- By Thomas E. RicksThomas E. Ricks covered the U.S. military from 1991 to 2008 for the Wall Street Journal and then the Washington Post. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.
By Charles Stevenson
Best Defense guest columnist
The Constitution was written in 1787 with a strategic vision that allowed it to survive with few changes (only 27 amendments so far) as the United States grew in population and economic power and expanded across the continent. There were domestic concerns — Shays’ Rebellion, trade barriers between states, and the fundamental weakness of the government under the Articles of Confederation, under which taxes could only be requested by Congress.
But the framers also faced major national security concerns that shaped the new Constitution. As I explain in more detail in my latest book, the newly independent country faced numerous external threats in 1786, including:
-British refusal to withdraw from five western forts as promised by treaty
-Spanish control of the lower Mississippi River and exclusion of U.S. trade
-British and French bans on U.S. trade with the West Indies
-British and Spanish support to various Indian tribes
-7,000 Creeks threatening Savannah and Indian raids on the Cumberland and Tennessee Rivers
-Barbary states seizing U.S. ships for ransom
When the framers drafted the Constitution, 11 of the 18 powers specifically granted to Congress related to security; of the first 36 Federalist Papers — before the authors began explaining the procedures of the new government — 25 dealt with national security. They wanted a government with taxing power, a standing army (only two years at a time, to appease critics) and permanent navy, and centralized control over trade and foreign relations. In short, they wanted to guarantee American unity against foreign powers.
And don’t forget Article VI’s ban on dissenting from the Constitution: not only did all federal government officials have to take an oath to support the new Constitution, but so did "all executive and judicial officers… of the several states" as well as "members of the several state legislatures." Opponents of ratification such as George Mason and Patrick Henry would have been permanently barred from office unless they took the oath.
The check and balances of the Constitution worked pretty well to prevent dictatorships and limit the tyranny of the majority, to give the commander in chief great powers in wartime yet push for consensus foreign policies at other times. What the Framers didn’t foresee and couldn’t prevent, however, was partisan gridlock and parochialism.
Charles A. Stevenson is an adjunct professor at Johns Hopkins’ School of Advanced International Studies. He previously taught at the National War College and served as a Senate staffer. His most recent book is America’s Foreign Policy Toolkit: Key Institutions and Processes.