Establishing the Military (1787–1812)


On February 9, 1799, Commodore Thomas Truxtun steered a naval squadron between Puerto Rico and St. Kitts. His flagship, the U.S.S. Constellation, was a 36-gun frigate built by a shipyard in Baltimore, Maryland. The keel measured 161 feet long and the beam was 40 feet wide. With 340 crewmen and a strong wind, the sail achieved at least 10 knots. Designed to outpace any man-of-war, the American warship searched the Caribbean Sea for possible menaces.

The Constellation was cruising a few leagues east of Nevis at noon, when an unknown vessel appeared westward nearly 15 miles away. After moving closer, Truxtun attempted to make contact but received no response. He ordered all hands to quarters in anticipation of a chase. The prey was the L'Insurgente, a 40-gun French frigate captained by Michel Pierre Barreaut.

Around 2:00 p.m., a tropical storm caught L'Insurgente by surprise. In a violent gust, the topmast snapped and crashed to the deck. The French crew struggled to recover, while Barreaut ordered them to prepare for a fight.

Thanks to quick maneuvering, the Constellation managed to handle the tempest. The “Yankee Racehorse” ranged up on the lee quarter of the French frigate and delivered a full broadside from 100 yards away. Able to see the faces of their opponents through the gun-ports, the American crew aimed for the hull with the 24-pounders. L'Insurgente returned fire, aiming for the mast, rigging, and sails. Barreaut attempted to grapple and to board, but Truxtun avoided entanglement by running circles around L'Insurgente. The cannons of the Constellation delivered more broadsides and raked the bow and the stern for over an hour.

The Constellation achieved a surprise victory while operating in the Caribbean. Truxtun counted only two deaths and four injuries among his crew, while the French reported 29 dead and 41 wounded. He sent Lieutenant John Rodgers and Midshipman David Porter with a boarding party to take possession of the prize. Upon their arrival in St. Kitts, American sailors received applause from British observers.

Figure 3.1 Action between U.S. frigate Constellation and French frigate L'Insurgente. John W. Schmidt. Photo KN-2882, U.S. Navy Historical Center, Department of the Navy


The exploits of the Constellation generated an outpouring of praise across the United States. In the taverns of seaports, citizens toasted Truxtun and his “brave Yankee boys.” While some bragged about their feats of strength, others celebrated their defense of freedom. Unbowed by overseas despots, they waved the banner of liberty along the shores of North America and beyond. A fledgling naval force prevailed against the odds, as a handful of frigates battled against empires and pirates. The hearty crews reveled in their unique contributions to national greatness. Their victories at sea helped Americans to appreciate the inconvenient truth that respect in international affairs depended upon the force of arms.

Throughout the age of sail, Americans appeared vulnerable to foreign threats and to domestic insurgencies. Burdened by massive war debt, the country struggled to address serious challenges to national security. The U.S. population approached 4 million in the wake of the American Revolution, while additional states formed nascent governments in the continental interior. With only a token regiment to garrison the forts, the dominion obtained under the Treaty of Paris remained unstable. Civil society needed to strengthen the armed forces without imperiling republican virtues. Nation-building held great promise as well as great risk, which the ongoing debates about establishing a military underscored.

After winning independence from the British Empire, the nation began a long war for control of the North American continent. Free at last, American leaders relied largely on the state militias to provide military personnel. However, they seemed incapable of addressing interstate quarrels, non-state actors, and trade disputes. Furthermore, the specter of a civil war troubled Congress for years. Native American populations dominated the contested ground from the Appalachian Mountains to the Mississippi River, while European powers buffeted the young and fragile republic on the Atlantic seaboard. As the eighteenth century closed, Americans confronted a hostile world beset with lawlessness.

National Forces

Under the Articles of Confederation, Americans formed a weak national government. Congress could not levy taxes, wage war, or regulate commerce. States squabbled over sovereignty claims and refused to furnish military regiments. A number of citizens continued to express antipathy toward the prospect of national forces.

Without national forces, the Confederation lacked the power to administer the western territories. Veterans of the Continental Army received land grants, while speculators formed land companies claiming vast tracts of real estate. However, Indian people resisted new incursions altogether. Settlers demanded protection against Indian militancy, especially near the Ohio River. Congress concluded a series of treaties with several Indian nations, but negotiations by government agents failed to keep pace with the expanding settlements.

Indian nations south of the Ohio River expected the Spanish Empire to forestall American expansion. Given the conniving of Spanish officials in Louisiana, a number of settlers west of the Appalachians flirted with secession. Spain banned American traffic on the Mississippi River and asserted a territorial claim to the Yazoo strip. Their possession of Florida turned the Gulf of Mexico into a “Spanish lake.” Congress appointed John Jay as Secretary of Foreign Affairs to negotiate with Spanish minister Don Diego de Gardoqui. Unable to show force on land or at sea, Americans gained no diplomatic concessions from Spain.

The British recognized American independence but isolated their former colonies. While trading arms to Indian allies, Royal officials refused to relinquish military posts on American soil. The redcoats remained active across the Great Lakes region. The British mercantile system also prevented American merchantmen from carrying commodities to the West Indies, which devastated the agricultural sector in most states. Outside the British Empire, American ships needed safeguarding while exploring new outlets for commerce across the world.

On the edge of the Atlantic world, American separatists plotted to form breakaway republics. In Massachusetts, armed bands closed local courts to prevent farm foreclosures. Captain Daniel Shays, a destitute veteran of the Continental Army from Pelham, organized 1,200 rebels to seize the arsenal at Springfield. On January 25, 1787, they clashed with 4,400 militiamen in a snowy field. A cannon barrage killed four rebels, while dozens more suffered wounds. After more skirmishes the next month, the rebels scattered across the state's borders. A few fled to Quebec, where they sought arms and ammunition from America's enemies. Although the rebellion in Massachusetts faltered, more insurgent groups appeared ready to take action around the country.

Confederation officials worried that the insurgent groups foreshadowed a turn toward anarchy. Henry Knox, who served as the first Secretary of War, feared “a formidable rebellion against reason, the principle of all government.” He prodded Congress to issue a requisition of funds for national forces. Pennsylvania, New Jersey, New York, and Connecticut eventually enlisted around 700 militiamen for deployment to western forts. However, every state except Virginia rejected his effort to strengthen the military in the midst of Shays' Rebellion. Congress mustered two artillery companies to guard West Point and the Springfield arsenal but did little to quell the domestic disturbances.

With the approval of Congress, a special convention gathered that May in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania, to initiate governmental reforms. George Washington presided over the state delegations, but James Madison of Virginia set the agenda for their proceedings. Nearly one-third of the delegates previously held commissions in the Continental Army. Because of their prior service to win American independence, many shared a broader vision of the republic as a whole. They pledged to make the government “adequate to the exigencies of the union.” Some opposed any language that established a permanent military, though. Elbridge Gerry of Massachusetts compared the armed forces to a “standing member,” which seemed “an excellent assurance of domestic tranquility but a dangerous temptation to foreign adventure.” Over the summer, they scrapped the Articles of Confederation and crafted seven articles for a federal system. On September 17, 1787, 39 delegates signed the Constitution of the United States.

The Constitution permitted a military establishment, although the exact phrase did not appear in the document. Whereas the preamble announced the formation of “a more perfect union,” the stated purpose was to “insure domestic tranquility” and to “provide for the common defense.” Assuming the necessity of military power, the articles divided civilian authority between a legislative branch, an executive branch, the judicial branch, and the various states.

Article I enumerated the powers of Congress with respect to military affairs. Authorized to combat piracies and to declare wars, the legislative branch raised and supported an army as well as provided and maintained a navy. However, the clause imposed a two-year limitation on federal appropriations for the army. Another provision enabled the calling forth of the militia to execute laws, to suppress insurrections, and to repel invasions. The organizing, arming, and disciplining of the militia represented a federal responsibility, while the states appointed the officers and trained the rank and file. Through the legislative process, the House of Representatives and the Senate enacted all measures deemed “necessary and proper” for the American military.

Regarding the executive branch, Article II vested the president with authority as the “commander in chief of the Army and the Navy.” His inherent powers included the command of the state militias when called into the “actual service” of the nation. Accordingly, he swore an oath to “preserve, protect, and defend the Constitution of the United States.” While executing federal laws in war and peace, he commissioned officers for national service.

Other articles circumscribed federal law in war and peace. Article III defined the crime of treason as “levying war” against the U.S. or giving “aid and comfort” to America's enemies. According to Article IV, every state was guaranteed a republican form of government in addition to protection against foreign invasions and domestic violence. Once ratified, the Constitution represented the “supreme law of the land.”

While the states debated ratification, Alexander Hamilton of New York responded to critics of a federal system. Along with Madison and Jay, he composed essays that came to be known as the Federalist Papers. He made the largest contribution to their collective effort, writing 51 of the 85 essays. His essays often referenced issues of national security. “Though a wide ocean separates the United States from Europe,” he wrote in Federalist No. 24, the competition for North America meant that no citizen of the republic was “entirely out of the reach of danger.” In other words, the Constitution authorized the buildup of defenses to confront internal and external threats.

After the states ratified the Constitution, Congress offered amendments known as the Bill of Rights. For example, the Second Amendment guaranteed that “the right of the people to keep and bear arms shall not be infringed.” While stipulating the necessity of “a well-regulated militia” for “the security of a free state,” the language extolled individual liberties in opposition to the power of governing authorities. Likewise, the Third Amendment prohibited the quartering of troops in private homes without the “consent of the owner” and only in a manner “prescribed by law.” To address American fears about the presence of a standing military, the amendments restrained the federal government while legitimizing an armed citizenry.

The federal government assembled in New York City on April 30, 1789, when Washington took the oath of office as the first President of the United States. With his urging, the new Congress formalized the “dual-army” tradition of the American republic. The national forces mixed regulars with militia, albeit for limited periods of service. That summer, Knox assumed responsibility for administering the War Department. In the first annual message to Congress, the commander-in-chief proclaimed: “To be prepared for war is the most effectual means of preserving peace.”


The Constitution equipped the federal government with powerful tools for securing the nation. The checks and balances demanded that national leaders hold fast to their republican tenets while governing military affairs. By giving Congress power to levy taxes, the states no longer withheld resources and personnel from the armed forces. Under the authority of the executive branch, the War Department forged what Knox called the “sword of the republic.”

Knox pressed Congress to create a uniform militia in order to meet any possible combination of enemies. Even the most ardent anti-militarists recognized that amateurs only complemented professionals in performing many tasks. Officers and enlisted men were needed to construct, to maintain, and to garrison coastal and inland fortifications. They thwarted the intrigues of Indian militants as well as British and Spanish agents. Militiamen enrolled separately by the various states, concluded Knox, seemed unprepared “to carry on and terminate the war in which we are engaged with honor and success.” Instead, national security in civil society required the organization of a more “energetic national militia.” To perform their assigned duties in military campaigns beyond the states, an armed citizenry needed “a competent knowledge of the military art.” He drafted a sweeping plan for the “General Arrangement of the Militia of the United States” and submitted it to Congress in early 1790.

That fall, Knox ordered General Josiah Harmer to “extirpate utterly, if possible,” the Indian threats in the Northwest Territory. Little Turtle, a Miami leader, rallied the Shawnee, Ottawa, Chippewa, and Potawatomi to defend villages north of the Ohio River. To coerce the Indians of the Miami Confederacy into signing a treaty, Harmer led a force of 1,453 regulars and militiamen northward from Fort Washington. Their punitive march ended in a military disaster, which resulted in more than 214 casualties at Indian hands.

The following year, the governor of the Northwest Territory, General Arthur St. Clair, took command of a larger force. His command targeted the Indian village of Kekionga near the Wabash River. American troops erected new forts amid the woods and swamps. On November 4, 1791, Indian warriors attacked a military camp at dawn and caught them off guard. After two hours of fighting, St. Clair ordered a headlong retreat to Fort Washington. In the Battle of the Wabash, at least 623 soldiers perished and another 258 were wounded. Scores of camp followers and civilian contractors died as well. Nearly one-quarter of the entire army disappeared that day. The humiliating loss buoyed British efforts to block American expansion across the Ohio River, while the morale of service members in the scattered outposts fell. In the wake of St. Clair's defeat, a congressional investigation blamed the fiasco on the “want of discipline and experience in the troops.”

On May 2, 1792, Congress passed the Calling Forth Act to further refine the force structure. If the U.S. faced an invasion or an imminent threat from a foreign nation or an Indian tribe, then the commander-in-chief received blanket authority to call out the militia in an emergency. In case of “insurrections in any state,” the militiamen entered federal service under certain provisions for no more than three months in any one year.

Six days later, Congress passed the Uniform Militia Act. As the basic militia law for more than a century, it required all able-bodied men from the ages of 18 to 45 to enroll for service. Even though the law incorporated much of Knox's plan, it revealed several shortcomings. It permitted states to add numerous exemptions for service requirements in the militia. It did not provide for a select corps from each state, as Knox previously envisioned, or for federal control of officer training. In fact, most troops provided their own weapons and accouterments when called to duty. While the states seldom complied fully with the federal mandates, the notion of a citizen soldier remained vital to national defense.

Many volunteers joined the Legion of the United States, the nation's primary force thereafter. Invoking the ancient Roman system, Knox organized 5,280 officers and enlisted men into unique formations. The Legion involved four sub-legions, each commanded by a brigadier general and consisting of two battalions of infantry, a battalion of riflemen, a troop of dragoons, and a company of artillery. In a model for flexibility and efficiency, all combat arms served under a unified command.

The Washington administration selected General “Mad” Anthony Wayne, whom the president called “active and enterprising,” as the new commander. Though critics called for an end to the war against the Indians, policymakers refused to accept British proposals for the establishment of an Indian buffer state. Under the direction of the War Department, peace commissioners opened separate negotiations with Indian leaders. At the same time, Wayne prepared the Legion to mount a military expedition to crush them. He made his headquarters near Pittsburgh, where deserters from camp faced death by firing squad. After months of drilling and training in a place he named Legionville, the commander moved his best troops down the Ohio River to Fort Washington. Eventually, Knox ordered Wayne “to make those audacious savages feel our superiority in arms.”

In late 1793, Wayne marched the Legion into the heart of Indian country. While advancing slowly and methodically, troops erected Fort Greenville and Fort Recovery for winter quarters. Owing to the arrival of Kentucky volunteers, their numbers in the campaign grew to over 3,500 effectives. Reinforced by militiamen from Canadian provinces, Little Turtle gathered thousands of Indian warriors to confront them. The next summer, the Legion reached the confluence of the Auglaize and Maumee Rivers. After building Fort Defiance, Wayne secured his supply lines before approaching Fort Miamis – a British outpost on American soil.

On August 20, 1794, Wayne awaited an Indian attack within a clearing called Fallen Timbers. The Legion held their ground after the first wave, eventually breaking through with a bayonet charge. Troops maneuvered with skill while forcing their foes to flee the battlefield. They marched around Fort Miamis, insulting the Royal officers inside. Because the British refused to engage them, they proceeded to raze Indian villages and to destroy food supplies near Lake Erie. During the Battle of Fallen Timbers, the Americans lost 33 killed in action with another 100 suffering wounds.

Wayne moved to the headwaters of the Wabash, where the Legion erected Fort Wayne. The next year, Indian leaders from 12 tribes capitulated to American might. By signing the Treaty of Greenville, they ceded much of their homeland in exchange for annuity payments. Thanks to a smashing victory, the Legion secured federal control over the Northwest Territory.

With the Legion preoccupied by Indian threats, farmers in western Pennsylvania rebelled against the federal government. Mobs opposed the federal excise tax on whiskey, which Congress passed in order to fund the national debt. While treating the tax collectors with contempt, they regarded a revenue policy that singled out a specific commodity as unfair. Moreover, the courts in the region ceased functioning. The Washington administration declared a state of emergency and called forth militia from Pennsylvania, New Jersey, Virginia, and Maryland. In the fall of 1794, more than 12,500 troops marched toward Pittsburgh. The commander-in-chief actually rode with them, though he turned over command to General Henry “Light Horse” Lee, the governor of Virginia. That October, the Whiskey Rebellion collapsed without a fight. After arresting 20 rebels for treason, the federal government sentenced two to death. Washington pardoned both of them, because the show of force by the American military effectively ended the insurrection.

Congress enacted other measures to strengthen the American military. In 1794, a new law authorized the “erecting and repairing of arsenals and magazines.” To manufacture and to stockpile weapons, the federal government established national armories in Springfield, Massachusetts, and Harpers Ferry, Virginia. Hamilton, the Secretary of the Treasury, wanted the U.S. to procure arms from domestic sources rather than to acquire them from Europe.

With European powers embroiled in another war, Washington decided “to steer clear of permanent alliances with any portion of the foreign world.” The Secretary of State, Thomas Jefferson, expressed affinity for France, but the president proclaimed American neutrality. He dispatched Jay, the Chief Justice of the Supreme Court, to resolve outstanding issues with London. Ratified by the Senate during 1795, Jay's Treaty facilitated commercial relations between the U.S. and Great Britain. Moreover, the latter vowed to evacuate forts on American soil within a year. Thomas Pinckney, a U.S. envoy to Spain, concluded a deal for navigating the Mississippi that allowed Americans to store goods in New Orleans. Furthermore, Pinckney's Treaty set the boundary for Spanish Florida in 1796. With its mission to secure the territories largely accomplished, the Legion shrank to a handful of regiments that year.

A Quasi-War

Congress funded the construction of six frigates with the Naval Act of 1794, but it took time to build the nation's first line of defense. The cost of the 44-gun warships rose above $300,000 for each, which created a minor scandal for the War Department. After retiring from office three years later, Washington bequeathed the administrative problems of an unfinished navy to his successor, John Adams, a Federalist.

To command respect for the U.S. flag, a deep-water fleet of warships was necessary in an age of sail. Joshua Humphreys of Philadelphia, a naval architect, designed American vessels to outrun and to outfight their European counterparts. Among the best materials available, white pines harvested from the Maine wilderness formed the masts and spars. For the hull, beams of live oak measured about 2 feet in width and around 1 foot in thickness. The incurving sides placed the weight from the heavy guns upon the keel itself, thereby improving hydrodynamic efficiency. A three-layer construction method laid the planks horizontally across the ribs, which made a crossing or checkerboard pattern to absorb the blows of a rival. U.S. shipyards finished building the Constitution, the United States, and the Constellation during 1797.

While the U.S. built more warships, France challenged American neutrality that year. The French Directory reasoned that food supplies and military stores shipped to the British Empire represented contraband of war. By decree, it denounced the principle that “free ships make free goods.” The French instead plundered hundreds of American merchantmen and broke off diplomatic relations with their former ally. As General Napoleon Bonaparte gained power, Paris ordered the U.S. ambassador to leave the country.

The French government refused to meet U.S. envoys, demanding a bribe to open negotiations. France's Foreign Minister, Charles-Maurice de Talleyrand, directed three agents labeled anonymously as X, Y, and Z to insist upon advance payment. “No, no, not a sixpence,” the U.S. envoys retorted. The American press sensationalized the XYZ affair, which inspired a Federalist slogan: “Millions for defense but not one cent for tribute.” In a huff, Adams asked Congress to consider a “naval establishment.” France soon closed its ports to neutral shipping and declared any vessels carrying trade with their enemies subject to capture. Word spread across the Atlantic that France planned to invade the U.S.

In 1798, Federalists in Congress resolved to preempt the aggression of France. Even the Republican opposition in the House of Representatives and the Senate expected war, though Vice President Jefferson remained a Francophile. While authorizing the capture of French vessels, the legislative branch appropriated substantial funding for harbor fortifications and cannon foundries. Other measures armed merchant ships and abrogated previous French treaties. To maintain “wooden walls” beyond the continental shoreline, they established a Navy Department separate from the War Department. Benjamin Stoddert, a merchant from Georgetown, was appointed the first Secretary of the Navy. Another law formally organized the Marine Corps, which provided security guards and boarding parties for U.S. warships. Under the Adams administration, the Navy expanded to 50 vessels and more than 5,000 officers and sailors. Although Congress did not declare war on France, the federal government enacted over 20 bills to put the U.S. on a wartime footing.

Legislation to expand the Army sailed through the federal government as well. Initially, Congress authorized the raising of a 10,000-man Provisional Army composed of volunteers. A few months later, another law permitted the commander-in-chief to raise the New Army, which included 12 infantry regiments and six dragoon companies. An even larger force, the Eventual Army, prepared for mobilization in case of an emergency. Federalists wanted to amass sufficient might to repulse a French invasion or possibly to conquer Florida and Louisiana. Some eyed the far-flung Spanish colonies in the Americas as potential prizes. Adams nominated Washington to take command of the regiments, while Hamilton became his second-in-command.

Adams endorsed the Alien and Sedition Acts, which attempted to silence critics of the Quasi-War. One provision outlawed speeches or writings intended to defame governmental authorities. Preparing to oppose the incumbent in the next presidential election, Jefferson decried the “reign of witches” that threatened civil liberties. His partisans noted that Hamilton excluded Republicans from the officer corps of the swollen military.

Military expansion exacerbated fears of standing armies and navies across the country. To raise $2 million in funding for national defense, the federal government imposed a tax on houses, land, and slaves and apportioned the cost to the states. When assessors reached eastern Pennsylvania, John Fries, an itinerant auctioneer, organized mobs of German-speaking farmers to drive them away. During 1799, Adams ordered 1,000 regulars and militiamen to quell the unrest. After troops captured Fries and his associates, the Adams administration pardoned them the next year. Federalists boasted about suppressing an insurrection, whereas Republicans lamented the rise of military despotism in America.

In Virginia, a slave named Gabriel plotted an insurrection the next year. His lieutenants hammered swords out of scythes while shouting “death or liberty.” In all likelihood, they hoped to take advantage of a rumored French invasion of the tidewater. James Monroe, the Republican governor in 1800, called out the state militia, which squelched their plot. Gabriel and 26 other slaves were executed by hanging.

Meanwhile, American and French ships clashed upon the high seas. In the West Indies, the two most noteworthy battles involved the Constellation. Commanded by Truxtun, the frigate's superior speed allowed him to maneuver and to rake L'Insurgente with fire. Truxtun's triumph in early 1799 elated the nation. Nearly a year later, the Constellation encountered the 52-gun frigate La Vengeance. During a five-hour battle at night, the French warship suffered damage but escaped in the darkness. Assisted by the maritime supremacy of the Royal Navy, American vessels hunted down French privateers and pirates from the Windward Passage to the north coast of South America. The Navy lost only one warship to enemy actions while safeguarding the carrying trade.

Because Adams pressed the Quasi-War, peace talks opened with France. The two nations agreed to end hostilities by signing the Convention of Mortefontaine in 1800. In return for abandoning claims of indemnity from maritime losses, the U.S. won recognition of neutrality from the French. The agreement formally terminated the Franco-American alliance and avoided the broadening of the naval conflict into a full-scale war. The wartime hysteria that had engulfed America quickly subsided.

The Shores of Tripoli

The U.S. capital relocated to the new federal city of Washington D.C., where a small array of buildings surrounded Capitol Hill and the executive mansion. After taking office in 1801, President Jefferson vowed to reduce the power of the federal government. He appointed Madison as the Secretary of State while promising “peace, commerce, and honest friendship with all nations.” Working with the Secretary of the Treasury, Albert Gallatin, he slashed the War Department's budget by half and the Navy Department's budget by two-thirds. His military policy left national defense to “a well-disciplined militia, our best reliance in peace and for the first moments of war till regulars may relieve them.”

To provide security along the shores of North America, the Jefferson administration touted a “mosquito fleet” of shallow-draft gunboats. The naval shipyards discontinued work on new frigates, while Congress initially authorized the construction of 15 gunboats with one or two masts. No more than 80 feet long and 20 feet across, the lightly armed craft navigated through coastal waters with ease. A handful of citizen sailors appeared sufficient to man them in peacetime. However, most officers disliked the smaller vessels but preferred to serve aboard the warships that sailed for deep waters. Because Republicans appreciated their low cost and simple design, gunboats became central to national defense for years to come.

Even before Republicans cut spending on national defense, the North African regencies of Tunis, Algeria, Morocco, and Tripoli plundered maritime commerce in the Mediterranean Sea. Motivated by the lure of booty, the Barbary pirates regularly demanded tribute payments in exchange for allowing commercial ships to pass unmolested. If they captured a ship's crew, then they held the men for ransom or sold them into slavery. They accumulated great sums of money, ships, and arms from foreign governments. Prior to 1800, the U.S. paid tribute to protect American ships and sailors from harassment.

Captain William Bainbridge, commander of the U.S.S. George Washington, sailed for the Barbary Coast that year. He complied with orders from the Dey of Algeria to lower the U.S. flag and to replace it with an Algerine ensign. He then sailed to Constantinople and paid tribute to the Sultan of the Ottoman Empire. Furthermore, the Pasha of Tripoli demanded more money from the U.S. and threatened to retard American shipping. Though unharmed, Bainbridge returned home to report the insults to national honor. “I hope I shall never again be sent to Algiers with tribute, unless I am authorized to deliver it from the mouth of our cannon,” he informed the Jefferson administration.

Distraught by the corsairs, Jefferson wanted to “chastise their insolence.” During 1801, the cabinet voted to dispatch a naval squadron to the Barbary Coast under the command of Commodore Richard Dale. The commander-in-chief told Dale to use force if attacked, although he did not seek congressional authorization for military action. The pasha chopped down the flagpole at the American consulate to signal a declaration of war, while Dale established a leaky blockade upon his arrival. Unimpressed by the paltry number of warships, the Sultan of Morocco also declared war on the U.S. Another squadron, under Commodore Richard V. Morris, sailed for the Mediterranean a year later. His frigates safeguarded American merchantmen and confronted Tripolitan gunboats. He planned to pressure the pasha into negotiating a treaty, but Jefferson eventually ordered him dismissed from service after months of inactivity.

A squadron under Commodore Edward Preble imposed a tighter blockade in late 1803. With three frigates in the lead, he captured two Moroccan ships and forced the sultan to sign a peace agreement in Tangiers. He sent Bainbridge with the U.S.S. Philadelphia, a 36-gun frigate, to Tripoli. However, the Philadelphia ran aground on a reef while chasing a schooner in the harbor. Forced to strike his colors, Bainbridge surrendered his warship and his crew of 307 to the Tripolitans. Consequently, the pasha demanded a heavy ransom from Preble.

With Preble's approval, Lieutenant Stephen Decatur undertook a daring mission against the pasha. The 25-year-old steered a ketch named the U.S.S. Intrepid into the harbor, while his crew of 60 disguised themselves as Arab sailors. On February 16, 1804, they boarded the capturedPhiladelphia and attacked the corsairs with swords and tomahawks. After putting the frigate to torch, they escaped from the harbor aboard the Intrepid. Without the loss of a single American, the mission took only 20 minutes. Decatur won a promotion, thereby making him the youngest officer to receive the rank of captain in the Navy.

Decatur reversed the tide in the Mediterranean with his valor, which emboldened Preble to plan an attack on Tripoli. On August 3, six American gunboats engaged 19 Tripolitan craft in the harbor. They captured and damaged several enemy vessels while bombarding the city with heavy fire. The attacks took a terrible toll on the pirates, but the pasha refused to negotiate.

Unfortunately, Decatur's brother, James, was killed in the attacks. With tears in his eyes, the captain returned to the harbor to avenge his brother's death. He found the killer, who wielded a boarding pike. His cutlass broke at the hilt, but Decatur wrestled his adversary to the ship's deck. A boatswain's mate, Reuben James, stepped in the way of another pirate's sword, which almost struck Decatur's head from behind. Decatur pulled a pistol from his pocket and slew his brother's killer with a deadly shot at close range.

Master Commandant Richard Somers operated gunboats during the attacks, including Decatur's Intrepid. On September 4, Preble directed him to load 15,000 pounds of powder in the hold atop 250 fused shells. With a fellow officer and four volunteer sailors, Somers maneuvered the “fire-ship” into the harbor. They intended to detonate it under the walls of the castle that protected the pasha from naval bombardments. That night, an explosion erupted a few hundred yards short of their objective. Somers and his comrades chose to blow up the Intrepid prematurely rather than to surrender in a pitched battle. They perished in a flash of light.

Meanwhile, Jefferson sent Commodore Samuel Barron with four more frigates to the shores of Tripoli. He relieved Preble from command and assembled a squadron with nearly all the warships of the Navy. Appointed as a special agent for the Navy, William Eaton headed to Alexandria in Egypt. Thanks to his ability to speak fluent Arabic, the former Army captain and ex-consul made a pact with the pasha's exiled brother, Hamet Karamanli. They began recruiting hundreds of foreign mercenaries to undertake an overland march against the regency. Accompanied by a detachment of eight marines and two midshipmen, they trekked for six weeks across the Libyan Desert. In a joint operation, Captain Isaac Hull of the U.S.S. Argus and Eaton converged at Tripoli's easternmost port, Derne. During the Battle of Derne on April 28, 1805, they wrested the town from the corsairs with a concerted land and sea assault. After storming the outer fort, Marine Lieutenant Presley O'Bannon planted the U.S. flag on the walls of the battery.

Awed by American heroics, the pasha agreed to sign a treaty with the U.S. He received a $60,000 payment to release the Philadelphia prisoners but not to maintain peace. With the U.S. flag restored to the consulate in Tripoli, Commodore John Rodgers steered the naval squadron toward other ports on the Barbary Coast. The troubles with Tunis, Algiers, and Morocco subsided, as the threat of more American strikes deterred acts of piracy that year.

To counter the forces of terror and extortion, the American military fought for the first time on foreign soil. From the decks of gunboats to the shores of Tripoli, the exploits of Decatur, Preble, and O'Bannon surprised the adversaries of the U.S. They leveled searing attacks against the Barbary pirates while taking urgent steps to protect maritime commerce. Satisfied by the outcome of the Tripolitan War, the Jefferson administration soon recalled most of the Navy from the Mediterranean.

West Point

Before assuming the presidency, Jefferson opposed governmental efforts to establish a military academy in the U.S. The Corps of Artillerists and Engineers assigned to West Point included personnel classified as cadets, but they received no formal education. Republicans in Congress consistently defeated measures to organize or to fund a school devoted to the armed forces. Because the Constitution did not explicitly establish it, policymakers in Washington D.C. disagreed about the necessity of a military academy.

The Jefferson administration desired to reduce the influence of Federalists, who dominated the officer corps of the American military. Captain Meriwether Lewis, a 27-year-old infantry officer and the president's private secretary, reviewed a roster of all service members holding commissions. He noted individuals esteemed by “a superiority of genius and military proficiency.” While passing judgment, he ascribed the term “respectable” to a number. Likewise, some earned a favorable rating from Lewis simply as Republicans. Among the officers deemed “most violently opposed to the administration and still active in its vilification,” all but one received notice of dismissal from service. As the purge of Federalists in command proceeded, Jefferson quipped that the “Army is undergoing a chaste reformation.”

The commanding general of the Army, James Wilkinson, worried about his status in 1801. To show empathy with Republicans, he issued a general order that required men in uniform to crop their long hair. Though no longer fashionable in America, the pigtail persisted as a pompous hairstyle that differentiated soldiers from civilians. Wilkinson called it “a filthy and insalubrious ornament,” castigating subordinates wearing the powdered braids with tallow grease. In spite of the hue and cry, only a few resigned to avoid a haircut. Even if he lost favor with Federalist comrades, Wilkinson retained his seniority under Jefferson.

That year, Jefferson encouraged the Secretary of War, Henry Dearborn, to turn West Point into a military academy. Lieutenant Colonel Louis de Tousard, a French soldier who served in the American Revolution, took command of the garrison by September. His orders from the War Department urged him to provide classroom instruction to a dozen cadets. As a former instructor at the Royal Military Academy in Woolwich, England, George Baron delivered lectures on mathematics during the mornings. Jonathan Williams, a reputed scientist and vice president of the American Philosophical Society, received an executive appointment as the Inspector of Fortifications and Superintendent. Although he disregarded the plans of predecessors, the commander-in-chief incorporated education into the military establishment.

On March 16, 1802, Congress passed the Military Peace Establishment Act to overhaul the Army. By cutting the authorized strength from 4,051 to 2,873, it eliminated numerous officer positions from active service rosters. The force reductions not only saved thousands of dollars in the federal budget but also gave the War Department an opportunity to shake up the staff. With many Federalists discharged from senior levels of the Army, the Jefferson administration intended to replace them with Republicans in the lower ranks.

The key provisions of the Military Peace Establishment Act involved the Corps of Engineers. Comprising 10 cadets and seven officers, they trained at West Point while serving “as the President of the United States shall direct.” Under the superintendence of the principal engineer, they constituted the personnel for what became the United States Military Academy, or USMA. The War Department procured “the necessary books, implements, and apparatus for the use and benefit of the said institution.” While resonating with the principles of the European Enlightenment, the school focused on imparting useful knowledge to potential officers.

Mindful of federal austerity, congressmen acted indifferent to the school for years. Upon the craggy highland next to the Hudson River, old Fort Putnam towered over the grounds. Scattered houses and assorted structures appeared across the 40 acres, including two yellow buildings that contained retired cannons and war trophies. The superintendent kept his headquarters in a small building called the Salt Box. Ranging in age from 10 to 34, the “gentleman cadets” made their own arrangements for lodging. Each received $16 per month plus two rations a day. Nevertheless, one cadet complained that “morals and knowledge thrive little and courts-martial and flogging prevail.” Despite an unimpressive beginning, West Point accentuated a professional ethos that transcended the partisan creeds.

During the first full year of classes at West Point, Superintendent Williams organized the United States Military Philosophical Society. The Corps of Engineers formed the governing body, while civilians joined by application. They held meetings twice a month in a classroom, where early lecture topics included solar eclipses, floating batteries, musket barrels, and land surveys. They established an outstanding library that contained the only copy in the U.S. of the Marquis de Montalembert's 10 volumes on fortifications. With the military arts and sciences arousing public interest, they held meetings at City Hall in New York and at the War Office in Washington D.C. Jefferson endorsed the Society’s activities and became one of the first non-military members.

Driven by deep suspicions about career officers, Jefferson endeavored to remake the Army in his own image. His tenure in office resulted in appointments to the military academy that promoted Republicans in the corps. Irrespective of their ideological persuasions, technicians in uniform studied mathematics and science. Moreover, their higher education benefited the nation as a whole by affirming martial attributes in addition to civic-mindedness. Even if the Jeffersonian impulse tended to politicize national defense, the federal government recognized the significance of the military profession with the establishment of West Point.

Army of Adventurers

“Every eye in the U.S. is now fixed on this affair of Louisiana,” wrote Jefferson to Robert R. Livingston, the U.S. ambassador in Paris. Because Spain retroceded Louisiana to France, the president asked Monroe to assist Livingston with negotiations to acquire the port of New Orleans in 1803. Napoleon planned to build an American empire going forward, but military losses in Haiti forced a change in French strategy. Therefore, Talleyrand asked the Americans: “What will you give for the whole?” According to the Louisiana Purchase Treaty, the U.S. obtained over 885,000 square miles for close to $15 million. The acquisition more than doubled the size of the American republic.

While extending the sphere of the republic, Jefferson expected the Army to establish the rule of law beyond the Mississippi River. The Indian, Spanish, and French inhabitants owed no allegiance to the U.S., even though the treaty promised to welcome them as citizens. Once the edge of American settlement crossed the banks of the river, squabbles over land necessitated the deployment of troops and the building of outposts. Furthermore, no fortifications marked the precise boundaries along the Rocky Mountains or near British Canada. The president hastily drafted a possible constitutional amendment, which defined the area north of 31 degrees latitude as an Indian reserve. Although the Senate ratified the treaty without approving any amendments, the uncharted wilderness presented enormous challenges for national defense.

Working with civilian authorities to implement the treaty, the Army took possession of the Louisiana Purchase on December 20, 1803. Wilkinson led a combined force of 500 regulars and militia to New Orleans, where they replaced the French colors with the U.S. flag. The military occupation proceeded without incident, as Spanish troops soon withdrew beyond the Sabine River to Nacogdoches. East of the river, Americans in uniform stood guard in Natchitoches. Within a few months, the War Department secured the outposts in the Mississippi valley. The lower section became known as the Orleans Territory, while Indiana Territory under General William Henry Harrison temporarily absorbed the rest. Although France no longer posed a danger to American interests in Louisiana, tensions with Spain began to mount.

Congress organized the Louisiana Territory by 1805, which allowed Jefferson to reward Wilkinson with an appointment as the governor. Following years of clandestine activities, the senior commander communicated with Spanish dons in West Florida. He wanted payment of a pension owed to him for prior service to His Catholic Majesty, while he promised to pass along new information about U.S. forces in the borderlands. “I know what is concealed in the president's heart,” he told his foreign patrons. Identified as “Agent 13” in Spanish correspondence, he shared a secret report titled “Reflections” in exchange for thousands of dollars. To counter “an army of adventurers similar to the ancient Goths and Vandals,” he recommended that the Spanish Empire divert Americans from Mexico. Whatever his motivation, he passed along intelligence about planned military expeditions across the North American continent.

Months earlier, Jefferson asked Lewis to lead a military expedition to explore and to map northwestern Louisiana. Lewis persuaded Captain William Clark, who previously served with him in the Legion, to join his special force as second-in-command. In addition to scientific pursuits, the two officers expected to establish relations with Indian leaders and to impress upon them “the rising importance of the United States.” In the beginning, their companions on the journey included 48 men – 34 soldiers, 12 boatmen, a slave, and an interpreter. Naming their expedition the Corps of Discovery, they set out from St. Louis on May 14, 1804.

After six months on the Missouri River, the Corps reached the hospitable villages of the Mandan. While keeping a detailed journal of their activities, the officers presented leaders with Jeffersonian “peace medals.” The soldiers built Fort Mandan and wintered among the Indians. After they broke camp the next spring, a Shoshone woman named Sacagawea accompanied them as a guide and a mediator. Even though some Indians thwarted their progress, others gave them food and shelter. They proceeded onward through rapids, waterfalls, storms, accidents, and disease. Their ranks dwindled, yet they reached the Continental Divide and crossed the Rocky Mountains. On November 7, 1805, Lewis and Clark gazed upon the Pacific Ocean.

Figure 3.2 Meriwether Lewis fires his rifle, 1810. Prints and Photographs Division, Library of Congress


On the south side of the Columbia River, the Corps erected Fort Clatsop for winter quarters. While performing garrison duties, they survived in a remote area claimed by Great Britain, Spain, and Russia. Indian warriors approached them to acquire firearms for fighting their rivals, whereas the soldiers occasionally procured sexual favors from Native women. Three months later, Lewis and Clark led the expedition homeward. The former retraced their previous route, but the latter followed the Yellowstone River to the Missouri River. The two parties rejoined on the upper Missouri and arrived in St. Louis on September 23, 1806.

Upon assuming the governor's post in St. Louis, Wilkinson dispatched Captain Zebulon Pike on a military expedition to locate the headwaters of the Mississippi. With 20 soldiers and an interpreter, Pike set out on August 9, 1805. He attempted to interdict British traders in the pine forests near Cass Lake, which he mistakenly identified as the source of the river. After probing the waterways to locate sites for a chain of forts, he returned home early the next year.

That summer, Pike accepted another mission from Wilkinson. Ordered to move “with great circumspection,” the Pike expedition through southwestern Louisiana included Lieutenant James B. Wilkinson, the intriguing governor's son. After returning a group of Osage captives as directed, they explored the Arkansas River and searched for the headwaters of the Red River. They reached the Rocky Mountains by winter, but Spanish troops arrested them. Furthermore, Spanish officials confiscated Pike's notes and journal. The American prisoners tarried in Mexico for months before their captors escorted them to the Louisiana border.

For years, disputes over the Louisiana border prompted Americans and Spaniards to rattle their sabers. While the Jefferson administration pressed Spain to sell Florida, Dearborn ordered Wilkinson to reinforce New Orleans in “defence of the country.” Both appeared to favor a thrust into Mexico, although they never agreed upon logistics and plans for a military operation. Spanish troops repeatedly crossed the Sabine River in violation of American sovereignty, which resulted in cavalry skirmishes near the outposts. Madrid broke off diplomatic relations with Washington D.C., but Wilkinson met with Lieutenant Colonel Simón de Herrera during the fall of 1806. They determined that the 50-mile zone between the Arroyo Hondo and the Sabine represented a “neutral ground,” thereby making it off-limits to soldiers from either side.

Meanwhile, the federal government administered Indian affairs under the auspices of the War Department. The Superintendent of Indian Trade executed the transfer policy, which involved the exchange of lands with Indian nations east of the Mississippi River in order to relocate them on the western side. However, Wilkinson reported to Dearborn that many of the Indian leaders in Louisiana were “disposed for war.” While struggling to prevent Spanish and British traders from crossing the borders, American troops attempted to keep squatters away from Indian communities. At the western forts, they built factories, transported goods, and beat and packed furs. While facilitating trade relations with Indian people, they attended tribal councils and negotiated peace treaties. The Mississippi “is not to be a river of blood,” the president informed Harrison, the governor of Indiana.

By mixing liquor with bribery, Harrison negotiated a handful of peace treaties that favored the interests of settlers and speculators. In response, a Shawnee visionary named Tenskwatawa, or the Prophet, urged his kinsmen to shun the Americans altogether. His followers from diverse tribes refused to cede any more acres to the children of “the Great Serpent.” Hoping to discredit the spiritual movement, the shrewd officer challenged him to demonstrate his special powers. On June 16, 1806, the Prophet correctly predicted a total eclipse of the sun. Afterward, he established a new village at the junction of the Tippecanoe and Wabash Rivers called Prophetstown. Harrison also noted the widespread influence of his elder brother, Tecumseh, who “would perhaps be the founder of an empire that would rival in glory that of Mexico or Peru.” As resentment against the U.S. continued to fester, the rise of a pan-Indian confederacy in the vast interior frustrated the work of the Army.

The Army contributed in various ways to filibusters, that is, private military ventures organized to seize lands not already held by the U.S. Rogue elements used their military connections not only to achieve national security objectives but also to pursue their own personal fortunes. An armed citizenry participated in an array of ambitious schemes to expand what Jefferson once called an “empire for liberty.”

No ambitious scheme of the early republic surpassed the scale and the scope of the Burr Conspiracy. Vice President Aaron Burr, a veteran of the Continental Army, killed Hamilton in a pistol duel and briefly fled the country. After his term in office expired, he plotted with “sundry persons” to undertake a land grab beyond the “western waters.” He communicated with the British minister to the U.S. about possible naval support in the Gulf of Mexico. Evidently, he planned either to invade Mexico or to seize Louisiana. Given his secretive correspondence with Wilkinson, perhaps he intended to do both. According to the allegations against him, he even contemplated marching on Washington D.C. On November 27, 1806, the commander-in-chief issued a proclamation that denounced the armed adventurers. Following his dramatic arrest for treason, Burr was tried but acquitted in a U.S. circuit court.

Peaceable Coercion

The Napoleonic Wars in Europe endangered the maritime commerce of the U.S. Both France and Great Britain intercepted American vessels bound for European ports, although the latter posed the greater threat to free trade. Following the Battle of Trafalgar in 1805, the British ruled the high seas. Treating merchantmen and their cargoes as prizes, they impressed, or forced into naval service, American sailors. Between 1803 and 1807, they captured well over 500 ships and impressed 6,000 sailors. The federal government tried to assist seamen with papers that attested to U.S. citizenship, but the Royal Navy often ignored them.

Defending the notion of sailors' rights, the Jefferson administration condemned the impressments by the Royal Navy. With Jay's Treaty scheduled to expire, Monroe raised the issue during talks in London. In 1806, he negotiated a new treaty with British officials that remained silent on impressments. The president refused to submit the agreement to the Senate, because it failed to stop the insults to national honor.

The worst insult came on June 22, 1807, when the U.S.S. Chesapeake sailed from Norfolk, Virginia. Under the command of Commodore James Barron, the frigate encountered H.M.S. Leopard just outside territorial waters. The British opened fire with several broadsides. The attack killed three Americans while wounding 18. After a boarding party seized four alleged deserters from His Majesty's service, the Leopard departed without claiming a prize. The damaged Chesapeake returned to Norfolk the next day.

Despite the ChesapeakeLeopard affair, Jefferson refused to lead the country to war. He sought reparations while ordering British vessels out of American ports. His demands included an end to impressment, but no one took him seriously. London's Morning Postmocked the defense posture of the Americans: “It will never be permitted to be said that the Royal Sovereign has struck her flag to a Yankee cockboat.”

To make matters worse, the European powers pushed American tars into a crossfire. The British Orders in Council required U.S. ships to pass through a British port before proceeding to any port on the European continent. Disregarding the claims of neutrality made by seafaring nations, Napoleon's “continental system” hampered American shipping as well. He issued the Berlin and Milan Decrees, which warned merchantmen that visiting a British port made them subject to seizure. Consequently, American compliance with the “paper blockade” of one side placed them at odds with the regulations of the other.

Faced with an international dilemma, the Jefferson administration pursued a strategy of peaceable coercion. Secretary of State Madison expressed confidence in non-military options, because he assumed that the belligerents depended upon American goods. Congress devised the Embargo Act of 1807, which prohibited U.S. ships from carrying trade to foreign ports. Furthermore, the controversial law prevented foreign vessels from collecting cargo at American ports. In effect, policymakers in Washington D.C. imposed an embargo on their own nation's exports to punish the European powers. Shipmates sat idle along the waterfronts closed by gunboats, even if scores turned to smuggling in defiance of the regulations. Federalists in New England criticized a strategic approach that harmed Americans more than anyone else. Congress repealed the law shortly before Jefferson retired from the presidency.

His successor, President Madison, remained committed to peaceable coercion, albeit with modifications. In 1809, he urged Congress to pass the Non-Intercourse Act to permit trade with all countries except Great Britain and France. A year later, Macon's Bill Number 2 refined the restrictive measures with an incentive. If one of the belligerents ended the “paper blockade,” then the president offered to reopen trade with that nation but to reapply non-intercourse to their opponent. Napoleon soon offered to rescind the Berlin and Milan Decrees contingent upon a reversal in London. Unfortunately, nothing seemed effective in forcing the British to withdraw their Orders in Council.

By 1811, British ships were operating with impunity close to American shores. H.M.S. Guerriere and H.M.S. Melampus sailed that spring near Sandy Hook, where they stopped the American brig Spitfire and impressed a sailor. The incident inspired warmongering but no immediate action. Commodore Rodgers captained the U.S.S. President, which approached H.M.S. Little Belt near Cape Henry. On the evening of May 16, they traded shots in the darkness. The British sloop limped to Halifax and reported 13 dead sailors. Rodgers suffered no losses, prompting the Madison administration to trumpet his success.

Because of declining revenue from tariffs, the Madison administration restrained federal spending on the armed forces. The militia system remained the “firmest bulwark of republics,” or so the commander-in-chief boasted. Although the War Department appeared devoted to thrift, Congress authorized the recruitment of 6,000 men into the Army. A large number deployed to New Orleans in anticipation of military action. Owing to the mismanagement of the Terre aux Boeufs encampment, as many as 1,000 died or deserted. Likewise, the Navy Department dithered for years. Irrespective of their contributions to coastal defense, gunboats failed to project American might across the blue waters. The Navy operated only 16 warships, which were built before Republicans gained political power. No matter how many times American leaders beat the war drums, the European powers refused to flinch.

American leaders disputed Spanish claims to West Florida. Secretary of State Monroe opined that it belonged to the U.S. as part of the Louisiana Purchase. With Madrid preoccupied by the Napoleonic Wars, discontented settlers launched a revolt against colonial rule. At Baton Rouge, they announced the Republic of West Florida on September 23, 1810. Because they unfurled a blue flag with a white star, some called it the Lone Star Republic. Weeks later, Madison issued a proclamation announcing the annexation of the narrow strip. Spain protested, but American troops secured the lands west of the Perdido River.

In Indiana Territory, American troops prepared to launch a preemptive war against the Indians. Harrison gathered 1,000 soldiers from the 4th U.S. Infantry Regiment and the territorial militia at Vincennes. In the fall of 1811, the governor led an advance toward Prophetstown. The soldiers erected Fort Harrison, where a messenger of the Prophet arranged a peaceful meeting for November 7. While Harrison directed sentinels to keep watch on the eve of the parlay, the Prophet informed his followers that no bullets from American rifles would harm them. Under the cover of darkness, hundreds of Indians encircled the military camp.

Shortly before sunrise, the Battle of Tippecanoe erupted. The sentinels began firing at the warriors along the perimeter, which awakened the rank and file from their slumber. The attacking Indians broke through the lines and rushed into the camp. The units regrouped, fighting hand to hand and repulsing repeated charges. After a two-hour brawl, Harrison's soldiers counterattacked with great fury. They stripped, scalped, and mutilated enemy corpses. The Indians dispersed into the woods and swamps along the Tippecanoe River. Harrison lost over 180 killed and wounded, but U.S. forces gave him a celebrated victory that day.

The next day, Harrison ordered a reconnaissance of Prophetstown. To their surprise, the troopers found it deserted. They confiscated items of interest while setting fire to corn, beans, and lodges. They blamed the British in Canada for inciting the Indians, because of the arms trade along the Great Lakes. Americans soon broke camp and marched back to Vincennes.

Americans failed to stop Tecumseh, who departed Prophetstown several months earlier to undertake a 3,000-mile journey. He traveled northward to visit British officials in Canada and southward to meet with Chickasaw, Creek, Choctaw, and Cherokee leaders. He encountered dozens of Indian tribes and bands along the way, even as a severe earthquake shook the Mississippi and Ohio valleys that winter. Although a military defeat discredited the Prophet, Tecumseh returned to Indiana Territory with his own grand visions for a war against the U.S.


Even though Americans celebrated their newfound independence, the U.S. faced the prospect of constant strife in North America and beyond. A series of armed rebellions and domestic uprisings shook public faith in the adequacy of the state militias. Civilians noted with alarm the persistence of Indian unrest from the Great Lakes to the Gulf Coast. Despite anti-military sentiments within the country, the Constitution and Bill of Rights provided new guards for national security. Congress funded the establishment of a regular army and navy and eventually a permanent corps of marines. The commander-in-chief held executive authority over the standing forces and called upon state militiamen to render federal service. The founding generation shared a compelling vision of the military's role with respect to constabulary activities, inland garrisons, reconnaissance missions, coastal defense, and maritime operations. Instead of making a blunt instrument for state-sponsored violence, the federal government crafted a useful tool for civil society.

While building a nation, no aspect of the federal government created more unease among Americans than military affairs. Thanks to federal laws, the War Department organized an army greater than all others in the western hemisphere. Although the Jeffersonian Republicans were suspicious of military professionals, the Corps of Engineers at West Point received institutional support to develop a culture of leadership. From policing borders to venturing abroad, service members fulfilled their oaths with courage and skill. They combated Indian nations and European powers, who attempted to block their advance westward. Initially, they focused on protecting the expanding settlements between the Appalachian Mountains and the Mississippi River. Following the Louisiana Purchase, they marched into an immense domain that encompassed the Great Plains and the Rocky Mountains. Anxieties about national forces lingered, but civil–military relations improved. The U.S. demonstrated sufficient power not only to establish the military but also to extend the republic.

The U.S. considered naval power vital for safeguarding American rights. Because agrarian communities produced surplus commodities for overseas markets, commercial interests demanded a deep-water fleet in addition to coastal gunboats. Though constrained by governmental austerity, the Navy Department dispatched squadrons to patrol the territorial waters and to sail the Atlantic Ocean. U.S. warships battled French vessels in the West Indies, where they won a string of victories during an undeclared war. A combination of seafaring prowess and direct action accentuated the rising glory of America, albeit in martial ways. Taken by surprise, the regencies of North Africa retreated from blows delivered by American tars. Naval construction programs, however, became entangled with the partisan agendas of Federalists and Republicans. Years of diplomatic wrangling and defensive posturing failed to guarantee that neutral ships enjoyed free trade. The Napoleonic Wars drove the U.S. toward belligerence, but Americans attempted to avoid a titanic clash with imperial might.

Americans maintained a military establishment that prepared for war yet remained at peace. While an armed citizenry engaged in a long struggle to sustain a republican form of government, most assumed that all free adult males owed some form of service to their country. A few identified with the public spirit of the first military memorial erected in Washington D.C., which honored service members in the Tripolitan War. It originally occupied a prominent site at the national capital, though later it was relocated to Annapolis, Maryland. In addition to a 15-foot marble column topped by an eagle with a shield, the Tripoli Monument featured lamps and statues rich with symbolism. Personifications of classical ideals stood upon the free-stone base. The pedestal bore the names of six officers, who died while battling enemies on a foreign shore. By 1812, Americans in uniform began to immerse themselves in the broader, ennobling purposes of what the founders called the “common defense.”

Essential Questions

1 What were the key provisions of the U.S. Constitution and Bill of Rights that governed military affairs?

2 How did the Navy become the first line of defense in the new republic?

3 Did the Louisiana Purchase enhance America's national security? Why, or why not?

Suggested Readings

Ambrose, Stephen E. Duty, Honor, Country: A History of West Point. Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press, 1966.

Bird, Harrison. War for the West, 1790–1813. New York: Oxford University Press, 1971.

Calloway, Colin G. The Shawnees and the War for America. New York: Penguin, 2007.

Crackel, Theodore J. Mr. Jefferson's Army: Political and Social Reform of the Military Establishment, 1801–1809. New York: New York University Press, 1987.

Cress, Lawrence Delbert. Citizens in Arms: The Army and the Militia in American Society to the War of 1812. Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 1982.

Daughan, George C. If By Sea: The Forging of the American Navy from the American Revolution to the War of 1812. New York: Basic Books, 2008.

Fowler, William M. Jack Tars and Commodores: The American Navy, 1783–1815. Boston: Houghton Mifflin, 1984.

Gaff, Alan. Bayonets in the Wilderness: Anthony Wayne's Legion in the Old Northwest. Norman: University of Oklahoma Press, 2004.

Hogeland, William. The Whiskey Rebellion: George Washington, Alexander Hamilton, and the Frontier Rebels who Challenged America's Newfound Sovereignty. New York: Scribner, 2006.

Kohn, Richard H. Eagle and Sword: Federalists and the Creation of the American Military Establishment in America, 1783–1802. New York: Free Press, 1975.

Kukla, John. A Wilderness So Immense: The Louisiana Purchase and the Destiny of America. New York: Knopf, 2003.

Lambert, Frank. The Barbary Wars: American Independence in the Atlantic World. New York: Hill & Wang, 2005.

Linklater, Andro. An Artist in Treason: The Extraordinary Double Life of General James Wilkinson. New York: Walker & Co., 2009.

Owsley, Frank L., and Gene A. Smith. Filibusters and Expansionists: Jeffersonian Manifest Destiny, 1800–1821. Tuscaloosa: University of Alabama Press, 1997.

Palmer, Michael A. Stoddert's War: Naval Operations during the Quasi-War with France, 1798–1801. Columbia: University of South Carolina Press, 1987.

Skelton, William B. An American Profession of Arms: The Officer Corps, 1784–1861. Lawrence: University Press of Kansas, 1999.

Wood, Gordon S. Empire of Liberty: A History of the Early Republic, 1789–1815. New York: Oxford University Press, 2009.

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