Saturday, July 3, 2010

America's Founders: "Might Makes Right? Or Just Trouble?"

I've gone back to read the U.S. Constitution recently, and it's left me convinced that our founders had a very clear vision of a nation that avoided throwing it's weight around.

Years ago, I read Bernard Bailyn's book about the ideological origins of the American revolution. His basic idea was that you had to understand some of the abuses that our founders had observed in order to know how passionately they felt about avoiding them in the future. One of those abuses was indefinite detention, which I have delved into extensively elsewhere. Of equal concern to the Founders was the danger posed by standing armies. In the view of the founders, setting up a standing army was just asking for trouble.

William F. Marina laid this out very clearly in an article 35 years ago: "Militia, Standing Armies, and the Second Amendment." As Marina summed it up, "An armed citizenry...was both a check on domestic tyranny and the most desirable form of national defense. It was for the security of a free state from these perils that the Founders sought the protection of a well-regulated militia."

To echo Marina, I find several elements of the U.S. Constitution very explicit on this point. First, of course, there is the Second Amendment protection on the militia institution. The full context for this is provided in a series of grants of Congressional authority in Article 1, Section 8: first, the very brief statement of Congressional authority to raise an army (i.e. standing body of soldiers) for a limited period of 2 years, followed immediately and contrasted with the Congressional authority to provide a navy (i.e. capital equipment; ships), which, once provided, will be around indefinitely .... followed in Section 8 by the substantially more elaborate set of rules for calling forth the militia -- which clearly was intended as the main instrument of national defense.

I must confess that, having grown up at the height of the Vietnam War -- in which American projection of military power was in the news every day -- in the old New Jersey town of Chatham, with its annual 4th of July Fife & Drum Corps musters, I assumed for a long time that the military-industrial complex was a long-standing American tradition, and that the concept of the militia was obsolete.

My mind was opened when I read John McPhee's book about Switzerland, La Place de la Concorde Suisse, which provides a powerful picture of how a modern militia permeates the life of that nation. Switzerland doesn't sally forth looking for fights, but those mountains are bristling with weapons and everyone's a soldier.

With the conflicts in Iraq and Afghanistan, I became aware that a lot of units going overseas are actually parts of the National Guard. This led me to do a little research, and I learned that the militias of the various states, the National Guard, and the U.S. Army are related to each other according to a set of laws (notably the National Defense Act of 1916) that take very seriously the primacy of the militia laid out in the U.S. Constitution. (For chapter and verse on this, see Barry M. Stentiford, The American Home Guard: The State Militia in the Twentieth Century.)

The more I dig into the U.S. Constitution, the more I'm convinced that the purpose the United States originally aspired to was precisely this unprecedented purpose: to demonstrate the truth of the proposition that might doesn't make right, and that governance can be achieved by other means.

People of good will can differ about just how far we, as a nation, have strayed from that purpose . . . and, to the degree that we have, the reasons why are complicated and need to be discussed thoroughly. But as a matter of first principal, isn't it important to get honest with ourselves about the basic question of what the Founders intended? And to ask ourselves whether that intent might be worth honoring?

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