined to respect that neutrality. When that time came, Washington predicted, “we may choose peace or war, as our interest, guided by justice, shall counsel.” In the meantime, however, the new nation should “steer clear of permanent alliances.” It should undertake such efforts so as to establish “a respectable defensive posture,” and “safely trust to temporary alliances for extraordinary emergencies.”
That the Founders’ advice seems horribly antiquated today may say more about us than about them. At a minimum, it is reasonable to wonder whether the overgrown military establishment that American taxpayers support today actually delivers security at reasonable cost, or whether a different approach to engaging with the world, one more consistent with the Founders’ vision – that is through traditional diplomacy, mutually beneficial trade, and voluntary cultural exchange – might work equally well.