Debate: Army Appropriations Bill (1878)—Part I

American Debate

Following the nation-wide riots in 1877, Congress debates appropriating money for the Army. Rep. William Kimmel (D., Maryland) argues for funding the militia, Rep. Herman L. Humphrey (R., Wisconson) for funding the Army.

Let us see by the broad light of history how fatal standing armies have been to liberty, and profiting by these examples learn how well these justify the distrust of the fathers.


Burning of the Union Depot at Pittsburgh, by the Rioters.

Second Session.

MONDAY, May 20, 1878.

Pt. IPt. IIPt. IIIPt. IV — Pt. V —


The House met at eleven o’clock a. m. Prayer by Rev. S. DOMER, D. D., St. Paul’s English Lutheran church, Washington, District of Columbia.

The Journal of Saturday was read and approved.


THE CHAIRMAN. The House is now in Committee of the Whole until two o’clock for the purpose of proceeding with the bill (H. R. No. 4867) making appropriations for the support of the Army for the fiscal year ending June 30, 1879, and for other purposes. The gentleman from Maryland, [Mr. KIMMEL.]

Mr. KIMMEL. Mr. Chairman, I trust I am properly impressed with the importance of the subject of which I am about to speak. I believe I approach it without partisan bias. I have the deepest conviction that upon a proper adjustment of it depends the peace and, I fear, the liberties of the people. I confess that the more deeply I inquire into the steady growth of the standing Army and the uses to which it has been applied, the stronger my conviction becomes that the highest patriotism demands the wisest precautionary measures.

Reviewing the past and attentively considering the present, I conclude that this is a time most auspicious for considering such measures.

The cause which selfish politicians so sedulously used as a means for cultivating sectional hate has ceased to exist. The statesmen whose skill was inadequate to the demands of the situation which those politicians had created have passed or are passing away. The people demand repose. Party pride finds but little inspiration from the qualities of its respective leaders, so that the good men of both the great parties may and do mingle in friendly counsel. Soldiers who crossed their swords in deadly conflict now interchange friendly greetings, and widows and orphans bedeck with flowers and bedew with tears the graves of those by whose hands their husbands and fathers fell. It seems as though the past is to be remembered only for its glories and the lessons to be learned from its teachings. This condition seems to assure that calm consideration by which statesmanship triumphs over the arts of the demagogue and the violence of the partisan.


Let us see by the broad light of history how fatal standing armies have been to liberty, and profiting by these examples learn how well these justify the distrust of the fathers. This dark cloud cast its shadow across their path and seems to have been their constant dread. Many of them were learned men, most of them wise men, patriots all. The records of their statesmanship show that they sought and found light in the experience of every government that preceded the one they were ushering into existence. They found—

That even Tacitus, the friend and servant of Roman emperors in the worst period of Roman history, when the pretorian guard sold and resold the Roman crown exclaimed, “Is there any escape from a standing army but in a well-disciplined militia?”

That in all the States of Western Europe, the shattered fragments of the Roman Republic, after the lapse of many centuries there remain recognizable vestiges of Roman freedom. Aragon was freer than England; Castile as free; the governments of the north almost patriarchal, and that even in France the king was far from absolute. That in all these there were restraints on the prerogative of the crown in fundamental laws and representative assemblies, and that by the force of standing armies all these constitutions, except that of England, had been crushed before the convention of 1787 had formed the Constitution of the United States.

That the history of England, their mother country, with which they were so loath to part, teemed with accounts of stern resistance to standing armies.

That Lord Bacon, the wisest although the meanest of mankind, had the courage in the time of the tyrant Tudors to declare that a “mercenary army is fittest to invade a country but a militia to defend it.”

That the attempt to create a standing army under Charles I cost Strafford his head and eventually cost Charles himself, first his throne and then his life.

That General Monk, a republican general, with six thousand men, the remnant of Cromwell’s republican arm, overthrew the commonwealth of England by restoring Charles II to the throne.

That during the reign of this same Charles II this feeling of the English people found expression in the action of a grand jury which presented the standing army, and the pension Parliament, as it was called, voted that army a nuisance, and sent a member to the tower for saying “the king might keep guards for the defense of his person.”

That when William of Orange desired to import into England the continental system, the consent of Parliament to the establishment of a standing army was obtained only by the passage of the mutiny act, which limited its existence to a single year.

That in the short period of one hundred years from the date of its establishment this army had increased to eighteen thousand men, and that part of that army was being employed for the subjugation of the colonies, so that in the immortal Declaration of Independence, when summing up the wrongs of years, they charged that “He (the king) has kept among us in times of peace standing armies without the consent of our legislatures.”


This dread and detestation of standing armies appears on every page of their progress toward independence and the establishment of the Constitution of 1789.

On this subject the constitutions of the several States used emphatic language. The constitutions of Pennsylvania, North Carolina, and Vermont declared that “as standing armies in times of peace are dangerous to liberty, they ought not to be kept up.” The constitutions of Virginia, Delaware, and Maryland declared that “standing armies are dangerous to liberty.” New Hampshire declared that “standing armies are dangerous to liberty.” Massachusetts declared that “as in times of peace armies are dangerous to liberty they ought not to be maintained.”

Several of the States objected to the Articles of Confederation of 1776 because those articles did not deny the power of the confederation to maintain a standing army. In the debates in the conventions which adopted the Constitution of 1787 the spirit of resistance to standing armies is ever present.

Patrick Henry, the soul of the Revolution, in expressing his utter detestation of standing armies, said as with prophetic eye he foresaw the future, “A standing army we shall also have to execute the execrable demands of tyranny. And how,” he asked, “are you to punish them? Will you order them to be punished? Who will execute your commands? Who will your mace-bearer be a match for a disciplined regiment?” (See Virginia Debates, 1787, page 66.)

Page 286, George Mason said:

I abominate and detest a government where there is a standing army. . . . When once a standing army is established in any country the people lose their liberty.

Page 297, Mr. Madison, the Father of the Constitution, said:

A standing army is one of the greatest mischiefs that can possibly happen.

Page 446, Mr. Grason said:

We ought, therefore. strictly to guard against the establishment of a standing army—whose only occupation would be idleness, whose only effort would be the introduction of vice and dissipation, and who would at some future day deprive us of our liberties as a reward or past favors by the introduction of some military despot.

In the Federalist where Mr. Madison, the Father of the Constitution, and Mr. Alexander Hamilton, the great advocate of its aristocratic and centralization features, in carefully prepared essays advocated its adoption, are to be found the truest expositions of its meaning.

On page 174, Mr. Madison wrote:

Not less true is it that the liberties of Rome proved the final victim of her military; triumphs, and that the liberties of Europe, as far as they ever existed, have with few exceptions been the price of her military establishments. A standing force is therefore a dangerous at the same time it may be a necessary provision. On the smallest scale it has its inconvenience. On an extended scale its consequences may be fatal. On any scale it is an object of laudable circumspection and precaution.

Page 31, Mr. Hamilton wrote:

Standing armies, it is said, are not provided against in the Constitution. and it is therefore inferred that they will exist under it. This inference, from the very nature of the proposition, is a best but problematical and uncertain.

This record attests the deep detestation the fathers felt for a standing army; that if provided for at all by the Constitution it was only in the last resort. That they could have contemplated such a peace establishment as this Government now maintains I cannot believe any honest man will aver.

It was intended by the fathers that the militia should be a substitute for a standing army. (Elliott’s Virginia Debates, 1785 to 1789.)

Page 285, Mr. Madison, the Father of the Constitution, said:

If insurrections should arise or invasion take place, the people ought unquestionably to be employed to suppress and repel them rather an a standing army. The best way to do these things was to put the militia on a good and sure footing and enable the Government to make use of their services when necessary.

Page 287, Mr. Madison said:

The most effective way to guard against a standing army is to render it unnecessary. The most effective way to render it unnecessary is to give the Government the power to call out the militia.

Page 309, Mr. Madison also said:

The Constitution does not say a standing army should be called out to execute the laws. . . . The militia ought to be called out to suppress smugglers. Will this be denied? If riot should happen, the militia are proper to quell it to prevent resort to another mode.

Page 286, Mr. Mason said :

If they, the Government, ever attempt to harass and abuse the militia they may easily abolish them and raise a standing army in their stead. There are various ways of destroying the militia. A standing army may be perpetually established in the stead. Should the General Government wish to render the militia useless, they may neglect them and let them perish, in order to have a pretense for establishing a standing army.

In the Federalist, page 121, Mr. Hamilton wrote:

The attention of the Government ought particularly to be directed to the formation of a select corps of militia of moderate size, upon such principles as would fit it for service in lime of need. . . . This appears to me the only substitute for a standing army, and the best possible security against it, if it should exist.

How plainly the purpose is expressed by these, the fathers of the Constitution. The militia to be a substitute for a standing army. The militia was to be called out to execute the laws, to suppress smugglers and insurrection, to quell riot and repel invasion. Does any man question this interpretation of the instrument these, its architects, framed?


Every State shall always keep up a well regulated and disciplined militia.—Articles of Confederation, 1776, article 6.

The militia of this country must be considered the palladium of its liberties.—Washington’s Circular Letter to Governors, I783.

A well-regulated militia being necessary to a free State, the right of the people to keep and bear arms shall not be infringed—Constitution, 1789, amendment 2.


President Washington, in his message, June, 1780, urged the necessity of organizing the militia in these words:

It is unnecessary to offer arguments in recommendation of a measure on which the honor, safety, and well-being of our country so evidently and so essentially depend.

January 8, 1790, he said to Congress:

A free people ought not only to be armed, but disciplined, to which end a uniform and well digested plan is necessary.

January 18, 1790, General Knox, then Secretary of War, in his famous plan transmitted to Congress, said:

The idea is therefore submitted whether an efficient military branch of Government can be invented with safety to the great principles of liberty, unless the same shall be formed of the people themselves, and supported by their habits and manners. . . . An energetic national militia is to be regarded as the capital security of a free republic; and not a standing army, forming a distinct class in the community.

December 8, 1790, President Washington again pressed on Congress the importance of the militia.

October 25, 1791, he said to Congress:

The first (the militia) is certainly a subject of primary importance, whether viewed in reference to the national security, to the satisfaction of the community, or to the preservation of order.

May, 1797, President Adams urged upon Congress a revision of the laws organizing the militia “to render that natural and safe defense of the country efficacious.”


In the debate on the second amendment to the Constitution Mr. Gerry, of Massachusetts, used this language:

What, sir, is the use of the militia? Is it to Prevent the establishment of a standing army. the bane of liberty? . . . Whenever governments mean to invade the rights and liberties of the people, they always attempt to destroy the militia in order to raise an army upon their ruins. This was actually done by Britain at the commencement of the Revolution. They used every means in their power to prevent the establishment of an effective militia at the eastward. The Assembly of Massachusetts, seeing the progress that the administration were making to divest them of their inherent privileges, endeavored to counteract them by organizing the militia; but they were always defeated by the influence of the Crown.—Annals of Congress, 1789-1791, First Congress, page 778.

Mr. Jackson said :

The Swiss Cantons owed their emancipation to the militia establishment, the English cities rendered themselves formidable to the barons by pulling arms in the hands of the militia, and when the militia united with the barons they extorted the Magna Charts from King John. . . .In England the militia has of late been neglected and the consequence is a standing army. In a republic every man ought to be a soldier and prepared to resist tyranny and usurpation as well as invasion, to prevent the greatest of all evils, a standing army.—Ib.

Mr. Burke said:

He knew it was the policy of the day to make the militia odious.-Ib., volume II, page 1869.


Congress passed an act to provide for the national defense by establishing a uniform militia throughout the United States; a very elaborate and carefully detailed act, the foundation of our present militia system, to which but little has been added. (See Annals of Congress, 1791-1793, Second Congress, vol. 1, page 1392.)

Congress passed an act authorizing the President “to require the executives of the several States to take effectual measures, as soon as may be, to organize, arm, and equip according to law, and hold in readiness to march at a moment’s warning, the following proportions, respectively, of eighty thousand men,” in view of Indian hostilities. (See Annals of Congress, 1793—1795, Third Congress, vol. 1, page 1446.)

Each Congress exercised this power for this same purpose. (See Annals of Congress, 1795 to 1803.)

Thus it is evident that during this period, when there existed the most extensive Indian invasion, actual and threatened, the country had ever known, the militia was relied on for defense, the regular Army at no time exceeding 3,578 officers and men, and often not two thousand.

Courtesy of Democratic Thinker