Blogs > Cliopatria > History That Isn't

Nov 23, 2007 8:49 pm

History That Isn't

We all know that the army in the early republic was vanishingly small in peacetime, because anti-standing-army sentiment prevailed in the post-revolutionary United States. Military history has long reflected this assumption.

Here's the historian and retired Army officer James Ripley Jacobs, in his 1947 book The Beginning of the U.S. Army, 1783-1812, explaining that the central government paid little attention to the development of an American army under either the Articles of Confederation or the new Constitution:

"The neglect of the army arose partly because the new federal government, still uncertain and experimental, was centering its attention on problems that it considered of greater importance."

Because the army was ignored, it stayed small:"It numbered only eighty officers and men when Henry Knox was 'Secretary at War' in 1784; not until 1809 did it reach its maximum strength for this period, a total of 6,954."

Ignored as unimportant, then, the army only grew by 8,500 percent in twenty-five years, while the U.S. was moving toward war but yet not openly at war with any other state power.

The picture becomes a little more interesting when we compare populations and army size.

Rounding up very slightly, take an army of 7,000 soldiers in 1809; according to the U.S. census, the population of the country in 1810 was a little over seven million. The current population of the United States is about 300 million. So let's multiply by 43 (300/7) to get a sense of the army in 1809 in proportion to today's U.S. Army: 301,000.

So: Today's U.S. Army, at war in at least three countries, has just over 500,000 soldiers on active duty, while the peacetime army of 1809 had the equivalent, by proportion, of 300,000.

Is the peacetime U.S. Army of 1809 small for its time and place? And what are the implications if we agree that it wasn't?

As a suggestion that points toward my answer, I'll briefly note the narrative acrobatics that that occur in Geoffrey Perret's book A Country Made by War. Perret describes a hopelessly small and inept army that was unable to effectively police the boundaries of white settlement, allowing violence to occur between Indians and settlers; the settlers"launched their own punitive raids, without waiting for the army to do it," while the Confederation Congress"looked on helplessly." The anti-standing-army ideology was a trap that confined the army, and weakness resulted.

On the very next page, then, Perret describes the aggressive response of the Confederation Congress to Shay’s Rebellion, which led to a tripling of the standing army:"Its hostility to military forces vanished literally overnight. It found the troops. It found the will. It found the money."

Deeply held ideological beliefs do not vanish literally overnight; Perret, like others, is unable to see choices where choices are being made, and so instead writes a narrative in which major elements of a nation’s political heritage instantly and unaccountably evaporate like magic.

More to follow, but here's where I'm headed: The development of the military power of the United States has never been restrained by a political resistance to standing armies.

Should be fun to discuss, yeah?

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More Comments:

Jeff Vanke - 11/27/2007

Yes, I think so. The U.S. was already industrializing. Britain was not yet as industrialized as many imagine. A sovereign state is a sovereign state, and by 1816, not only was our Constitution a generation old; we had already declared and fought the War of 1812, and Congress had supported two Barbary Wars. American border disputes with British Canada remained unresolved at the time, so future conflict was certainly imaginable.

I think your argument would be stronger if you acknowledged at least some validity of contemporary transnational comparison. Your argument almost demands as much.

Chris Bray - 11/26/2007

One of the other contexts I would suggest for comparisons between the U.S. and European states is the context of developed states versus a developing state. By 1816 the U.S. was forty years old. Is it reasonable to compare a new state to an old one?

Jeff Vanke - 11/26/2007

There is a period for which European comparisons would be appropriate, namely, 1816-1846/53, against U.S. figures for the same period.

After 1816, the Concert of Europe's main military business was suppressing liberal and proto-nationalist revolts. There was one brief war scare between France and Britain, I think in the 1830s, but it subsided quickly.

(Of course, the U.S. did not have to face anything like European revolts after 1816, in large part probably because of quasi-democracy and federalism and expanding economic opportunities in the U.S.)

The contemporary comparison gets weaker once the US-Mexican War starts in 1846, followed by confined European civil wars in 1848-49, and of course, the Crimean War, 1853-56.

Bray's objection about Europeans facing Europeans would actually hold truer for Continental powers than for Britain, even during the interstate peace of the Concert of Europe. When Britain was not involved in war, it could rely on the Channel for defense, unlike the other great powers.

As a Europeanist, I think European, esp British, comparisons could be enlightening. But less so for the violent 1700s, the French Revolutionary Wars, or for the period after 1848, leaving only 1816-1846. Any data out there on either or both sides of the Atlantic for these three decades?

Chris Bray - 11/26/2007

"The percentage increase in the size of the US Army between 1784 and 1809 is hardly a significant fact."


"Even in 1809 this was a very small standing army..."

By whose measure? What number would have represented the threshold for a large standing army?

Ralph M. Hitchens - 11/26/2007

The percentage increase in the size of the US Army between 1784 and 1809 is hardly a significant fact. Even in 1809 this was a very small standing army, which US leaders of the revolutionary generation no doubt regarded as more than adequate given two centuries of militia reliance as the prevailing security model. I also think that hostility to a standing army had to be a factor, given the parallel lack of investment in a standing navy.

Chris Bray - 11/25/2007

I don't think comparisons with contemporary European armies reveal that much. European states faced European states in Europe, and the U.S. didn't confront anything like a European army in its own theater.

My comparison to the army of 2007 is only for a sense of proportion against population. A comparison of strategic tasks and technological reach makes the comparison ridiculous, but my point is only to show that the American armies of the early republic look much larger against a Revolutionary-era population of 3 million, or a population in the 1810s of 7 million. For what it did and when it did it, the small U.S. Army wasn't.

More to follow.

Andrew D. Todd - 11/25/2007

The obvious comparison would be that of early America with England. Early English population figures (pre-census) are notoriously tricky, of course. Gregory King's numbers were guesstimates derived from tax returns. Still, at the time of the American revolution, a defensible figure for the British Isles, including Ireland, might be somewhere in the ballpark of ten million. The British Army had a peacetime strength of 50,000 men (I believe 8000 of them in North America), and the British Navy, the main force, had more than a hundred ships of the line, and about two hundred frigates. They weren't all mobilized, of course, but still, they would have been sufficient ships for about 100,000 men. The peacetime standing navy amounted to something like 15-20,000 men, and sailors were quite often taken ashore in ports, and the major cities were mostly ports. At that date, sailors were, ipso facto, what we would call marines. In round numbers, England's peacetime military mobilization, per capita, was about ten times that of the United States.

During the wars with France, there were French-sponsored Celtic rebellions, at first Jacobite (1714, 1745), and later, Jacobin (1798). At mid-century, a government report put the strength of the Scottish clans at 30,000 swords. In 1745, Bonnie Prince Charlie managed to recruit 5-6000 of them, and was eventually beaten by the Duke of Cumberland with nearly 10,000 troops, mostly regulars (twenty-year career soldiers), and a handful of Campbells. Relative to population, this was approximately on the same scale as the First Battle of Bull Run. The British Army then conducted a campaign of counter-insurgency ("The Harrying of the Glens") aimed at starving the Highlanders into submission. The British military was sufficiently large that it was regularly employed to enforce the law. This, of course, had the effect of politicizing it.

See: John Prebble, _Culloden_, 1961, 1967

The United States Army was mostly deployed on the frontier, often in small units. The military presence in a settled area was likely to be something of the order of a coastal fort, an arsenal, or an old soldiers' hospital.

Circa 1860, the British Army had an authorized strength of about 200,000 men, about ten times the size of the United States Army, at a time when the population of the United States was surpassing that of Great Britain. Read about the operations in Texas and New Mexico in 1861-62 to get a feel for the actual limits on the power of the United States Army. The potential fighting strength of Texas must have been at least twenty thousand men. They compelled the surrender of the one regular army regiment in Texas (the 1st Infantry), commenced an attack on New Mexico with four regiments, and obtained the surrender of the major portion of the 7th Infantry. The Texans were eventually contained by a force consisting of the odds and tatters of the regular army in the area, and a solid core of New Mexico militia.




THE CONFEDERATE INVASION OF NEW MEXICO AND ARIZONA, By George H. Pettis, Brevet Capt., U.S.V., Late Lieutenant Commanding Co. K 1st California Infantry, and Lieutenant and Adjutant 1st New Mexico Infantry


Battles and Leaders of the Civil War : being for the most part contributions by Union and Confederate officers., Based on "The Century war series" published from Nov. 1884 to Nov. 1887 in the Century magazine and edited by Robert Underwood Johnson and Clarence Clough Buel of the editorial staff of "The Century Magazine,"
New York : The Century Co., 1887-1888.

Jonathan Dresner - 11/25/2007

While I take your larger point -- and I'll try to get to it in a minute -- it's really not effective to compare population:army ratios across two centuries, is it? It seems more appropriate to compare the ratio of the early CS/US army with the standing militaries of other nations of the late 18c. (Methodological note: it could be a challenge, since many societies at that time -- like the Japanese which I know best -- used warrior aristocracies rather than standing national armies per se. But what's a quantitative argument without definitional issues? Boring.)

Your variation on Perret's point is interesting: it suggests, among other things, that imperialist White expansion wasn't always the first priority of our national governments.