As a matter of principle, Thomas Jefferson had expressed opposition to the concept of a standing army and navy in the years just after the nation's founding. This was in spite of the fact that the Constitution to which he swore allegiance stated that the one essential element of the federal government was to provide for the national defense.
In Jefferson's mind there was no contradiction between his stated philosophy and the words of the Constitution. He believed in a citizens' militia--an army of ordinary citizens who could be ready to fight for the nation's defense whenever necessary.
Jefferson had been one of the driving forces behind adopting the Bill of Rights, the first 10 amendments to the U.S. Constitution. While the Constitution itself was ratified on September 17, 1787, the original document did not contain a 'Bill of Rights' as we know it today.
Certain of the nation's Founding Fathers had vehemently opposed the notion of a Constitution precisely due to the fact that it contained no guarantee of individual rights. Patrick Henry was one of these.
Due to the influence of Jefferson, Henry, and others determined to protect the inherent rights of all human beings, the Bill of Rights was approved on December 15, 1791 after the required number of states had given approval.
Jefferson's opposition to a standing army and his commitment to the nation's defense are entirely consistent when one considers the two concepts within the context of the Bill of Rights.
The second section of the Bill of Rights, known as The Second Amendment, made clear that the nation's defense would be the task of every citizen. Each individual citizen would together form a well-regulated, meaning trained, militia.
It was assumed that these citizens would be armed. That assumption is expressed by Jefferson himself many times in his public statements and written documents. Jefferson believed that an armed citizenry was the perfect defense against the tyranny of big government.
Thus, Jefferson's opposition to a standing army and navy was in no way regarded as a belief in public disarmament. To the contrary, Jefferson believed that a standing military was rendered relatively unimportant if not unnecessary specifically due to the fact that he knew the individual citizens were armed and ready to fight when called upon.
In spite of the best of intentions, Jefferson's two terms in office did not succeed in totally dismantling the standing military. History shows that the harsh realities of politics often detour even the greatest of statesmen.
Despite powerful voices encouraging American involvement in overseas conflicts, Jefferson had fought vociferously to keep America out of Europe's wars during the late 1700s and early 1800s. Nonetheless, those voices were powerful enough to keep the President from totally dismantling the military, particularly the Navy.
America's most strategic seaports were of great concern to many, given the might exhibited by the Spanish and French navies. Thus, there was strong support for a buildup of U.S. navy forces as a showcase to the world, demonstrating America's might.
A compromise was reached between Jefferson and the Navy's supporters when the President agreed to keep a standing Navy provided it would be a much smaller and more efficient one. The Jefferson compromise meant that the nation's coastline would be protected by a fleet of smaller, faster gun-boats, and Congress gave its approval to this plan during Jefferson's second term.
Another motivation for Jefferson's plan to streamline military operations was his belief in small, efficient, and cost-effective central government. Jefferson was a minimalist when it came to central government. Expenditures for the federal government, which included military spending, were cut.
This meant that government was forced to live within its means. Believing that the citizens themselves were responsible for the young nation's defense, Jefferson was committed to scaling back the size and scope of government services. This led to the end of internal taxation entirely during Jefferson's Presidency.
The obvious lessons to be learned from the Jefferson years are of incalculable importance for America today. A return to the core values of Jeffersonian democracy may well save the Republic from falling into a thousand years of darkness.