The U.S. Army and the Founding of the Republic

During the summer of 1787, fifty-five men assembled in the Pennsylvania State House (as Philadelphia's Independence Hall was then called) to hammer out a new form of government for the United States of America. The Constitution they produced has proved to be one of the most influential documents ever penned, a flexible instrument that has guided the nation through two hundred years of profound change and has served as a model for emerging democracies around the world.

The Framers sought to preserve and improve upon a way of life that had evolved in America over the preceding century and a half, but in so doing they also made a bold leap of faith. Advancing an idea considered radical in their time, they expressed their belief in the fundamental right of the people to govern themselves. They fashioned a republic carefully balanced so that the rights of the individual were protected, but one sufficiently powerful to prevent internal chaos and deter external attack. Even two centuries ago this singular notion had great popular appeal, but both the authors of the Constitution and its critics were well aware of the pitfalls. History could boast of no prior successful establishment of such a system.

The delegates were a diverse lot. Among them could be counted socially elite planters and merchants, along with lawyers, educators, and farmers. Like all humans, they were driven by complex motives and sought to protect the special interests of their family and class as well as their state and local community. What set them apart was their sense of statesmanship. Time and again they transcended regional concerns and economic self-interest to compromise for the general good. Historians have long sought to explain the capacity for growth and understanding that emerged during the Philadelphia meetings. One factor often overlooked, however, is that 23 of the 40 men (to include the secretary of the Convention) who signed the Constitution had served in uniform during the Revolutionary War. While the war had helped focus the attention of all the delegates on areas of mutual concern, the separate, shared experiences of those who had served under arms undoubtedly acted as a catalyst in moving the majority toward final compromise and action on national problems.

These 23 signers had volunteered to fight for independence, had sacrificed and suffered to win the war, and then, with their fellow Patriots, had shed their uniforms to resume civilian careers. Many of them would go on to lead the new government established under the Constitution. In a certain sense their work in Philadelphia was not only a continuation and culmination of the Revolution they had served in uniform, but also a preamble to the important role they would play in the governing of the new republic.

The Colonial Heritage

On the morning of 15 June 1775, as he had for the past month, George Washington entered Independence Hall and took his seat with the rest of the Virginia delegation to the Continental Congress. He was an imposing presence. At 43, he stood six feet four inches, weighed over 225 pounds, and was renowned for his military bearing and astonishing feats of physical strength. But he had also captured the attention of his colleagues in more important ways. The quiet planter was universally respected as a judicious Patriot with a natural dignity and an intense sense of personal honor. He was also known for an iron will that kept a passionate nature firmly in control. In short, he was gifted with all the essential ingredients of leadership, and now, in an act destined to alter the course of American history, he would be chosen to command his country's armed forces.

Congress had already agreed to accept responsibility for the improvised army that had set siege to General Thomas Gages British regulars in Boston in the aftermath of the fighting at Lexington and Concord. New Englanders had responded to that first bloodshed by taking up arms, but, unaided, they could not hope to withstand the full might of the British. When Congress convened in mid-May, the New England delegates, supported by New Yorkers worried about an invasion from


Canada down the Hudson River-Lake Champlain corridor, pleaded for united military action. Colonel Washington's military experience (he had commanded Virginia's troops in the French and Indian War) naturally led his fellow delegates to listen closely to his views. Acting on his advice, Congress adopted all existing forces as "the American continental army."

On the 15th the delegates turned to the delicate task of selecting a general who could be trusted to lead these men. They needed an individual with military experience, but also one who shared their fundamental political values and therefore posed no threat to the Patriot cause. Washington, the highest-ranking native-born American veteran, appeared the ideal choice. He had served in Virginia's House of Burgesses and in both Continental Congresses, where he had impressed his peers as a man who could be trusted with authority. The fact that he came from Virginia would help convince London that Americans from all sections were united in resistance. Although outwardly modest, his habit of wearing a uniform to the sessions indicated clearly his interest in the assignment. His election as commander of "all the continental forces raised, or to be raised, for the defense of American liberty" was unanimous. A score of the delegates, including Thomas Jefferson, Benjamin Franklin, and John Langdon, treated their new general to dinner that evening to celebrate the occasion.

It took the Commander in Chief a week to complete his preparations. In the interim four other delegates also agreed to serve in the Army: New York's Philip Schuyler and New Hampshire's John Sullivan as generals; Thomas Mifflin and Joseph Reed, both from Pennsylvania, as members of Washington's personal staff, or "family," as they came to be called. Finally, on 23 June, a cavalcade consisting of Washington and Schuyler, Charles Lee and Horatio Gates (two former British officers also appointed as generals), assorted aides and servants, and an escort of militia cavalrymen (the Philadelphia City Troop) departed Philadelphia.

The entourage drew crowds at every village as it crossed through New Jersey, New York, Connecticut, and Massachusetts. In New York City, where Schuyler remained to begin organizing a separate subordinate command, the generals encountered perplexed local officials who wished to extend them the proper courtesies without offending the colony's Royal governor. During these hectic days Washington received his first exposure to the burden of serving as a symbol for the Revolution and, in effect, for the emerging nation. The cavalcade finally reached headquarters in Cambridge, Massachusetts, on 3 July. After paying a brief call on officials from the colony's Provincial Convention, Washington quietly took command. The next morning the Virginian began the difficult task of learning more about these New Englanders and transforming the assembled ragtag military units into a true eighteenth-century army.

Although sharing a common heritage, the opposing forces outside Boston were profoundly different, reflecting the development of separate military and political traditions in the New World during the century and a half of colonial history. Ideas carried from England had clearly shaped both colonial society and its military institutions. One of the English notions incorporated into fundamental American thinking involved a belief that the individual had an obligation to society at large. Translated into military terms by the medieval Anglo-Saxons, this belief required every free able-bodied male to own weapons and turn out under local leaders to defend the realm. The militia, as this military force was called, ensured in a rough way that everyone participated in the country's defense in proportion to the benefits he received from it.

But these ideas concerning military obligation had developed differently in the colonies and the mother country. Taking advantage of its island geography, England had come to rely primarily on its navy for defense. Although a loosely controlled militia was assigned the task of protecting against the unlikely event of invasion,


First Muster
"First Muster" depicts typical training by colonial militia musketeers and pikemen in the seventeenth century. (Oil on hardboard, by Don Troiani, 1985, National Guard Heritage Painting, Department of the Army, National Guard Bureau.)

military expeditions overseas were handled by raising temporary armies of paid soldiers. This arrangement pleased both the Crown and influential elements of society because it kept costs to a minimum and avoided major disruptions in everyday life. Eventually, two categories of militia emerged: the theoretical general militia of all able-bodied men available in event of general mobilization, and a smaller contingent of volunteers formed into "trained bands" that held periodic musters, or meetings, to practice military skills needed for temporary military contingencies. In time even these trained bands were allowed to deteriorate in favor of a small permanent, or standing, army controlled by Parliament.

The need to defend the relatively poor and sparsely settled colonies against both Indian tribes and European powers led to a different military arrangement in America. Defense played a major role in colonial life. Although the Royal Navy, supported by a few fortifications equipped with cannon, defended the coastline, the colonies themselves bore the major burden of their own defense. No colony could afford to maintain enough troops to meet all contingencies, so all relied on the concept of the citizen-soldier to defend the community. Within two years of its founding in 1607, for example, Jamestown had organized itself into a virtual regimental garrison complete with companies and squads. Plymouth, on the advice of Miles Standish, formed four companies of militia within a comparable period. The Massachusetts Bay Colony profited from the experience of the earlier settlements. By 1629 it had a militia company, equipped with the latest weapons, at Salem; by 1636 it had formed three permanent regiments throughout the colony.

Since the colonies could ill afford the luxury of exempting the majority of the population from regular training requirements, they expanded the trained-band concept to encompass all settlers. Only Pennsylvania remained an exception to the general pattern. Settled by Quakers, it did not pass a law establishing a mandatory militia until 1777. In fact, well into the eighteenth century few adult Americans were exempted by law from actual training. In the early fighting between settlers and Indians, citizen-soldiers actually fought in defense of their homes. Later, when more elaborate retaliatory offensive operations were launched against the tribes, the colonists tried to minimize the economic dislocation by using detachments temporarily organized for the occasion. Although the immediate military danger subsided as the frontier moved westward, the colonial standing militia remained as the means to train young men in the rudiments of war, as a law-enforcement agency, and as a source of recruits or draftees for short-lived military ex-


peditions on the frontier.

Eventually, supplemental military institutions emerged for frontier defense. Hired military volunteers began to range the wilderness throughout colonial America, patrolling outposts and giving early warning of Indian attack. Other volunteers combined with friendly Indians for offensive operations deep in the wilderness where European tactics were ineffective. This volunteer concept matured during the colonial wars. Regiments completely separated from the militia were raised for specific campaigns. These units, called Provincials, were patterned after regiments in the regular British Army and were recruited from the militia, often during normal drill assemblies. In 1754, for example, Royal Governor Robert Dinwiddie of Virginia raised a Provincial regiment to secure the colony's claims to the Ohio Valley against French encroachment. Major George Washington led the vanguard of the regiment toward the forks of the Allegheny and Monongahela rivers (now Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania) with instructions to force a French withdrawal. After some initial success, he surrendered to superior numbers, thus setting off the French and Indian War, the last and greatest of the colonial wars between France and England.

This colonial military system, with extensive responsibilities even in prolonged periods of peace, was profoundly important in shaping American politics. Except for slaves, just about every adult male served in the militia at some point in his life, making it perhaps the single most persuasive political institution affecting the daily lives of Americans. Even individuals technically denied the franchise in local elections participated in the process by which junior officers were elected for the units, and many political leaders gained their first responsible position in government as company commanders in the militia. When war threatened, Provincial service provided other opportunities. The widespread use of grants of land as recruiting bounties provided propertyless laborers and younger sons the chance to gain a homestead and therefore to rise in the social structure. Military skill also opened the door for individual officers to raise their economic standing and join


the social elite. A clear understanding that the militia and Provincial units had an important function in protecting society also made Americans of all political views read contemporary political philosophers in a special way. These citizen-soldiers passionately believed that defense of life and liberty was an integral part of the citizen's duties, not something that could be left to a professional force responsible to a distant government.

The evolution of separate military institutions in the colonies and mother country paralleled a colonial elaboration of the English political model. During the seventeenth century, England not only planted colonies in the New World but also underwent a series of dramatic domestic changes. The period of early colonial growth witnessed an intense struggle for power between monarchy and Parliament that twice split the mother country apart. Accumulated grievances, coupled with religious differences, triggered a civil war in 1642 that pitted the Crown against a Parliamentary majority. The war cost King Charles I his life, and the remnant of the House of Commons abolished the monarchy and the House of Lords before being forced in turn to relinquish power to General Oliver Cromwell and the army. For a decade, England witnessed a virtual military dictatorship under Cromwell as "Lord Protector." A newly elected Parliament restored the Crown after Cromwell's death, but not before exacting major concessions, in particular limiting the size of the military establishment that the King might maintain. This traumatic period also had far-reaching consequences in the colonies, where Cromwell's dictatorship engendered an abiding suspicion of standing armies and an active opposition to the use of professional soldiers.

In 1688 King James II provoked a second constitutional crisis that ended in a nearly bloodless coup by his daughter Mary and her husband, William of Orange. As a price for supporting the "Glorious Revolution" and William's European military ambitions, the House of Commons extracted still more concessions, making it a full partner in most governmental affairs. Parliament further consolidated its power in 1714 when a Hanoverian prince, George I, succeeded Queen Anne. Henceforth kings ruled through ministers who sat in a Parliament that represented the interests of the landed and mercantile classes, a sequence of events that helped shape political institutions in the colonies.

The colonies had come into being largely as the result of individual initiative with a minimum of external control, thus paving the way for them to adopt and expand English models of representative government. By the start of the eighteenth century a basic pattern had emerged in the colonies; regardless of formal arrangement, all colonial governments functioned in essentially the same way. They had a governor, normally a Briton who returned home at the end of his term and who performed executive functions with the assistance of a small staff. Accountable to London, he had to juggle often-conflicting demands of the colonists and use patronage and persuasion to forge compromises. The colonial legislatures consisted, like Parliament, of two houses. The upper chamber, most commonly called the council, usually consisted of about a dozen members chosen from the colony's most powerful families. They advised the governor and exercised certain executive and judicial functions, although their influence waned as that of the lower house rose. The more powerful lower house was an elective body. Regardless of formal rules, the franchise in America came to be exercised by a very broad segment of society. Virtually every free, Protestant, adult male could vote as long as he met minimal property-owning restrictions. Members of the lower house, or assembly, were not compensated for their service. Because of this fact, and because colonists expected those with a greater stake in society to work actively for society's benefit, members of the assembly were largely drawn from the landowning and merchant classes. Most of these legislatures consciously adopted Parliament's procedures and precedents as a guide. They controlled their colony's finances and used this power to gain dominance in the government, much as the House of Commons had in England.

Despite these basic similarities in government, the quarter-million colonists in North America in 1700, although still thinking of themselves as Englishmen living abroad, had already begun to emerge as a separate people. The most conspicuous difference came from the fact that while individuals in their daily lives continued to show respect to those who stood above them in the social order, the rigid stratification of the Old World had disintegrated in the New under the impact of enhanced economic opportunity. In America self-sustaining farmers quickly replaced a tenant yeomanry, while talent and ambition allowed families to rise in social status in a brief period. A form of equality, based on economic self-sufficiency and reflected in the broad franchise, came to exist throughout society, which, although Americans did not realize it at the time, set it apart from its European counterparts. Poverty and slavery continued, but throughout most layers of society there existed an openness to change and a common perception that one could improve ones lot through personal effort. People who thought this way paid close attention to the concessions William and Mary made to Parliament and considered that they too had been guaranteed the "traditional" liberties of Englishmen.

This perception of traditional rights matured during the first half of the eighteenth century and set off a storm of protest when, after the Seven Years War, Parlia-


ment tried to increase its control over the colonies. This effort began with a scheme to raise money to retire the war debt and to garrison Royal regiments in the newly acquired colonies of Canada and Florida. Parliament decided that the colonies would pay for the defense and administration of North America, allowing Britain to concentrate on the war debt. At the same time, the economy of the mother country would be stimulated by a determined, and unprecedented, effort to enforce trade regulations.

The colonists resented the change, and over the course of the next decade became increasingly vocal in their objections. Their first protests came when, just eight months after the war ended, King George III signed the Proclamation of 1763, limiting settlers from the thirteen colonies from moving west of the Appalachian Mountains. The King's ministers had hoped thereby to minimize expenses by preventing clashes between the colonists and the Indians. To this end, they decreed the creation of an unoccupied zone that would be policed by regular British regiments under the direct authority of the London government and not answerable to any colonial governor. Most colonists saw the proclamation as an unwarranted intrusion into their internal affairs. Their charters allowed westward expansion, and the possibility of acquiring western land was the reason many of them had supported the French and Indian War. They especially resented the fact that the Redcoats stationed in North America were supported by taxes on the colonies voted in England, not in North America. On those rare occasions in the past when companies of regulars had been stationed in their midst, funding had been provided by the colonial assemblies which thereby retained considerable say in how they were employed.

The assemblies challenged this erosion of their "rights," using the same arguments that Englishmen had used against their Kings during the seventeenth century. Americans asserted that for a century and a half their own militia, supplemented as needed by Provincial units, had been more than adequate for defense. At the same time, London tried to reduce expenses further by ordering many of the British regiments from the frontiers to coastal cities, thereby simplifying logistical problems. The similarity of this move to events in the English Civil War and the Glorious Revolution raised colonial suspicions. Already convinced that these troops served no useful military purpose, the colonists increasingly felt that the regulars were a standing army stationed in their midst to enforce unpopular new revenue measures. In 1765 Parliament had passed the Stamp Act, which taxed paper products, including newspapers. In an effort to make the law acceptable, it appointed prominent Americans to serve as the collectors. Local opposition quickly forced those nominated to refuse appointment, and the Massachusetts legislature issued a call for a congress or general meeting of all the colonies to assemble in New York City in October to prepare a unified response. Nine colonies attended the Stamp Act Congress, the first such national meeting convened at the colonists' initiative, and drew up a petition of grievance. The delegates stated that one of the basic rights guaranteed to all Englishmen involved having taxes voted by an assembly of their own representatives. The Stamp Act, they argued, was improper because Americans were not represented in Parliament. They voted to impose a voluntary boycott of British goods until such time as the measure was repealed.

An angry Parliament reasserted its right to pass laws governing the colonies in "all cases whatsoever," but it decided that a different approach to raising taxes would be more practical. It rescinded the Stamp Act in 1766 and went on in the following year to enact the so-called Townshend Duties in an effort to raise monies in ways less objectionable to Americans. These new duties sought to impose a series of small "external" taxes on imports and exports, as an exercise of Parliament's unquestioned power to control trade, rather than the Stamp Act's single large "internal" tax, and specified


that all monies thus raised would be spent in America to boost the local economy. Americans rejected the argument, but the new round of protest took the form of pamphlets and newspaper articles. The most significant of these works was a series of Letters from a Farmer in Pennsylvania by a young leader of that colony's legislature, John Dickinson.

Incidents continued to multiply. In 1768 zealous British customs officials seized a ship belonging to John Hancock, a leading Boston merchant and prominent member of the Massachusetts assembly. Mob violence provoked by this incident provided London with an opportunity to show Americans that the Empires authority could not be flaunted, and four regiments of regulars were ordered to Boston to make a show of force. The Boston town meeting, charging that the regiments were a "standing army," called on the colony's other towns to meet to devise plans for another economic boycott. The subsequent gathering reinforced the precedent set by the Stamp Act Congress for convening extralegal assemblies to bypass legislatures subject to a Royal governor's veto.

Compromise still seemed possible. Parliament withdrew most of the troops and rescinded the Townshend Duties, except for a purely symbolic one on the importation of tea. Unfortunately, these concessions coincided with a clash between a Boston crowd and Captain Thomas Preston's detachment of the 29th Regiment of Foot guarding the Boston Customs House. When the crowd grew threatening, Preston ordered his men to fire, killing five civilians. News of the "Boston Massacre' sped through the colonies, but cool heads prevailed and further bloodshed was avoided. Preston and his men were placed on trial, but, defended by a rising young lawyer named John Adams, were acquitted on the grounds of self-defense. The remaining soldiers were subsequently withdrawn from the town in an effort to avoid further troubles.

The calm proved short-lived. In an effort to relieve some of the pressure on its Royal governor, the government in London announced in 1772 that hereafter it, not the Massachusetts assembly, would pay the salaries of both the governor and the colony's judiciary. Boston's town government immediately established a Committee of Correspondence to communicate with other localities on a regular basis as a way of combating what it considered to be this further erosion of self-government. The idea rapidly spread across North America. The following year these committees proved invaluable in organizing resistance to the Tea Act of 1773 when Parliament sought to solve the economic problems of the East India


Stand Your Ground
"Stand Your Ground" depicts the first fighting of the Revolution on Lexington Common, 19 April 1775. (Oil on hardboard, by Don Troiani, 1985; National Guard Heritage Painting, Department of the Army, National Guard Bureau.)

Company by giving it a monopoly on that commodity in the American market through the enforcement of import duties. Carefully orchestrated resistance throughout the colonies resurrected the protest tactics of the Stamp Act. Local agents were forced to resign, and most governors chose not to let shipments of tea land in order to prevent trouble. In Boston, however, Royal authorities tried to enforce the law. In response, a small group of men, vaguely disguised as Indians, threw forty-five tons of tea into the harbor. Town authorities refused to prosecute them.

News of the Boston Tea Party shocked British authorities. The King, his ministers, and an overwhelming majority in Parliament agreed that an example had to be made of the town or the entire structure of imperial authority would be undermined. Between March and June of 1774 a series of laws, known in America as the Intolerable Acts, closed the port of Boston until restitution was made to the East India Company and suspended the civil government of Massachusetts, replacing it with a military regime backed by a large garrison. The colony's legislature immediately issued a call for another meeting of all the colonies.

The Continental Congress met in Philadelphia's Carpenter's Hall between 5 September and 26 October 1774 and created a fundamental shift in the focus of the crisis. Every colony except Georgia appointed delegates, sending their most respected leaders. These men realized that should Parliament succeed in bringing Massachusetts to its knees by employing such unprecedented measures, similar force might be used against any other colony in the future. They issued a Declaration of Rights and Resolves setting forth the view that colonists were entitled to the same rights as any other Englishmen, approved a boycott (the Association) of imports from and exports to Great Britain, and set plans to reconvene on 10 May 1775.

This Second Continental Congress, like its predecessor, was intended to serve as a temporary forum for debate, but in the end it became the governing body that directed the Revolution for the thirteen states. This ad hoc arrangement was echoed in the individual colonies,


which, with the exception of Connecticut and Rhode Island, could not use existing governmental structures because they were controlled by the British. To fill the void, Patriots in each colony mobilized public opinion to establish new, extralegal governing bodies, called Provincial Conventions or Congresses, and local Committees of Safety. In every case their argument was the same, stemming directly from what they perceived as outside interference by Parliament. Embued with the political philosophy of the Enlightenment, the colonists believed that a social contract existed between them and their sovereign, who had granted their Royal charters, and not with Parliament, in which they were not represented. In 1775 the colonists rose up to oppose a "ministerial army" sent, in their eyes, by Parliament, rather than the King, to deprive them of their rights as Englishmen. But when King George III later sided openly with his ministers in what the majority of colonists considered Parliament's usurpation of powers properly reserved to the colonial governments, the social contract was broken and revolution became inevitable. From its outset, therefore, the Revolutionary War was a fight to preserve existing norms of local self-government.

From the start of the crisis local politicians had seen a military dimension to their political problems. Militia assemblies provided convenient gatherings to marshal public opinion and in some cases in 1765 furnished both the leaders and manpower when Sons of Liberty organized to intimidate tax collectors. If a strong militia could remove the need for British troops to protect North America against French or Spanish aggression, thereby eliminating any justification of the odious taxes, a strong militia could also directly oppose arbitrary power exercised by British troops. As the crisis deepened, many leaders began agitating for serious militia reforms on that very ground. Working closely with the Committees of Safety, militiamen purged their ranks of British sympathizers and provided enforcement machinery for the acts of the extralegal assemblies, a process expedited by the fact that many of the elected representatives were also officers in the militia. The political impact of the militia cannot be overestimated in the critical process of mobilizing public support for the Revolution, although reliance on the militia did create some military problems, just as it had in the French and Indian War. Militia forces, organized locally, were ideal for use in short tours of service in defense of nearby areas, but were impractical for duty covering either extended periods of time or great distances. Communities simply could not sustain the resulting economic disruption. To fill the immediate void, the colonists turned to the Provincial precedent—a full-time military force recruited for a limited term of service (therefore not a "standing army") and directly under the control of popularly elected authorities.

Some Patriot leaders, including George Washington, began to organize voluntary military companies for extra training. But in this area, as in political ones, Massachusetts took the lead. In October 1774 a convention of representatives from across the colony, acting in place of the suspended legislature, passed resolutions calling for a reorganization of the militia under Patriot officers, began assembling depots of weapons and military supplies, and established the Minutemen, a select force ready to turn out quickly in an emergency. Other colonies followed this precedent, and early in 1775 New Englanders began planning for a regional defensive army patterned after the Provincial regiments of earlier wars.

On 18 April 1775 a British column of some 600 men set out in the dark from Boston with orders to proceed to Concord, where the Massachusetts Provincial Congress was accumulating military stores, and to seize any materiel found there. Early the next morning the column encountered Lexington's company of militia drawn up near their route of march. Neither side wished to provoke trouble, but both needed to make a political statement. The British deployed to confront the militiamen, and ordered them to disperse. Just as the colonists were beginning to comply, a shot rang out. Seconds later the British line opened fire, leaving a number of Americans lying dead and wounded. No one knows for sure who fired the "shot heard round the world" although it probably was a junior British officer simply trying to gain the attention of a milling crowd. This incident and a later engagement just outside Concord touched off a general battle when the small British column began to withdraw, having failed in its mission to destroy military stores. Several hundred British soldiers died or suffered wounds during the long march back to Boston as the militia forces of eastern Massachusetts converged to harass them. Only the appearance of a relief column with artillery, and the lack of central control among the Patriots, enabled the force to escape total annihilation.

The colony quickly set about collecting testimony from participants to prove that British troops were the aggressors and then turned to other colonies for assistance. Within two months four separate armies-one from each New England colony-emerged, enlisted for service through the end of the year and patterned on the Provincial model. They relieved the Minutemen and militia who had begun the siege of Boston, drawing heavily on those organizations for both an officer corps and for trained soldiers. Danger of British raids on the coastline led to new laws that raised the militia's strength to a level not seen for more than a century.


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