J. L. BELL is a Massachusetts writer who specializes in (among other things) the start of the American Revolution in and around Boston. He is particularly interested in the experiences of children in 1765-75. He has published scholarly papers and popular articles for both children and adults. He was consultant for an episode of History Detectives, and contributed to a display at Minute Man National Historic Park.

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Friday, July 22, 2016

“The army shall not consist of more than — thousand men”

When John Francis Mercer arrived late at the Constitutional Convention on 6 Aug 1787, he was only twenty-eight years old—the second youngest man there. But he wasn’t shy about speaking up.

The day after Mercer signed in, James Madison’s notes portray the young Maryland delegate as saying, “The Constitution is objectionable in many points, but in none more than the present” issue. The next day: “Mr. MERCER expressed his dislike of the whole plan, and his opinion that it never could succeed.”

This Teaching American History profile says Mercer attended the convention until 16 August, but Madison recorded him speaking the following day as well. That was his last documented contribution to the debate. But did he stick around silently (or silently enough for Madison not to quote him)?

On Saturday, 18 August, George Mason and Elbridge Gerry (shown above) spoke at length about the danger of a standing (permanent) army and the value of a militia system. Madison’s notes say:
Mr. MASON introduced the subject of regulating the militia. He thought such a power necessary to be given to the General Government. He hoped there would be no standing army in time of peace, unless it might be for a few garrisons. The militia ought, therefore, to be the more effectually prepared for the public defence. . . .

Mr. GERRY took notice that there was no check here against standing armies in time of peace. The existing Congress is so constructed that it cannot of itself maintain an army. This would not be the case under the new system. The people were jealous on this head, and great opposition to the plan would spring from such an omission. He suspected that preparations of force were now making against it. [He seemed to allude to the activity of the Governor of New York at this crisis in disciplining the militia of that State.] He thought an army dangerous in time of peace, and could never consent to a power to keep up an indefinite number. He proposed that there should not be kept up in time of peace more than — thousand troops. His idea was, that the blank should be filled with two or three thousand.
That seem to be the basis of the anecdote about George Washington that I quoted yesterday: “A member made a motion that congress should be restricted to a standing army not exceeding five thousand, at any one time.” Supposedly Washington, chairing the convention, whispered to a Maryland delegate “to amend the motion, by providing that no foreign enemy should invade the United States, at any one time, with more than three thousand troops.”

Mercer, uncle of the Virginia legislator who told that story in 1817, seems the most likely candidate to have been that Maryland delegate. However, Madison’s notes make no mention of Mercer in the discussion that followed:
Mr. L[uther]. MARTIN and Mr. GERRY now regularly moved, “provided that in time of peace the army shall not consist of more than — thousand men.”

General [Charles Cotesworth] PINCKNEY asked, whether no troops were ever to be raised until an attack should be made on us?

Mr. GERRY. If there be no restriction, a few States may establish a military government.

Mr. [Hugh] WILLIAMSON reminded him of Mr. MASON’S motion for limiting the appropriation of revenue as the best guard in this case.

Mr. [John] LANGDON saw no room for Mr. GERRY’S distrust of the representatives of the people.

Mr. [Jonathan] DAYTON. Preparations for war are generally made in time of peace; and a standing force of some sort may, for aught we know, become unavoidable. He should object to no restrictions consistent with these ideas.

The motion of Mr. MARTIN and Mr. GERRY was disagreed to, nem. con.
“Nem. con.” meant that motion to limit the army was voted down unanimously.

Was John F. Mercer even present that day? As I said above, Mercer doesn’t appear in Madison’s notes after 17 August, and he left the convention sometime before its end because he disagreed with its goal. But the anecdote about Washington’s whisper, if we believe it, hints that Mercer was still present on 18 August.

Dr. James McHenry, another Maryland delegate Washington may have addressed so frankly, definitely was present on 18 August. He wrote brief notes on the discussion. McHenry didn’t record anything about the size of the standing army, however. That might have been because he mostly wrote down when the convention agreed to amend its draft, not when it decided not to.

Either way, there was a moment when the Constitutional Convention discussed the possibility of a numerical limit on the size of the U.S. Army. And the anecdote about Washington’s whisper described that moment almost two decades before Madison’s notes were published.

TOMORROW: John F. Mercer’s objections.

[Who was the youngest delegate to the convention? Jonathan Dayton, who had the last word in that debate over the size of the U.S. army.]

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