Wednesday, September 12, 2012

Jay's Defense Policy

John Jay, writing in the third of the Federalist Papers in 1787, stated his notion about national defense, and how it would be strengthened by adopting the proposed Constitution. Under the Articles of Confederation, national defense had been a murky subject. Arising from an equally murky foreign policy, in which each of the thirteen states was free to make its own treaties with other nations, the nation's defensive structure was ambiguous. It was not clear if or how the national government had the authority to call up the militia of one of the states. This left the central government toothless, and the need for a stronger centralized military structure was obvious. But at the same time, it was far from obvious how one might create a national defense without harming the rights of the individual states, counties, towns, and individuals.

This, in a nutshell, is the paradox behind the Federalist Papers as they advocate for the ratification of the new Constitution: how to obtain the benefits of a strong national government without hindering the liberties of the individual citizen. This same tension lies behind the ninth and tenth amendments to the Constitution, found in the Bill of Rights.

Jay wrote that

Among the many objects to which a wise and free people find it necessary to direct their attention, that of providing for their safety seems to be the first. The safety of the people doubtless has relation to a great variety of circumstances and considerations, and consequently affords great latitude to those who wish to define it precisely and comprehensively.

He begins by indicating that the issue of safety can be perceived or interpreted differently. Honest and intelligent men might differ as to what they mean by the phrase "provide safety" for the citizens of a nation. To clarify and sharpen the discussion, then, Jay continues:

At present I mean only to consider it as it respects security for the preservation of peace and tranquillity, as well against dangers from foreign arms and influence, as from dangers of the like kind arising from domestic causes. As the former of these comes first in order, it is proper it should be the first discussed. Let us therefore proceed to examine whether the people are not right in their opinion, that a cordial Union under an efficient national Government, affords them the best security that can be devised against hostilities from abroad.

Refining the definition, then, Jay writes that the types of safety in which the federal government will have an interest are "security for the preservation of peace and tranquility," and "against dangers from foreign arms and influence," and "dangers of the like kind arising from domestic causes." John Jay is telling us that the national government will protect its citizens from foreign military attack and from domestic criminals. Expanding the definition slightly, he includes that the constitutional government will protect its citizens also from foreign "influence" - we have rightly here to ask, what he means by this: propaganda, economic pressures, spying, etc.

Jay's ruminations on national security did not take place in a vacuum. The experience of the war (1775 to 1783) was close at hand. The Continental Congress had faced then the same tension: how to provide a military defense for the liberties of the inhabitants of the thirteen colonies - soon to be the thirteen states - without violating the same freedom which it was protecting. Mounting a defense of freedom required taxing citizens to pay for the military, as well as conscripting or impressing men to be soldiers - the draft. Yet taxes and government interference with the private lives of citizens were exactly the causes of the rebellion.

Describing how this tension played out in practical terms, historians Allan Millett and Peter Maslowski write that

It looked as if the colonies were embarked upon an unequal war. A population of two and a half million (20 percent of whom were slaves), without an army, navy, or adequate financial resources, confronted a nation of eight million with a professional army, large navy, and vast wealth. Yet many colonists were confident and determined. They believed in the "natural courage" of Americans and in God's divine protection. Congress admitted that colonial soldiers lacked experience and discipline but insisted that "facts have shown, that native Courage warmed with Patriotism is sufficient to counterbalance these Advantages." And a British captain wrote that Americans "are just now worked up to such a degree of enthusiasm and madness that they are easily persuaded the Lord is to assist them in whatever they undertake, and that they must be invincible." Colonists were determined because they struggled for high stakes, summed up by George Washington: "Remember, officers and soldiers, that you are freemen, fighting for the blessings of liberty; that slavery will be your portion and that of your posterity if you do not acquit yourselves like men." The Revolution was no European dynastic squabble, but a war involving an ideological question that affected the population far more than did the kingly quarrels of the Age of Limited Warfare. Large numbers of colonists ardently believed freedom was the issue, not only for themselves but for generations yet unborn.

The focus on freedom as the goal of the war provided enough motivation to allow the thirteen colonies to overcome their deficits in technology, in money, and in manpower. Other wars in the preceding decades and centuries had been rivalries between competing European dynasties. Soldiers were commoners employed by the royal houses - precious little motivation for them to risk their lives. In adventures like the War of the Austrian Succession and the Seven Years' War, then, we see soldiers fighting without the concept of "total war" which motivated the colonists in throwing off the British yoke. (The phrase "total war" would come to have a negative connotation, two centuries later, when it was used by fascists against democracies, but in George Washington's time, the phrase was unknown - we apply it retroactively, as an anachronism, to denote the passion and dedication of the Continental Army.) The colonists knew that, once begun, they would either win the war, or be devastated by the British. There would be no negotiated compromise as a 'middle way' out.

Shouldering arms freely and believing freedom was the issue, Continentals never became regulars in the European sense. They became good soldiers, but they remained citizens who refused to surrender their individuality. They asserted their personal independence by wearing jaunty hats and long hair despite (or perhaps to spite) their officers' insistence upon conformity in dress and appearance. Furthermore, they were only temporary regulars. Unlike European professionals, they understood the war's goals and would fight until they were achieved, but then they intended to return to civilian life.

The Americans revived the concept of "citizen soldier" from ancient Rome - a citizen who fought for the goals of the war, not for pay, and who had a hand in determining those goals. European soldiers of the 1700's fought for pay; the Americans fought for freedom. The Americans had so thoroughly embraced the ideology of liberty that they were willing to die for it.

Americans reintroduced ideology into warfare, fought for the unlimited goal of independence, and mobilized citizen-soldiers rather than professionals. In the spring of 1783, Washington summarized the drastic implications of these changes. "It may be laid down as a primary position, and the basis of our system," he wrote, "that every Citizen who enjoys the protection of a free Government, owes not only a proportion of his property, but even of his personal service to the defense of it...." To protect the nation, "the Total strength of the Country might be called forth." Mass citizen-soldier armies would be motivated by patriotic zeal as they fought for freedom, equality, and other abstract ideological virtues.

As abstract as the goals of war may have been, they took specific and concrete form in the minds of the Americans: the list of grievances against the King of England in the Declaration of Independence - drawn from the Intolerable Acts, the Stamp Act, the Townshend Acts, the Sugar Act, the Tea Act, and others - was no mere ideological abstraction, but a physical reality. This specificity prevented the American Revolution from becoming the debacle which was the French Revolution.