A Standing Army

Gerry Elbridge
Elbridge Gerry, delegate from Massachusetts
James Bogle, after John Vanderlyn, 1861

Independence National Historical Park

A Standing Army

"Mr. Gerry objected….it implied there was to be a standing army which he inveighed against as dangerous to liberty, as unnecessary even for so great an extent of country as this…The people would not bear it."

- Madison's Notes of Debates in the Federal Convention

Chairman Brearley (NJ) of the Committee on Unfinished Parts reported five additional powers for Congress. One was the power to raise and support an army, provided that no appropriation would be valid for more than two years. After Gerry (MA) objected, Sherman (CT) remarked that appropriations were permitted, not required, and Congress might not be in session when money was needed if appropriations ran only one year. The proposal passed without further debate.

All of the delegates, including the former Commander in Chief, shared Gerry's concern over a standing army. All were aware of historic examples of military coups and particularly Cromwell's military dictatorship of Great Britain in 1653-58. Still most of the delegates recognized that a small standing army would be necessary. Gerry did not. Not having fought, and basing his judgment on Concord and Bunker Hill, Gerry would have relied on militia for defense. Washington, with a different experience, would have agreed with the definitive assessment of militia made by Virginia Militia General Edward Stevens to Governor Thomas Jefferson in February 1782:

"If the Salvation of the Country had depended on their [militia whose time of service was up] staying Ten or Fifteen days, I don't believe they would have done it. Militia won't do. Their greatest Study is to Rub through their Tower [tour] with whole Bones."

The issue settled the convention began a two day debate on the election of the president.

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Thursday, September 6, 1787
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Last updated: February 26, 2015

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