War: The Most Dreaded Enemy of Liberty

During the course of my lifetime (b. 1949) America has fought many wars. In fact, we have been engaged in foreign struggles and combat for almost the entirety of my lifetime, with the exception of the four years of President Carter’s administration (1977-1981). This simple fact got me to thinking recently about an anniversary of a historic document in American history that is 222 years old tomorrow, April 20.

This statement goes as follows:


Of all the enemies of true liberty, war is, perhaps, the most to be dreaded, because it comprises and develops the germ of every other.

War is the parent of armies; from these proceed debts and taxes; and armies, and debts, and taxes are the known instruments for bringing the many under the domination of the few.

In war, too, the discretionary power of the Executive is extended; its influence in dealing out offices, honors and emoluments is multiplied; and all the means of seducing the minds, are added to those of subduing the force, of the people.

The same malignant aspect in republicanism may be traced in the inequality of fortunes, and the opportunities of fraud, growing out of a state of war, and in the degeneracy of manner and of morals, engendered in both.

No nation can preserve its freedom in the midst of continual warfare.

Those truths are well established. They are read in every page which records the progression from a less arbitrary to a more arbitrary government, or the transition from a popular government to an aristocracy or a monarchy.

It must be evident, then, that in the same degree as the friends of the propositions were jealous of armies, and debts, and prerogative, as dangerous to a republican Constitution, they must have been averse to war, as favorable to armies and debts and prerogative.

War is in fact the true nurse of executive aggrandizement. In war, a physical force is to be created; and it is the executive will, which is to direct it.

In war, the public treasuries are to be unlocked; and it is the executive hand which is to dispense them. In war, the honors and emoluments of office are to be multiplied; and it is the executive patronage under which they are to be enjoyed; and it is the executive brow they are to encircle.

The strongest passions and most dangerous weaknesses of the human breast; ambition, avarice, vanity, the honorable or venal love of fame, are all in conspiracy against the desire and duty of peace.

James Madison, April 20, 1795

4 Comments on “War: The Most Dreaded Enemy of Liberty”

  1. Please explain which one of the fundamental principles President Madison was referring to by this quote and why he felt this way.

    1. Madison was expressing deep concern that America not get engaged in global wars and expansions that would turn us toward a kind of police-force for the world. While modern issues have, rightly or wrongly, altered this v new (for some) it seems wise to always remember the warning he offered.

      1. Please read Madison’s words in context: “No nation can preserve its freedom in the midst of continual warfare.” His intent seems self-evident to me.

  2. i get what he is trying to say about war but i don’t know what word my teacher is looking for, is it checks and balances? is it federalism? is it diplomacy? stability?

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