The Founders Were Antiwar

by , June 14, 2011

The 2012 presidential election cycle is underway. With the Democratic candidate a foregone conclusion, there is not much uncertainty about where the Democratic Party is going. For better or worse, Democrats will likely continue to “dance with who brung them,” meaning Barack Obama and his brand of 21st-century liberalism.

Not so on the Republican side. After historic defeats and victories in the past two elections, respectively, the Republican Party has yet to define itself for the future. It must come to grips with the fact that its miraculous comeback in 2010, after crushing defeats in the presidential and congressional elections of 2008, was due in large part to the Tea Party. However, with that victory came a large group of new Republican lawmakers, many of whom were not ready to fall in line with the Republican leadership. The most striking example, of course, is Rand Paul, who has constantly challenged mainstream Republican positions that do not jibe with his libertarian-leaning constitutional conservatism.

Critics dismiss the Tea Party as simply a Republican Party publicity campaign rather than a grassroots movement that truly seeks change in Washington. However, it is impossible to ignore the fact that the Tea Party did indeed challenge the Republican establishment and defeated many establishment Republicans in primary elections—which means they obviously cared about far more than simply defeating Democrats. So, if it’s not simply a front group for the Republican mainstream, what does the Tea Party stand for?

If you ask them, they would answer that they stand for smaller, more fiscally responsible government and a return to America’s founding principles. They wish to rein in the federal government and restore the limits placed upon it by the U.S. Constitution. This is why you can find Sarah Palin touring 18th-century historical landmarks and Michele Bachmann evoking the shot heard round the world at Lexington and Concord (Concord, Mass., that is, after clarifying her original statement).

It is easy to throw stones at the Tea Party for gaffes such as Bachmann’s. However, it is wrong to attribute the shortcomings of politicians trying to acquire political capital out of the Tea Party to the grassroots members themselves. Just because Michele Bachmann might not know exactly where the American Revolution began doesn’t mean that the Tea Partiers themselves don’t understand the American Revolution or the principles that inspired it. Indeed, the issue that galvanized the Tea Party in 2010—Obamacare—fundamentally violates those founding principles for exactly the reasons that the Tea Party opposes it.

Where the Tea Party departs from founding principles is on the subject of war and the military. At any Tea Party rally, a large percentage of the speakers’ comments, the signs and banners, and the general atmosphere of the event amounts to glorification of the military. Over and over, attendees are reminded that they should be grateful to the military for their freedom and should remember that “someone paid for it.” In addition to enthusiastic support for the gargantuan military establishment itself, unqualified support is given for every overseas war or occupation that the U.S. military is involved in. Whatever the president orders the military to do, it must be right and essential to the freedom of every American.

This couldn’t be further from the ideas of most of the founders. The Constitution reveals their suspicion of any permanent military establishment. The Congress is given the power to raise an army, but only for two years. This ensures that the people can disband the army during every congressional election, as members of the House are elected at the same intervals. The power to declare war is kept away from the president and given to Congress, where two separate bodies have to vote on it.

It is apparent from the document itself and the statements of many of its framers that they were very aware of the dangers to liberty that accompanied prolonged warfare or a standing army in peacetime. Contrary to what most Tea Partiers apparently believe, the founders were antiwar.

Remember that the colonists were reluctant to fight with the British right from the beginning. The colonial militia at Concord held its fire even after the British had fired upon it, killing two Americans. It was only when one of their commanding officers yelled “Fire, for God’s sake, fellow soldiers, fire!” that they fired upon the British. Three months later they sent the Olive Branch Petition to King George in an attempt to avoid all-out war.

Once the Constitution was ratified, the administrations of the first three U.S. presidents were dominated by efforts to avoid going to war. During Washington’s administration, pro-France Jeffersonians urged the president to take France’s side in its conflict with England. Instead, Washington approved the Jay Treaty, which normalized trade relations with Great Britain.

Largely because of this treaty, John Adams spent most of his presidency dealing with a hostile France, which considered the new American nation extremely ungrateful after France’s support of it during its revolution. Avoiding war with France was the dominant issue of Adams’s presidency, this time under pressure from his own party to take Great Britain’s side. In fact, while Adams maintained a commitment to enlarge the Navy to provide “wooden walls” for the young nation, he steadfastly refused to grant Hamilton the standing army he wanted, despite the fact that Adams was fighting the “Quasi War” with France. Adams eventually achieved peace, possibly at the cost of a second term as president due to the dissension it caused within the Federalist Party. However, Adams considered peace the crowning achievement of his presidency, saying, “I desire no other inscription over my gravestone than: ‘Here lies John Adams, who took upon himself the responsibility of peace with France in the year 1800.’”

Not to be outdone, Thomas Jefferson went even further in repudiating militarism. Having no standing army to disband, Jefferson went to work on the U.S. Navy, decreasing it by roughly 95 percent. This allowed him to eliminate virtually all internal taxation in the republic, leaving only the tariffs to provide federal revenue. Jefferson refused to use ground troops in his clashes with the Barbary pirates until the Pasha of Tripoli actually declared war upon the United States. Later, in yet another effort to stay out of the wars in Europe, Jefferson signed into law the Embargo Act. While he was rightly denounced for this legislation, which was almost as hostile to liberty as the Alien and Sedition Acts, it did demonstrate the lengths to which Jefferson was willing to go to keep his country out of war.

It is Jefferson who is most quoted in Tea Party signs and by Tea Party candidates, and rightly so. If one is consulting the founders for the purest version of the American philosophy of liberty, it can be found among the writings of Thomas Jefferson. However, Jefferson was also the most staunchly antiwar of the early presidents, cutting all military spending not absolutely necessary to defend the American borders. This is no accident. War is the natural destroyer of liberty. As James Madison put it:

Of all the enemies to public liberty, war is, perhaps, the most to be dreaded because it comprises and develops the germ of every other. War is the parent of armies; from these proceed debts and taxes. And armies, and debts, and taxes are the known instruments for bringing the many under the domination of the few. In war, too, the discretionary power of the Executive is extended. Its influence in dealing out offices, honors, and emoluments is multiplied; and all the means of seducing the minds, are added to those of subduing the force of the people. The same malignant aspect in republicanism may be traced in the inequality of fortunes, and the opportunities of fraud, growing out of a state of war, and in the degeneracy of manners and morals, engendered by both. No nation could preserve its freedom in the midst of continual warfare.

If the Tea Party truly wishes to reestablish America’s founding principles, then part of their platform should be to disband the U.S. Army. They would be in good company. Founding fathers from both major political parties in the 18th and early 19th centuries opposed a standing army, most adamantly Tea Party icon Thomas Jefferson. Only Alexander Hamilton, Jefferson’s political archenemy, differed from the rest on this point. Hamilton’s militarism was part and parcel of his imperial political philosophy, which also included a controlled economy, a central bank, and a national debt that would further tie corporations to the government—all policies that the Tea Party rejects.

While embracing militarism and championing liberty are philosophically inconsistent, there is also a very practical reason to disband the Army. It has outlived its usefulness. With the U.S. government’s nuclear arsenal and dominant naval and air forces, there is no conceivable reason that an army of ground troops is necessary to protect the United States. Think for a moment how hard it has been for the U.S. to conquer a few backwaters in the Middle East. Now imagine a foreign army trying to land in Maryland or Georgia, against all of that air, sea, and missile power. It is inconceivable. Furthermore, even the government’s own military “experts” for the most part admit that a conventional army is ineffective in fighting terrorism. Given these realities, the vast federal spending, deficits, and debt—core issues for the Tea Party—that result from the existence of a standing army cannot be justified in the 21st-century United States.

The Tea Party broke almost four decades of relative apathy by American citizens in the face of unchecked expansion of federal government power. Not since the Vietnam war had Americans taken to the streets as they did during the 2010 elections. During the 1960s and ’70s, the left-wing-dominated antiwar movement brought with it socialist domestic policies that were as hostile to liberty as the war itself. Now, the right-wing-dominated Tea Party embraces a foreign policy as anti-liberty as the domestic policies that it opposes. It is past time for a movement that promotes liberty and opposes leviathan government consistently on all fronts. Embrace America’s founding principles. Restore the republic. Disband the Army.

Read more by Tom Mullen