James Madison on the need for the people to declare war and for each generation, not future generations, to bear the costs of the wars they fight (1792)

James Madison

Found in The Writings, vol. 6 (1790-1802)

In 1792 James Madison wrote a newspaper article criticizing Rousseau’s plan for introducing "perpetual peace" in Europe. According to Madison, a better way to reduce the incidence of war, especially in a democracy like the U.S., was to make the people pay the full cost of war immediately instead of using debt to force later generations to foot the bill:

[T]hat war should not only be declared by the authority of the people, whose toils and treasures are to support its burdens, instead of the government which is to reap its fruits: but that each generation should be made to bear the burden of its own wars, instead of carrying them on, at the expence of other generations. And to give the fullest energy to his plan, he might have added, that each generation should not only bear its own burdens, but that the taxes composing them, should include a due proportion of such as by their direct operation keep the people awake, along with those, which being wrapped up in other payments, may leave them asleep, to misapplications of their money.

In this 1792 newspaper article James Madison criticises Rousseau’s notion of a plan for perpetual peace in Europe. Madison is not against peace but is against a purely “philosophical” approach which ignores the realities of who starts wars and how these wars are to be funded. Madison attacks the idea of governments going into debt to fund a current war, thus requiring future generations to pay for it. In his view, if the current generation really knew how much their wars cost them this might disincline them to starting wars and thus help to reduce the incidence of war.