Military & Government in the Formative Years – 1783-1812

By Richard W. Stewart

George Washington in military uniform, by Rembrandt Peale

George Washington in military uniform, by Rembrandt Peale.

On September 24, 1783, three weeks after the signing of the Treaty of Paris, which formally ended the Revolutionary War, Congress directed General George Washington to discharge “such parts of the Federal Army now in Service as he shall deem proper and expedient.” For the time being, Washington retained the force facing the British at New York and discharged the remaining continentals. After the British left New York, he kept only one infantry regiment and a battalion of artillery, 600 men, to guard the military supplies at West Point and other posts.

The period leading up to this demobilization was stormy for Congress. During the winter of 1782, the Army had grown impatient. Rumors that it would take matters into its own hands gained credence when several anonymous addresses were circulated among the officers at Newburgh, urging them not to fight if the war continued or not to lay down their arms if peace were declared and their pay accounts left unsettled. In an emotional speech to his old comrades, Washington disarmed this threat. He promised to intercede for them; in the end, Congress gave in to the officers’ demands, agreeing to award the men their back pay and grant them full pay for five years instead of half pay for life. Demobilization then proceeded peacefully, but it was against the background of these demands and threats that Congress wrestled with a significant postwar problem, the size, and character of the peacetime military establishment. Like most governments, Congress turned the problem over to a committee under Alexander Hamilton to study the facts and make recommendations for a military establishment.

The Question of a Peacetime Army

Continental Army by Henry Ogden

Continental Army by Henry Ogden

Congress subscribed to the prevailing view that the first line of national defense should be a “well-regulated and disciplined militia sufficiently armed and accoutered.” Its reluctance to create a standing army was understandable; a permanent army would be a heavy expense, and it would complicate the struggle between those who wanted a strong national government and those who preferred the existing loose federation of states. Further, the recent threats of the Continental officers strengthened the widespread fear that a standing army might be used to coerce the states or become an instrument of despotism. The English experience with General Oliver Cromwell and his military dictatorship in the mid-17th century still exerted a powerful influence over the political ideas of the mother country and the former colonies. General Washington, to whom Alexander Hamilton’s committee turned first for advice, echoed some of these fears. He pointed out that a large standing army in time of peace had always been considered “dangerous to the liberties of a country” and that the nation was “too poor to maintain a standing army adequate to our defense.” The question might also be considered, he continued, whether any surplus funds that became available should not better be applied to “building and equipping a Navy without which, in case of War, we could neither protect our Commerce, nor yield that assistance to each other which, on such an extent of seacoast, our mutual safety would require.” He believed that America should rely ultimately on an improved version of the historic citizens’ militia, a force enrolling all males between 18 and 50 liable for service to the nation in emergencies. He also recommended a volunteer militia, recruited in units, periodically trained, and subject to national rather than state control. At the same time, Washington suggested the creation of a small Regular Army “to awe the Indians, protect our Trade, prevent the encroachment of our Neighbors of Canada and the Floridas, and guard us at least from surprises; also for the security of our magazines.” He recommended a force of four regiments of infantry and one of artillery, totaling 2,630 officers and men.

General George Washington by Junius B. Stearns. 1854.

General George Washington by Junius B. Stearns. 1854.

Hamilton’s committee also listened to suggestions made by General Friedrich von Steuben; Major General Louis le Bèque du Portail, Chief Engineer of the Army; and Benjamin Lincoln, Secretary at War. On June 18, 1783, the committee submitted a plan to Congress similar to Washington’s but with a more ambitious militia program. Congress, however, rejected the proposal. Sectional rivalries, constitutional questions, and, above all, economic objections were too strong to be overcome.

The new republic lacked even a rudimentary administrative and revenue base. The committee revised its plan, recommending an even larger army that it hoped to provide at less expense by decreasing the pay of the regimental staff officers and subalterns. When asked, Washington admitted that detached service along the frontiers and coasts would probably require more men than he had proposed. Still, he disagreed that a larger establishment could be provided more economically than the one he had recommended. Many delegates to Congress had similar misgivings, and when the committee presented its revised report on October 23, Congress refused to accept it. During the winter of 1783, the matter rested. Under the Articles of Confederation, an affirmative vote of the representatives of nine states was required to exercise certain vital powers, including military matters. On a few occasions during this winter were enough states represented for Congress to renew the debate.

Militia Men

Militia Men

In the spring of 1784, the question of a permanent peacetime army became involved in the politics of state claims to western lands. Most men in the remaining infantry regiment and artillery battalion were from Massachusetts and New Hampshire. Those states wanted to eliminate the financial burden of providing the extra pay they had promised the men on enlistment. Congress refused to assume the responsibility unless the New England states would vote for a permanent military establishment. The New England representatives, led by Elbridge Gerry of Massachusetts, insisted that Congress had no authority to maintain a standing army. Still, at the same time, they wanted the existing troops to occupy the western forts in land claimed by the New England states. New York vigorously contested the New England claims to western lands, particularly in the region around Oswego and Niagara, and refused to vote for any permanent military establishment unless Congress permitted it to garrison the western forts with its forces.

The posts that had been the object of most concern and discussion dominated the Great Lakes and the St. Lawrence River. Located on American territory south of the boundary established by the peace treaty of 1783, the posts were in the hands of British troops when the war ended. Still, by the treaty’s terms, they were to be turned over to the United States as speedily as possible. Congress agreed that a force should be retained to occupy the posts as soon as the British left. The problem was how and by whom the troops were to be raised. A decision was urgent because the government was negotiating a treaty with the Indians of the Northwest. As Washington had suggested, a sizable force “to awe the Indians” would facilitate the negotiations. But the deadlock between the New England states and New York continued until early June 1784.

Continental Soldiers by Frank B. Mayer, 1875.

Continental Soldiers by Frank B. Mayer, 1875.

Finally, Congress rushed through a compromise on the last two days of the session. It ordered the existing infantry regiment and battalion of artillery disbanded, except for 80 artillerymen retained to guard military stores at West Point, New York, and Fort Pitt, Pennsylvania. It tied this discharge to a measure providing for the immediate recruitment of a new force of 700 men, a regiment of eight infantry and two artillery companies, which was to become the nucleus of a new Regular Army. By not making requisitions on the states for troops but merely recommending that the states provide them from their militia,  Congress got rid of most of the New England opposition on this score; by not assigning a quota for Massachusetts and New Hampshire, Congress satisfied the objections of most of the other states.

Four states were called upon to furnish troops: Pennsylvania (260), Connecticut (165), New York (165), and New Jersey (110). Lieutenant Colonel Josiah Harmar of Pennsylvania was appointed commanding officer. By the end of September 1784, only New Jersey and Pennsylvania had filled their quotas by enlisting volunteers from their militia.

Meanwhile, Congress learned that there was little immediate prospect that the British would evacuate the frontier posts. Canadian fur traders and the settlers in Upper Canada had objected so violently to this provision of the peace treaty that the British government secretly directed the Governor-General of Canada not to evacuate the posts without further orders. The failure of the United States to comply with a stipulation in the treaty regarding the recovery of debts owed to loyalists provided the British an excuse to postpone the evacuation of the posts for 12 more years. So the New Jersey contingent of Colonel Harmar’s force was sent to Fort Stanwix, in upstate New York, to persuade the Iroquois to part with their lands. The remainder of the force moved to Fort MacIntosh, New York, down the Ohio River from Fort Pitt, where similar negotiations were carried on with the Indians of the upper Ohio River.

Toward a More Perfect Union

Articles of Confederation

Articles of Confederation

Postwar problems revealed several serious defects in the Articles of Confederation. The federal government lacked a separate executive branch and a judiciary. Although Congress exercised a certain amount of executive and legislative power, it lacked the power to tax. To some delegates, the conflicts and friction between the states over the western lands seemed to carry the seeds of civil war. Rioting and disturbances in Massachusetts throughout the fall and winter of 1786 strengthened the pessimism of those who feared the collapse of the new nation. A severe commercial depression following an immediate postwar boom was causing particular distress among the back-country farmers. Angry mobs gathered in the Massachusetts hills, broke up the meetings of the courts, harried lawyers and magistrates out of the villages, and began to threaten the government arsenal in Springfield.

On October 20, 1786, Congress responded to the threat by calling several states to raise a 1,340-man force to serve for three years. This time the New England states did not object to congressional action. Still, before any of the soldiers voted by Congress could reach the scene, local militiamen repulsed an attack on the Springfield Arsenal led by Daniel Shays in late January 1787. A few days later, a significant reinforcement from the eastern part of the state arrived at Springfield and ended the disorders. Recruiting for the force authorized by Congress continued until the following April. By then, about 550 men had been enlisted, and the question of expense was becoming bothersome. Therefore, Congress directed the states to stop recruiting and discharge the troops already raised, except those in two artillery companies retained to guard West Point and the Springfield Arsenal. Shays’ Rebellion was thus responsible for the first augmentation of the federal Army. More importantly, one of the incidents helped persuade Americans that they needed a stronger government.

Rising concern over the federal government’s ineffectiveness, particularly in finance and commercial regulation, finally led to the convening of a Constitutional Convention in the spring of 1787. Strengthening the military powers of the government was one of the principal tasks of the convention, a task no less important than establishing its financial and commercial authority. The general problem facing the convention of power and the control of power came into sharp focus in the debates on military matters since the widespread suspicion of a strong central government and the equally widespread fear of a standing army was merged into the issue of the government’s military powers. Those who mistrusted a powerful government argued against a broad grant of authority not only in the fields of taxation and commercial regulation but, with special force, in military matters. Even those like Hamilton, who wanted to give the central government wide latitude in handling both purse and sword, were also somewhat wary of standing armies. They, too, were concerned over the possible usurpation of political power by a military force or its use by officeholders to perpetuate their power. Hamilton and his supporters, nevertheless, were willing to have the country run the risk of sacrificing some freedom for safety’s sake. In the final compromise, the problem of the military powers of the central government was resolved through the system of checks and balances built into the new Constitution.

Ben Franklin at Constitutional Convention, 1787

Ben Franklin at Constitutional Convention, 1787

Central to the system of checks and balances was specified and reserved powers. The states were to have all the powers not explicitly granted to the central government. The Constitution clothed the central government with adequate authority to raise and maintain an army without calling on the states. By giving Congress power to levy taxes, the Constitution provided the central government with the necessary financial means; by creating a separate executive branch, the Constitution made it possible for the government to conduct its daily business without constant reference to the states. The Constitution gave Congress the exclusive power to declare war, raise armies, and provide for a navy. It also empowered Congress to call forth the militia “to execute the Laws of the Union, suppress Insurrections and repel Invasions.” But authority over the militia was a shared power. Congress could provide for organizing, arming, and disciplining the militia and governing “such Part of them as may be employed in the Service of the United States.” Still, the Constitution expressly reserved the states the authority to appoint militia officers and train the militia “according to the discipline prescribed by Congress.”

The militia issue was also central to shaping the Second Amendment to the Constitution: the right to keep and bear arms. If the founding fathers recognized the centrality of freedom of speech, the press, and assembly, they also made clear those freedoms would only remain secure if the people could keep and bear arms as an ultimate check on the power of the government. The Second Amendment has been politicized since its adoption as part of the Bill of Rights. Still, there is no question that the architects of our government believed that the people in arms—the militia—were the final guarantors of our freedom. Any subsequent reinterpretations of that amendment must start with the fact that our leaders, fresh from their experiences in the Revolutionary War, relied on the militia as the centerpiece of our national military establishment. The concept of the militia and the right to bear arms are inextricably joined.

The new Constitution introduced an essential innovation by assigning all executive power to the President. The Secretary of War, therefore, became directly responsible to the President and not to Congress. The Constitution specifically provided that the President should be Commander in Chief of the Army and Navy. As such, his powers were exclusive, limited only “by their nature and the principles of our institutions.” The President had the right to assume personal command of forces in the field, but he could also delegate that right. As Commander in Chief, he was responsible for the employment and disposition of the armed forces in times of peace and the general direction of military and naval operations during the war.

In April 1789, George Washington became the first President under the new Constitution; on August 7, Congress created the Department of War. However, there was no change in either the policy or the department’s personnel. General Henry Knox, who had succeeded Washington as commander of the Army and had been handling military affairs under the old form of government, remained in charge. Since there was no navy, a separate department was unnecessary; at first, the War Department included naval affairs under its jurisdiction. Harmar, who had been given the rank of brigadier general during the Confederation period, was confirmed in his appointment, as were his officers; and the existing minuscule Army was taken over intact by the new government. In August 1789, this force amounted to about 800 officers and men. All the troops, except the two artillery companies retained after Shays’ Rebellion, were stationed along the Ohio River in a series of forts built after 1785.

So small an Army required no extensive field organization to supply its needs. In keeping with the accepted military theory that the Quartermaster was a staff officer necessary only in times of war, the Confederation Congress had included the Quartermaster General and his assistants, among the others discharged in 1783. It had placed the military supply system under civilian control. It had made the civilian Secretary responsible for transporting, safekeeping, and distributing military supplies and the Board of Treasury responsible for procuring and purchasing all military stores, including food and clothing. Except during a brief period in which the Secretary of War was allowed to execute contracts for Army clothing and subsistence, the new federal government retained the supply system established under the Confederation, adding in 1792 the civilian Office of the Quartermaster General to transport supplies to the frontier posts during the Indian expeditions. In 1794 Congress established the Office of the Purveyor of Public Supplies in the Treasury and the Office of Superintendent of Military Stores in the War Department to continue the same broad supply functions established in the Confederation period. This organization of military supply remained in effect with only slight
modification until 1812.

The Office of the Purveyor of Public Supplies used the contract system to procure food and equipment operated much as it had in colonial times. Contracts were awarded to the lowest bidder, who agreed to deliver and issue authorized subsistence at a fixed price to troops at a given post. The contractor was obliged to have on hand at all times sufficient rations to feed the troops, providing subsistence for at least six months in advance at the more distant posts. The procurement, storage, and distribution of all other supplies for the Army were centralized in Philadelphia, where the Purveyor contracted for all clothing, camp utensils, military stores, medicines, and hospital stores and the Superintendent of Military Stores collected and issued them when needed by the troops. The contract system was supposed to be more economical and efficient than direct purchase, but its weaknesses soon appeared. The quality of the supplies and the promptness of their delivery were dictated by the contractor’s profit interest and relative degree of corruption.

The method of arms procurement was a variation of the contract purchase system. Convinced that the development of a domestic arms industry was essential to independence, Hamilton had urged as early as 1783 “the public manufacture of arms, powder, etc.” A decade later, Secretary Knox reported to Congress that although arms could be purchased more cheaply in Europe, the bargain price was of little significance “compared with the solid advantages resulting from extending and perfecting the means upon which our safety may ultimately depend.” Congress responded by expanding the number of U.S. arsenals and magazines for the stockpiling of weapons and by establishing national armories to manufacture weapons. The first national armory was established at Springfield, Massachusetts, in 1794, and a second the same year at Harpers Ferry, Virginia. Despite these developments, the government still purchased most of its armament abroad, and many years would pass before the domestic industry could supply the government’s needs.

The Militia

Time and again, Washington pointed out that the only alternative to a large standing army was an effective militia, yet his efforts and those of Knox and Hamilton to make the militia more effective by applying federal regulation failed. Congress passed the basic militia law in May 1792. It called for the enrollment of “every able-bodied white male citizen” between eighteen and forty-five and the organization of the militia into divisions, brigades, regiments, battalions, and companies by the individual states, each militiaman providing his own “arms, munitions, and other accouterments.” The law that survived the legislative process bore little resemblance to the one Washington, and Knox had proposed. It left compliance with its provisions up to the states and, in the end, did little more than give federal recognition to the colonial militia organization that had plagued Washington during the Revolution. Despite these limitations, the act did preserve the idea of citizen soldiery, a concept of profound importance to the country’s future; it also created special volunteer units to supplement the obligatory mass system. The volunteers, organized into companies, met regularly for military training under elected officers. With antecedents in the organized military associations of the colonial era, this volunteer force later became the National Guard.

Training and discipline were the keys to an effective militia, but despite the act of 1792, the militia was to be neither disciplined nor well-trained. When permitted to fight in a less standardized fashion, either from behind fortifications or as irregulars, militiamen could give a good account of themselves. But only highly trained troops could be expected to employ the day’s complicated, formal linear tactics successfully. Strictly interpreting the constitutional provision that reserved to the states the authority to train the militia, Congress left the extent and thoroughness of training completely to the states and merely prescribed Steuben’s system of discipline and field exercises as the rules to be followed.

Militia Men

Militia Men

The limitations on the length of tours of duty and the circumstances for which the militia might be called into federal service further impaired its usefulness. No militiamen could be compelled to serve more than three months in any year, nor could the President order the militia to duty outside the United States. The effect of these limitations would be readily apparent during the War of 1812.

The President first exercised his authority to employ militia for suppressing insurrection and executing the laws of Congress in 1794, when he sent a large force of militia under Major General Henry Lee into western Pennsylvania during the Whiskey Rebellion. Lee encountered no resistance. As a show of force, the demonstration was impressive; as an indication of the military value of the militia in an emergency, it was inconclusive.

Military Realities in the Federalist Period

The military policies of the new nation evolved realistically in response to foreign and domestic developments. First, there was little military threat to the United States from a foreign nation. Britain had no desire or design to reconquer its lost colonies, although both Britain and Spain sought to curb the United States from expanding beyond the borders established by the treaty of 1783. The military alliance that bound the United States to England’s archrival, France, was a potential source of danger, but England and France were at peace until 1793. When the U.S. and France fought an undeclared war from 1798 to 1800, it was almost entirely a naval confrontation. Second, the jealousy of the individual states toward one another and toward the federal government made it difficult to establish a federal army at all and defeated efforts to institute federal regulation of the militia beyond the minimum permitted by the Constitution. Third, the federal government, plagued by financial problems, had to sacrifice expenditures. Fourth, Americans were extremely reluctant to serve in the Army, either as regulars or as volunteers, for more than a brief period. The government could not recruit enough men to bring the Regular Army up to authorized strength. Because of these drawbacks, a large regular military establishment was not feasible. Even a well-trained militia that could augment the regular force was lacking.

By Richard W. Stewart; American Military History, Volume I, Center of Military History, 2009. Compiled and edited by Kathy Alexander/Legends of America, updated January 2023.

Also See:

American History

Wars, Military & Soldiers

Whiskey Rebellion

Revolutionary War