It is one of James Madison's best known sayings: "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." As these words get dragged into the public discourse fairly often it is useful to know the context in which they were originally written.
The quotation is taken from Madison's 1795 pamphlet, "Political Observations." At the time Madison was top dog in the House of Representatives and the most controversial issue on the Hill was a bill penned by his hand. Despairing over the many American merchantmen seized and impressed by Her Majesty's Royal Navy and distressed to see Britain's domination of the young republic's imports, Representative Madison and his Republican allies decided that America ought to fight back. They soon drafted a bill to sequester government debts to British lenders and slap a series of tariffs on imports from the British Isles. The sitting administration did not take kindly to this view; Washington instead proposed that John Jay be sent as a special envoy to the British crown to negotiate an end to the crisis in Anglo-American relations. As a precaution, the President urged congress to increase the size of the Republic's armed forces in the event that Jay's negotiations failed and war with Great Britain became could no longer be avoided.
Congress sided with the President; James Madison's bill never made it past the Senate. When the session closed Representative Madison retreated to Virginia to lick his wounds and restate his case. He was vexed by the accusations made against those supporting the bill and "Political Observations" was his means of answering them. These "most serious charges" were that the Republicans "supported a policy which would inevitably have involved the United States in the war of Europe, have reduced us from the rank of a free people to that of French colonies, and possibly have landed us in disunion, anarchy, and misery; and the policy from which these tremendous calamities was to flow is referred to certain commercial resolutions moved by a member from Virginia in the House of Representatives."
"Political Observations" counters each of these charges in turn. As Madison saw it, the need for "economic retaliation" was clear to all but a few "absurd" members of Congress. Great Britain's "depredations... to our rights" were grievous and manifold; America's "annual damages from Great Britain were not less than three or four millions of dollars." The need to strike back against the British could be denied with only the most spurious of arguments. As Madison said:
This distressing situation spoke the more loudly to the patriotism of the representatives of the people as the nature and manner of the communications from the President seemed to make a formal and affecting appeal on the subject to their co-operation. The necessity of some effort was palpable. The only room for different opinions seemed to lie in the different modes of redress proposed. On one side nothing was proposed, beyond the eventual measures of defence, in which all concurred, except the building of six frigates, for the purpose of enforcing our rights against Algiers. The other side, considering this measure as pointed at one only of our evils, and as inadequate even to that, thought it best to seek for some safe but powerful remedy that might be applied to the root of them; and with this view the Commercial Propositions were introduced.
They were at first opposed on the ground that Great Britain was amicably disposed towards the United States, and that we ought to await the event of the depending negociation. To this it was replied that more than four years of appeal to that disposition had been tried in vain by the new government; that the negotiation had been abortive and was no longer depending; that the late letters from Mr. Pinckney, the minister at London, had not only cut off all remaining hope from that source, but had expressly pointed commercial regulations as the most eligible redress to be pursued.
Another ground of opposition was that the United States were more dependent on the trade of Great Britain than Great Britain was on the trade of the United States. This will appear scarcely credible to those who understand the commerce between the two countries, who recollect that it supplies us chiefly with superfluities whilst in return it employs the industry of one part of her people, sends to another part the very bread which keeps them from starving, and remits moreover, an annual balance in specie of ten or twelve millions of dollars. It is true, nevertheless, as the debate shows, that this was the language, however strange, of some who combated the propositions.
Nay, what is still more extraordinary, it was maintained that the United States had, on the whole, little or no reason to complain of the footing of their commerce with Great Britain; although such complaints had prevailed in every state, among every class of citizens, ever since the year 1783; and although the Federal Constitution had originated in those complaints, and had been established with the known view of redressing them.
As such objections could have little effect in convincing the judgement of the House of Representatives, and still less that of the public at large, a new mode of assailing the propositions has been substituted. The American People love peace; and the cry of war might alarm when no hope remained of convincing them. The cry of war has accordingly been echoed through the continent, with a loudness proportioned to the emptiness of the pretext; and to this cry has been added another still more absurd, that the propositions would in the end enslave the United States to their allies and plunge them into anarchy and misery.
This last claim was by far the most galling. Beyond the absurdity of the claim itself ("One thing ought to be regarded as certain and conclusive on this head; whilst the war against France remains unsuccessful, the United States are in no danger from any of the powers engaged in it") the charge was an insult both to the bill's proponents and their vision of a foreign policy free of war:
The members, in general, who espoused these propositions have been constantly in that part of the Congress who have professed with most zeal, and pursued with most scruple, the characteristics of republican government. They have adhered to these characteristics in defining the meaning of the Constitution, in adjusting the ceremonial of public proceedings, and in marking out the course of the Administration. They have manifested, particularly, a deep conviction of the danger to liberty and the Constitution from a gradual assumption or extension of discretionary powers in the executive departments; from successive augmentations of a standing army; and from the perpetuity and progression of public debts and taxes. They have been sometimes reprehended in debate for an excess of caution and jealousy on these points. And the newspapers of a certain stamp, by distorting and discolouring this part of their conduct, have painted it in all the deformity which the most industrious calumny could devise.
Those best acquainted with the individuals who more particularly supported the propositions will be foremost to testify that such are the principles which not only govern them in public life, but which are invariably maintained by them in every other situation. And it cannot be believed nor suspected that with such principles they could view war as less an evil than it appeared to their opponents.
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 of morals engendered by both. No nation could reserve its freedom in the midst of continual warfare.
Those truths are well established. They are read in every page which records the progression from a less arbitrary to a more arbitrary government, or the transition from a popular government to an aristocracy or a monarchy.
It must be evident, then, that in the same degree as the friends of the propositions were jealous of armies and debts and prerogative, as dangerous to a republican Constitution, they must have been averse to war, as favourable to armies and debts and prerogative.
The fact accordingly appears to be that they were particularly averse to war. They not only considered the propositions as having no tendency to war, but preferred them as the most likely means of obtaining our objects without war. They thought, and thought truly, that Great Britain was more vulnerable in her commerce than in her fleets and armies; that she valued our necessaries for her markets and our markets for her superfluities, more than she feared our frigates or our militia; and that she would, consequently, be more ready to make proper concessions under the influence of the former than of the latter motive.
Great Britain is a commercial nation. Her power, as well as her wealth, is derived from commerce. The American commerce is the most valuable branch she enjoys. It is the more valuable, not only as being of vital importance to her in some respects, but of growing importance beyond estimate in its general character. She will not easily part with such a resource. She will not rashly hazard it. She would be particularly aware of forcing a perpetuity of regulations which not merely diminish her share, but may favour the rivalship of other nations. If anything, therefore, in the power of the United States could overcome her pride, her avidity, and her repugnancy to this country, it was justly concluded to be, not the fear of our arms, which, though invincible in defense, are little formidable in a war of offense, but the fear of suffering in the most fruitful branch of her trade and of seeing it distributed among her rivals.
Both parts of this argument would be viewed with skepticism today. Against the claim that the Republicans were deliberate war-mongers Madison replied that no lover of liberty could be a war-monger. The reader is to accept without argument that Madison and his Republican friends truly are lovers of liberty. One will assume that this pamphlet was not writ to persuade a Federalist.
The second part of his argument is perhaps the most novel defense of protectionism I have ever come across. Today those who argue for tariffs and taxes do so in the name of equality and fairness. They seek to shield the American working man from the ravages of a global economy. Representative Madison saw matters in a quite different light. For him, protectionism does not protect. It attacks. Tariffs were a way to punish Great Britain without resorting to force. War, but not really.
Madison does not dwell on this topic for long. His indignation at being called a war-monger is not yet sated, he deems it necessary to direct the reader's attention to the Republic's true enemy of peace. It was averse to reason to label Madison and company seekers of war when their opponents
maintained that on a failure of negotiation, it would be more eligible to seek redress by war than by commercial regulations; who talked of raising armies that might threaten the neighbouring possessions of foreign powers; who contended for delegating to the executive the prerogatives of deciding whether the country was at war or not, and of levying, organizing, and calling into the field a regular army of ten, fifteen, nay, of twenty-five thousand men.
Through these actions the Federalists had dangerously upset the balance of power between the executive and legislative branch of the federal government. To buttress this claim Madison pens the most valuable section of the essay - his conception of the Constitution's place in determining the powers of the various branches of government:
The Constitution expressly and exclusively vests in the legislature the power of declaring a state of war; it was proposed that the executive might, in the recess of the legislature, declare the United States to be in a state of war.
Where would be the difference between the blending of these incompatible powers, by surrendering the legislative part of them into the hands of the executive, and by assuming the executive part of them into the hands of the legislature? In either case the principle would be equally destroyed, and the consequences equally dangerous.
An attempt to answer these observations by appealing to the virtues of the present chief magistrate and to the confidence justly placed in them will be little calculated either for his genuine patriotism or for the sound judgment of the American public....As vain would be the attempt to explain away such alarming attacks on the Constitution by pleading the difficulty, in some cases, of drawing a line between the different departments of power; of recurring to the little precedents which may have crept in at urgent or unguarded moments.
It cannot be denied that there may, in certain cases, be a difficulty in distinguishing the exact boundary between legislative and executive powers; but the real friend of the Constitution and of liberty, by his endeavors to lessen or avoid the difficulty, will easily be known from him who labours to encrease the obscurity, in order to remove the constitutional landmarks without notice.
All of this, I will remind my readers, was written in response to a proposal that the executive be allowed to raise 10,000 troops if war to come to the Republic. One wonders what Madison would write were he to see America's present state of affairs.