Elbridge Gerry’s worry at the Constitutional Convention of a Congress creating a permanent, regular army threatening the very life of the Republic proved to be unfounded. The army and navy which Congress actually called into being in the 1790s were so absurdly small as to be unthreatening, not just to the Republic, but to everyone else.
Washington’s Views on Army
The 86 regiments and battalions which had composed the army of the United States during the Revolutionary War—the Continental Army— technically ceased to exist as of June 3, 1784.
George Washington had warned the Confederation Congress that it should not fool itself into thinking that it needed no professional military force, or that it could get by with calling on the states for the use of their militia in an emergency.
“I must beg leave to remark,” he wrote in September 1783, that the militia “will not afford that prompt and efficacious resistance to an enemy, which might be expected from regularly established Light Infantry Companies, or general selection of the ablest Men from every Regiment or Brigade of Militia.” He hoped that Congress would retain at least 2,631 long-service infantry and artillery; that would keep in existence a nucleus of trained professionals which could then be expanded to include the best of the state militia, as needed.
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Minuscule Military and Naval Forces
However, all that the Confederation Congress voted to create was a minuscule military force—all of 700 men, organized into a single regiment of seven infantry companies and two artillery companies, and 37 officers. And, like so much else under the Confederation, the states reserved the authority to commission the officers and recruit the troops.
Washington could at least console himself with the thought that the army affairs had ended up better than those of the navy. The Continental Navy had to be scraped into being from the purchase of odds-and-ends of merchant sailing ships, the commission or purchase of a few real warships from the French, and the even more hasty improvisation of a few gunboats into a successful flotilla on Lake Champlain.
Learn more about the demographics of the early United States.
Putting down Shays’s Rebellion
For a brief moment, in response to Shays’s Rebellion, the frightened Confederation Congress sluggishly moved to triple the size of its diminutive army, although the recruitment had to be explained officially as a necessity to deal with Indian troubles, lest even this modest increase generate suspicion from anxious state legislatures about an overmighty central government.
But the states did little to recruit the new force, and after Governor Bowdoin’s little mercenary army and the Massachusetts state militia put down Shays’s Rebellion, Congress happily went back to the same comfortable policies it had been following and disbanded its newly-recruited soldiers.
Perhaps Congress imagined it could get by with the services of just the state militias.
The Naval Act of 1794
This was not going to be true of the Navy since the states did not maintain navies as they did militia. And as soon as the Treaty of Paris made it clear that American merchant shipping was no longer protected by the mantle of the Royal Navy, pirates from the coasts of North Africa began feasting on hapless American merchantmen in the Mediterranean, starting in July 1785 with the capture of the American merchant ships Maria and Dauphin.
It was not until March of 1794 that Congress passed a naval act that funded the construction of six new frigates—four of them oversize 44-gun warships designed “to render them superior to any frigate belonging to the European powers,” and two conventional 36-gun 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 the Quasi-War with France under President Adams before Congress would take its obligations to “raise and support Armies” and “provide and maintain a Navy” with real seriousness, and it would take Adams’s Secretary of War, James McHenry, to put them into play for the first time.
Learn more about the Treaty of Paris.
James McHenry: The Secretary of War
James McHenry was Irish-born, but immigrated to America in 1771 and became a physician. He served as a military surgeon in the Revolution, and after the war left medicine to get into business and into politics as a member of the Maryland legislature. He was part of the Maryland delegation to the Constitutional Convention. He became part of Alexander Hamilton’s Federalist circle, and Hamilton actually recommended McHenry to Washington after the disgrace of Edmund Randolph as a likely secretary of state in 1796.
But George Washington posted McHenry instead to the War Department, and when John Adams succeeded Washington in the presidency a few months later, Adams kept McHenry in place.
McHenry was warned at the outset that Congress wanted “a prudent, firm, frugal officer who in private life knows the value of money.” This McHenry did—but he also knew the folly of being penny-wise and dollar-foolish. And he at once announced that his priorities would be to “create a navy and always maintain a formidable army.”
This, for McHenry, meant an army of not less than 12,000 regulars and a navy with at least 12—not just frigates—but line-of-battle-ships. He had the encouragement of the Federalist old guard, especially Fisher Ames in the House of Representatives. Congress was ready to give McHenry and Adams anything they wanted—a new “additional army” of twelve infantry regiments and six troops of light dragoons, plus the completion of the three unfinished frigates President, Chesapeake, and Congress. In addition, Congress authorized the construction of six 74-gun ships-of-the-line, and a corps of Marines to serve with them.
However, McHenry did not consider himself a Navy man, and at his prompting Congress authorized the creation of an entirely separate Navy Department under McHenry’s fellow Maryland Federalist, Benjamin Stoddert.
Common Questions about the Confederation Congress and the Military Forces in the 1790s
The Continental Army, that included the 86 regiments and battalions during the Revolutionary War, technically ceased to exist as of June 3, 1784.
In March of 1794, Congress passed a naval act that funded the construction of six new frigates—four of them oversize 44-gun warships and two conventional 36-gun frigates.
James McHenry was a member of the Maryland legislature. He was part of the Maryland delegation to the Constitutional Convention. He later served as John Adams’s Secretary of War.