Friday, July 6, 2012

Was Jefferson Opposed to Hyper-Militarism?

On July 4th 1776, the Thirteen British Colonies in America signed the Declaration of Independence. Oftentimes, too much attention is given to its defiant preamble, which states "We hold these truths to be self-evident that all men are created equal" and rightfully so. However, it is important to note that the preamble was the philosophical foundation that the Founders stood on to declare their independence while the list of grievances are the actual manifested reasons for their separation from Britain. It should then serve to purpose that these grievances are ones that should be consistently read by every concerned American to make sure these errors are not repeated by the American government.

While many know of the colonists distaste for the preferable treatment of the East India Tea Company and the taxes levied by the stamp act, and the quartering of British soldiers inside civilian homes-something which would serve as cause for the Third Amendment of the Constitution-one of the oft ignored complaints was "He has kept among us, in times of peace, Standing Armies without the Consent of our legislatures." The Declaration does not end there in regards to the military. It continues, saying "He has affected to render the Military independent of and superior to the Civil power."

In many ways, this opposition to fierce militarism should not come as a surprise, seeing as it was authored by Thomas Jefferson. To Jefferson, militarism by governments was antithetical to the idea of free and open societies. During his time as an Ambassador to France, Jefferson sent a letter to friend and confidante James Madison, stating his dissatisfaction because it did not include a Bill of Rights that would include freedom of religion, freedom of the press , and the protection of habeas corpus alongside" protection against standing armies." To Jefferson, the idea of a standing army was one that was antithetical to free society.

Jefferson's opposition to standing armies would also carry on in his Presidency. In his first Inaugural Address, Jefferson extolled what he believed were "the essential principles of our Government," among which were "a well disciplined militia, our best reliance in peace and for the first moments of war, till regulars may relieve them; the supremacy of the civil over the military authority." He was not oblivious to the fact that a nation would need armaments in order to protect itself and to secure liberty's blessings; he famously sent in troops during the Barbary War. But he also believed that an America that had freed itself from the Imperial sword of Britain could not retain its identity of liberty if it were to resort to perpetual war.

He also was aware that if left unchecked, that the Military could turn into a force that could supplant the civilian government. This is not an unfounded fear; it is a possibility in Egypt, where the top General, Hussein Tahtawi serves also as the military's Commander-in-Chief, and is a reality in nations like Pakistan. Hence, having civilian control of the military would mitigate an all-out power grab and ensure that the military would be strong enough to protect the nation, but also weak enough as not to control the citizenry.

On this independence week, there is much fanfare for the wisdom of the Founders of this country and rightfully so. For a Nation less than three centuries old, it has accomplished a great deal and is a promoter of liberty and justice for all. Hence, it is important to also remember the prudence which one of our most beloved Founders saw American military power; not as something to be abused, but something to use with tact and then to be withdrawn.

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