From Liberty To Suppressed Dissent: Founders on Empowered Armed Forces While Preventing a Stalin-type Military Regime in America
The reign of Joseph Stalin as the leader of the Soviet Union from 1922 until his death in 1953 made real just about every fear the Federalists and Anti-federalists discussed regarding concentrated power and government run amok during the debates over the adoption and ratification of the United States Constitution.
Through the entirety of the Federalist Papers, Alexander Hamilton, James Madison, and John Jay were constantly debating the balancing of interests, and the push/pull between a central government strong enough to both defend the nation of several states and address the common needs of those states, yet not so powerful as to run roughshod over the rights of those states and the residents therein.
Interestingly enough, the fact that our Founders were able to so openly debate the nature of the early American experiments in governance is completely alien to what occurred in the post-revolutionary transition from the formerly tsarist Russia into the Soviet Union first under Vladimir Lenin and then under Stalin.
Unlike the open debates of our Founders, and the reliance on the consensus-building governance of the American political system (built, as it was, on the examples of the liberalized British system), when the Tsar was overthrown and the soviet government established in Russia, the Bolsheviks immediately set-out to remove or otherwise neutralize opposition voices and consolidate power—and did so using a combination of military power and adopted post-tsarist secret police that could use force and intimidation to back-up any effort at domination.
So while Jay, Madison, and Hamilton could agree and disagree with one another in very public discussions, and the three of them could have ongoing conversations regarding the elements of the Constitution with their allies and opponents, Stalin’s system left it up to a handful of men to, literally, dictate the course of the Soviet Union in the years (and then decades) after the Russian Revolution of 1917—and then support their decisions with either direct military force or the force of their secret police, the NKVD.
The post-Revolution Bolsheviks had outlawed alternative political parties (even alternative factions of socialism, like the “Mensheviks,” the other dominant socialist viewpoint in during the 1917 Revolution), the dissemination of information was through the central government, and a vibrant system of “informing” on ones fellow Soviet citizens was created, in which people could be arrested upon the scant denouncing of their neighbors—or because the denounced said or did something that the central government did not like.
In Federalist 46, Hamilton summed up the general fear of constitutional skeptics in the late 18th century:
“The only refuge left for those who prophesy the downfall of the State governments is the visionary supposition that the federal government may previously accumulate a military force for the projects of ambition… That the people and the States should, for a sufficient period of time, elect an uninterupted succession of men ready to betray both; that the traitors should, throughout this period, uniformly and systematically pursue some fixed plan for the extension of the military establishment; that the governments and the people of the States should silently and patiently behold the gathering storm, and continue to supply the materials, until it should be prepared to burst on their own heads, must appear to every one more like the incoherent dreams of a delirious jealousy, or the misjudged exaggerations of a counterfeit zeal, than like the sober apprehensions of genuine patriotism.”
Interestingly enough, Madison had answered his own question earlier in Federalist 46 when he wrote:
“The disquietude of the people; their repugnance and, perhaps, refusal to co-operate with the officers of the Union; the frowns of the executive magistracy of the State; the embarrassments created by legislative devices, which would often be added on such occasions, would oppose, in any State, difficulties not to be despised; would form, in a large State, very serious impediments; and where the sentiments of several adjoining States happened to be in unison, would present obstructions which the federal government would hardly be willing to encounter. But ambitious encroachments of the federal government, on the authority of the State governments, would not excite the opposition of a single State, or of a few States only. They would be signals of general alarm. Every government would espouse the common cause. A correspondence would be opened. Plans of resistance would be concerted.”
But for a nation in which power is concentrated in the hands of very few, where dissent is suppressed beyond the point of imprisonment, and where that power is undergirded with both direct military force and the anxiety produced by the specter of secret police, there is no opportunity for “plans of resistance” or any concerted correspondence.
Worse, “dissent” could take many forms—and not even have to be proved, in order for punishment to be meted out. Stalin used his military to massacre civilians and put political pressure on Soviet republics and non-republic satellite states. And between Stalin and the head of the NKVD (the Secret Police), Lavrentiy Beria, millions more were simply “disappeared.” Beria is famous for the quote, “Show me the man and I’ll show you the crime,” a statement that will be discussed in the essay on Stalin and the protections guaranteed in the U.S. Constitution.
The Founders were rightly skeptical of what could happen when government power was not hemmed in by lawful constraints—and what happens when people are not able to debate and exercise true dissent. The warnings debated in the Federalist Papers were made manifest in the brutality of the Soviet Union’s Stalinist era and, frankly, through the oppressions of Nikita Khrushchev and Leonid Brezhnev, and other socialist leaders.
Andrew Langer is President of the Institute for Liberty, as well as Chairman and Founder of the Institute for Regulatory Analysis and Engagement. IFL is a non-profit advocacy organization focused on advancing free-market and limited government principles into public policy at all levels. IRAE is a non-profit academic and activist organization whose mission is to examine regulations and regulatory proposals, assess their economic and societal impacts, and offer expert commentary in order to create better public policies. Andrew has been involved in free-market and limited-government causes for more than 25 years, has testified before Congress nearly two dozen times, spoken to audiences across the United States, and has taught at the collegiate level.
A globally-recognized expert on the impact of regulation on business, Andrew is regularly called on to offer innovative solutions to the challenges of squaring public policy priorities with the impact and efficacy of those policies, as well as their unintended consequences. Prior to becoming President of IFL and founding IRAE, he was the principal regulatory affairs lobbyist for the National Federation of Independent Business, the nation’s largest small business association. As President of the Institute for Liberty, he became recognized as an expert on the Constitution, especially issues surrounding private property rights, free speech, abuse of power, and the concentration of power in the federal executive branch.
Andrew has had an extensive career in media—having appeared on television programs around the world. From 2017 to 2021, he hosted a highly-rated weekly program on WBAL NewsRadio 1090 in Baltimore (as well as serving as their principal fill-in host from 2011 until 2021), and has filled in for both nationally-syndicated and satellite radio programs. He also created and hosted several different podcasts—currently hosting Andrew and Jerry Save The World, with long-time colleague, Jerry Rogers.
He holds a Master’s Degree in Public Administration from Troy University and his degree from William & Mary is in International Relations.
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