The Confederation Congress and the Military Forces in the 1790s

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Through Allen C. Guelzo, Ph.D., Gettysburg College

Elbridge Gerry’s concern for a Congressional Constitutional Convention creating a standing and regular army threatening the very life of the Republic has proven to be unfounded. The army and navy that Congress actually created in the 1790s were so absurdly small that they were not threatening, not only to the Republic, but to everyone else.

George Washington believed the country needed professional military force. (Image: Everett Collection / Shutterstock)

Washington’s perspective on the military

The 86 regiments and battalions that made up the United States Army during the War of Independence – the Continental Army – technically ceased to exist on June 3, 1784.

George Washington had warned the Confederation Congress that he should not delude himself into thinking that he did not need any professional military force, or that he could simply call on the states to use their militia in emergency.

“I must ask permission to point out,” he wrote in September 1783, “that the militia” will not offer that prompt and effective resistance to an enemy, which one might expect from regularly established companies of light infantry, or the general selection of the most capable men from each militia regiment or brigade. He hoped Congress would retain at least 2,631 long-serving infantry and artillery; this would maintain a core of skilled professionals who could then be expanded to include the best of the state militia, as needed.

This is a transcript of the video series America’s Founding Fathers. Watch it now, on Wondrium.

Tiny military and naval forces

However, all the Confederacy Congress voted to create was a tiny military force – all 700 men, organized into a single regiment of seven infantry companies and two artillery companies, and 37 officers. And, like so many others under Confederation, the states reserved the power to commission officers and recruit troops.

Washington could at least take comfort in thinking that the affairs of the army had ended better than those of the navy. The continental navy must have been created from the purchase of odds and ends of merchant sailboats, the order or purchase of a few real warships from the French and the even more hasty improvisation of a few gunboats in a successful flotilla. on Lake Champlain.

Learn more about the demographics of the early United States.

End Shays’ rebellion

Photo of the monument that marks the site of the final battle of the Shays rebellion.
In response to Shays’ rebellion, the frightened Confederacy Congress slowly moved to triple the size of its small army. (Image: John Bessa / Public Domain)

For a brief moment, in response to Shays’ rebellion, the frightened Confederacy Congress slowly tripled the size of its small army, although the recruiting had to be officially explained as a necessity to deal with the Indian unrest, from fear that even this modest increase will raise suspicion. state legislatures anxious about too powerful a central government.

But the states did little to recruit the new force, and after Governor Bowdoin’s small army of mercenaries and the Massachusetts state militia put an end to Shays’ rebellion, Congress returned with happiness at the same comfortable policies he had followed and dismissed his newly recruited soldiers.

Perhaps Congress imagined it might be content with the services of state militias alone.

The Naval Law of 1794

This was not going to be true for the navy since states did not maintain navies like they did with militias. And as soon as the Treaty of Paris made it clear that the American merchant navy was no longer protected by the mantle of the Royal Navy, the pirates of the coasts of North Africa began to feast on the hapless American merchants in the Mediterranean, to from July 1785 with the capture of American merchant ships Married and Dolphin.

It was not until March 1794 that Congress passed a naval law that funded the construction of six new frigates, four of them oversized, 44-gun warships designed “to make them superior to n ‘ any frigate belonging to the European powers ”and two conventional. -the cannon frigates. But when a treaty was signed in 1795 with the Algerians, work on three of the ships was suspended.

It took the outbreak of quasi-war with France under President Adams before Congress took on its obligations to “raise and support armies” and “provide and maintain a navy” with real seriousness, and it would take Adams’ Secretary of War James McHenry to bring them into play for the first time.

Learn more about the treaty of paris.

A portrait of James McHenry.
George Washington assigned McHenry to the War Department. (Image: H. Pollock / Public domain)

James McHenry: Secretary of War

James McHenry was born in Ireland, but immigrated to America in 1771 and became a physician. He served as a military surgeon during the Revolution and after the war left medicine to enter business and politics as a member of the Maryland legislature. He was part of the Maryland delegation to the Constitutional Convention. He became a member of Alexander Hamilton’s Federalist Circle, and Hamilton actually recommended McHenry to Washington following Edmund Randolph’s disgrace as likely secretary of state in 1796.

But George Washington instead assigned McHenry to the War Department, and when John Adams took over as President from Washington a few months later, Adams kept McHenry in place.

McHenry’s priorities

McHenry was warned from the outset that Congress wanted “a prudent, steadfast, frugal officer who in private life knows the value of money.” This McHenry did, but he also knew the folly of being cautious and crazy about dollars. And he immediately announced that his priorities would be to “create a navy and always maintain a formidable army”.

This, for McHenry, meant an army of no less than 12,000 regulars and a navy of at least 12 – not just frigates – but ships of the line. He had the encouragement of the old federalist guard, especially Fisher Ames in the House of Representatives. Congress was ready to give McHenry and Adams whatever they wanted: a new “extra army” of twelve infantry regiments and six light dragon troops, as well as the completion of the three unfinished frigates. President, Chesapeake, and Congress. In addition, Congress authorized the construction of six 74-gun liners and a Marine Corps to serve with them.

However, McHenry did not see himself as a man of the Navy, and at his urging, Congress authorized the creation of an entirely separate Navy Department under the leadership of McHenry’s Maryland Federalist, Benjamin Stoddert.

Common questions about the Confederation Congress and military forces in the 1790s

Q: When did the Continental Army cease to exist?

The Continental Army, which included all 86 regiments and battalions during the War of Independence, technically ceased to exist on June 3, 1784.

Q: What was included in the Naval Law that was passed in 1794?

In March 1794, Congress adopted a naval act which financed the construction of six new frigates, including four oversized 44-gun warships and two conventional 36-gun frigates.

Q: Who was James McHenry?

James mchenry was a member of the Maryland legislature. He was part of the Maryland delegation to the Constitutional Convention. He then served as John Adams’ Secretary of War.

Keep reading
The immediate reaction to the new US constitution
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How the Confederation funded its army during the Civil War


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