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The Warfare State
A scholar searches across two centuries to discover the main engine of our government’s growth—and reaches a controversial conclusion
July/August 1994 | Volume 45, Issue 4
That the American Confederation did not fall apart entirely after 1783 can be attributed to the twin imperatives of internal order and external defense. Nationalist leaders such as James Madison, Alexander Hamilton, Robert Morris, and Gouverneur Morris pressed the case for a central government largely on military grounds, arguing that individual states alone could not adequately provide for either defense or the maintenance of order. The course of events vindicated their argument. Rising internal anarchy in several states exposed the inadequacy of local militia. The most serious incident, Shays’ Rebellion, boosted pronationalist feeling in several states. Meanwhile, the Northern states bordering on British or French possessions increasingly worried about the vulnerability of their trade. Britain was no longer an enemy, but neither was its navy a protector, and how could overseas commerce be conducted safely without a strong navy, which no one state could afford? In the South Georgia’s burgeoning population was alarmed by the proximity of sometimes hostile Indian tribes; the state militia could not ensure frontier security.
Revolutionary War veterans played a crucial role in the movement for a strong central government between 1783 and 1789. The victory over Britain had enhanced their political standing, while the experience of the war had made them the most nationalist-minded interest group in America. Congress had ended the war with large domestic debts, including nearly $10 million owed to veterans whose pay was in arrears or who had been promised pensions of half pay for life. Veterans lobbied hard for either Congress or the states to meet this obligation. Some fiscally healthy states did assume the debt, but others could not; veterans in those states regarded the formation of a strong national government as their best hope for redress. Nationalist leaders such as Hamilton pressed for Congress to assume the full debts, believing this would turn the debts into a potential “cement” of the Union. Thus war debts helped consolidate a fractious polity by binding creditors across the nation.
The Civil War spawned a revolution in taxation that permanently altered the relationship of the government to the economy. And the war transformed what had been an unorganized nation into an ever more organized one.
The mounting concern over national security, civil order, and war debts culminated in the gathering at Philadelphia in 1787. Edmund Randolph made the first formal speech to the convention, indicting the existing Confederation for having “produced no security against foreign invasion” and failing to “check the quarrels between states, nor a rebellion in any.” This same preoccupation with national security permeates the Constitution itself, from the “insure domestic Tranquility, provide for the common defence” line of the Preamble to the guarantee in Article IV that the United States will protect the states against invasion and domestic violence. Of the eighteen clauses defining the powers of Congress, nine directly concern military affairs.
The Constitution envisioned immense potential power for the President, but only in times of war or grave national crisis; this was one reason the government has expanded most easily during wars. Such an enormous grant of power to one individual, even with all the safeguards that accompanied it, was feasible only because everyone believed that the first holder of the office would be the former commander in chief of the Continental Army. The world’s first new republic in more than a century, the jewel of the Enlightenment would be headed by a military officer, an aristocrat who epitomized the martial virtues of his class. Not surprisingly he was known throughout his Presidency simply as General Washington.
The new republic’s first decade was marked by Britain’s retention of military posts in the Northwest, friction with Spain over the Mississippi and the Southwestern border, the Nootka Sound crisis, and rising tensions associated with the French Revolutionary and Napoleonic wars. Throughout the 1790s Federalist leaders such as Hamilton sought to build up the Regular Army, form a permanent defense establishment, and enhance federal authority. They were only partly successful, however. In 1796 a French visitor to Washington was stunned to find the War Office staffed by only two clerks.