[Saturday, July 26, 1788.]
Mr. IREDELL.* Mr. Chairman, this clause is of so much importance, that we ought to consider it with the most serious attention. It is a power vested in Congress, which, in my opinion, is absolutely indispensable; yet there have been, perhaps, more objections made to it than any other power vested in Congress. For my part, I will observe generally that, so far from being displeased with that jealousy and extreme caution with which gentlemen consider every power proposed to be given to this government, they give me the utmost satisfaction.
I believe the passion for liberty is stronger in America than in any other country in the world. Here every man is strongly impressed with its importance, and every breast glows for the preservation of it. Every jealousy, not incompatible with the indispensable principles of government, is to be commended; but these principles must at all events be observed. The powers of government ought to be competent to the public safety. This, indeed, is the primary object of all governments. It is the duty of gentlemen who form a constitution to take care that no power should be wanting which the safety of the community requires. The exigencies of the country must be provided for, not only in respect to common and usual cases, but for occasions which do not frequently occur. If such a provision is not made, critical occasions may arise, when there must be either a usurpation of power, or the public safety eminently endangered; for, besides the evils attending a frequent change of a constitution, the case may not admit of so slow a remedy. In considering the powers that ought to be vested in any government, possible abuses ought not to be pointed out, without at the same time considering their use. No power, of any kind or degree, can be given but what may be abused; we have, therefore, only to consider whether any particular power is absolutely necessary. If it be, the power must be given, and we must run the risk of the abuse, considering our risk of this evil as one of the conditions of the imperfect state of human nature, where there is no good without the mixture of some evil. At the same time, it is undoubtedly our duty to guard against abuses as much as possible. In America, we enjoy peculiar blessings; the people are distinguished by the possession of freedom in a very high degree, unmixed with those oppressions the freest countries [Pg. 96] in Europe suffer. But we ought to consider that in this country, as well as in others, it is equally necessary to restrain and suppress internal commotions, and to guard against foreign hostility. There is, I believe, no government in the world without a power to raise armies. In some countries in Europe, a great force is necessary to be kept up, to guard against those numerous armies maintained by many sovereigns there, where an army belonging to one government alone sometimes amounts to two hundred thousand or four hundred thousand men. Happily, we are situated at a great distance from them, and the inconsiderable power to the north of us is not likely soon to be very formidable. But though our situation places us at a remote danger, it cannot be pretended we are in no danger at all. I believe there is no man who has written on this subject, but has admitted that this power of raising armies is necessary in time of war; but they do not choose to admit of it in a time of peace. It is to be hoped that, in time of peace, there will not be occasion, at any time, but for a very small number of forces; possibly, a few garrisons may be necessary to guard the frontiers, and an insurrection like that lately in Massachusetts might require some troops. But a time of war is the time when the power would probably be exerted to any extent. Let us, however, consider the consequences of a limitation of this power to a time of war only. One moment's consideration will show the impolicy of it in the most glaring manner. We certainly ought to guard against the machinations of other countries. We know not what designs may be entertained against us; but surely, when known, we ought to endeavor to counteract their effects. Such designs may be entertained in a time of profound peace, as well as after a declaration of war. Now suppose, for instance, our government had received certain intelligence that the British government had formed a scheme to attack New York, next April, with ten thousand men; would it not be proper immediately to prepare against it?--and by so doing the scheme might be defeated. But if Congress had no such power, because it was a time of peace, the place must fall the instant it was attacked; and it might take years to recover what might at first have been seasonably defended. This restriction, therefore, cannot take place with safety to the community, and the power [Pg. 97] must of course be left to the direction of the general government. I hope there will be little necessity for the exercise of this power; and I trust that the universal resentment and resistance of the people will meet every attempt to abuse this or any other power. That high spirit for which they are distinguished, I hope, will ever exist; and it probably will as long as we have a republican form of government. Every man feels a consciousness of a personal equality and independence. Let him look at any part of the continent,--he can see no superiors. This personal independence is the surest safeguard of the public freedom. But is it probable that our own representatives, chosen for a limited time, can be capable of destroying themselves, their families and fortunes, even if they have no regard to their public duty? When such considerations are involved, surely it is very unlikely that they will attempt to raise an army against the liberties of their country. Were we to establish an hereditary nobility, or a set of men who were to have exclusive privileges, then, indeed, our jealousy might be well grounded. But, fortunately, we have no such. The restriction contended for, of no standing army in time of peace, forms a part of our own state Constitution. What has been the consequence? In December, 1786, the Assembly flagrantly violated it, by raising two hundred and one men, for two years, for the defence of Davidson county, I do not deny that the intention might have been good, and that the Assembly really thought the situation of that part of the country required such a defence. But this makes the argument still stronger against the impolicy of such a restriction, since our own experience points out the danger resulting from it; for I take it for granted, that we could not at that time be said to be in a state of war. Dreadful might the condition of this country be without this power. We must trust our friends or trust our enemies. There is one restriction on this power, which I believe is the only one that ought to be put upon it.
Though Congress are to have the power of raising and supporting armies, yet they cannot appropriate money for that purpose for a longer time than two years. Now, we will suppose that the majority of the two houses should capable of making a bad use of this power, and should appropriate more money to raise an army than is necessary. [Pg. 98] The appropriation, we have seen. cannot he constitutional for more than two years. Within that time it might command obedience. But at the end of the second year from the first choice, the whole House of Representatives must be rechosen, and also one third of the Senate. The people, being inflamed with the abuse of power of the old members, would turn them out with indignation. Upon their return home, they would meet the universal execrations of their fellow-citizens. Instead of the grateful plaudits of their country, so dear to every feeling mind, they would be treated with the utmost resentment and contempt; their names would be held in everlasting infamy; and their measures would be instantly reprobated and changed by the new members. In two years, a system of tyranny certainly could not succeed in the face of the whole people; and the appropriation could not be with any safety for less than that period. If it depended on an annual vote, the cousequence might be, that, at a critical period, when military operations were necessary, the troops would not know whether they were entitled to pay or not, and could not safely act till they knew that the annual vote had passed. To refuse this power to the government, would be to invite insults and attacks from other nations. Let us not, for God's sake, be guilty of such indiscretion as to trust our enemies' mercy, but give, as is our duty, a sufficient power to government to protect their country,--guarding, at the same time, against abuses as well as we can. We well know what this country suffered by the ravages of the British army during the war. How could we have been saved but by an army? Without that resource we should soon have felt the miserable consequences; and this day, instead of having the honor--the greatest any people ever enjoyed--to choose a government which our reason recommends, we should have been groaning under the most intolerable tyranny that was ever felt. We ought not to think these dangers are entirely over. The British government is not friendly to us. They dread the rising glory of America. They tremble for the West Indies, and their colonies to the north of us. They have counteracted us on every occasion since the peace. Instead of a liberal and reciprocal commerce, they have attempted to confine us to a most narrow and ignominious one. Their pride is still irritated with the disappointment of their en-[Pg. 99] deavors to enslave us. They know that, on the record of history, their conduct towards us must appear in the most disgraceful light. Let it also appear, on the record of history, that America was equally wise and fortanate in peace as well as in war. Let it be said that, with a temper and unanimity unexampled, they corrected the vices of an imperfect government, and framed a new one on the basis of justice and liberty; that, though all did not concur in approving the particular structure of this government, yet that the minority peaceably and respectfully submitted to the decision of the greater number. This is a spectacle so great, that, if it should succeed, this must be considered the greatest country under heaven; for there is no instance of any such deliberate change of government in any other nation that ever existed. But how would it gratify the pride of our enemy to say, "We could not conquer you, but you have ruined yourselves. You have foolishly quarrelled about trifles. You are unfit for any government whatever. You have separated from us, when you were unable to govern yourselves, and you now deservedly feel all the horrors of anarchy." I beg pardon for saying so much. I did not intend it when I began. But the consideration of one of the most important parts of the plan excited all my feelings on the subject. I speak without any affectation in expressing my apprehension of foreign dangers: the belief of them is strongly impressed on my mind. I hope, therefore, the gentlemen of the committee will excuse the warmth with which I have spoken. I shall now take leave of the subject. I flatter myself that gentlemen will see that this power is absolutely necessary, and must be vested somewhere; that it can be vested nowhere so well as in the general government; and that it is guarded by the only restriction which the nature of the thing will admit of.
* - James Iredell was North Carolina Attorney General, as well as one of the first U.S. Supreme Court Justices appointed by Pres. George Washington.