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Founding Fathers: Defense is the Government's Job

As the supercommittee gets ready to fail and therefore trigger automatic cuts to our military (as planned by liberals in Congress), the Heritage Foundation is asking: What would the Founding Father's think?


It turns out, the Founding Fathers believed defense spending should not only be a priority of the federal government, but a responsibility of to keep the people free.

In the midst of the current budget battle, there are a lot of folks—right and left—who assume that defense spending is a luxury that America just can’t afford at the moment. This a view far removed from James Madison’s conviction that “security against foreign danger is…an avowed and essential object of the American Union.”

America’s spending priorities are out of whack. Congress’s shortsighted intransigence on the budget will likely mean cutting back the number of delivery days for the U.S. postal service and indiscriminately slashing the defense budget (two items explicitly mentioned in the Constitution). Meanwhile a host of welfare programs (created in the 20th century) are treated as sacrosanct.

Assessing the Founders’ constitutional understanding of federal spending priorities can most certainly help us judge the order and degree to which we cut and reform federal funding in this urgent environment of financial constraints.

The historical record reveals that, today, we consider defense spending to be a lower priority than did the U.S. Congress in the first 70 years of the Republic (see chart). From 1792 to 1860, defense spending as a percentage of the federal budget averaged 48.1 percent, and—even in the most peaceful times—never fell below 23 percent. The next most important items were the costs of the country’s few federal infrastructure programs (e.g., post offices and post roads), maintaining the federal government’s buildings and staff, and the costs of maintaining diplomats abroad.

Moreover, the original impetus for calling the Constitutional Convention in 1787 centered on growing security threats facing the newly independent American states. The Constitution makes national security a main priority. Congress shall have the power to “declare War, grant Letters of Marque and Reprisal, and make Rules concerning Captures on Land and Water.… To raise and support Armies.… To provide and maintain a Navy.… To make Rules for the Government and Regulation of the land and naval Forces.”

To keep the new Congress centered on the priority of national defense, President George Washington cautioned them in his 1790 address to Congress:

"Among the many interesting objects which will engage your attention, that of providing for the common defense will merit particular regard. To be prepared for war is one of the most effectual means of preserving peace. A free people ought not only to be armed but disciplined; to which end a uniform and well digested plan is requisite."




So there you have it folks, the Founding Fathers spent significantly more on defense than we do now, yet defense always seems to be the first thing on the chopping block when it comes to modern day spending cuts. Entitlement programs are the problem, not protecting American values, time to get back to founding principles.


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