The US military and the US Constitution

From the National Archives site, the duties of the US government include;

So was it originally planned that a Navy would be on constant patrol off the US coast, which seems sensible given how the Royal Navy and others acted for a while to US shipping, but an army would only be raised as needed?

That is my understanding of it and even with that, funding the Navy was difficult. John Adams did much to push it through as VP and get the Constitution Class Frigates built with theNaval Act of 1794. The Army was built up anyway as there were fears of the British and the French. There was a non-war Navel War in the late 1790s with France.

The Navy for a long time had its own Cabinet Post (Secretary of the Navy) separate from the Secretary of War.

The Army consisted of a small artillery troop stationed at the West Point Arsenal.

By 1791, continual conflicts with the Native Americans caused the creation of the first US standing Army. It only grew from that point.

You have to remember that most of the “Founding Fathers” were suspicious of standing armies. They were fearful a popular General would usurp the powers of the states. A reasonable fear I think.


The newborn United States, being so far removed from other hostile powers in the Age of Sail, was fortunate in that it had a long time to mobilize if the need ever arose (and even so, we really weren’t ready for the War of 1812 when it came).

The Framers were keenly aware of the military’s role in ancient Greece and Rome in subverting or overthrowing republics. They tended to regard the navy as less of a threat to liberty than a standing army, but both were chronically underfunded in the early years of the republic. I seem to remember that the army was, by the late 1790s, reduced to only a couple of hundred men, most of whom were on garrison duty against Indian attack on the frontier.

The navy’s fortunes also waxed and waned, but since the sea trade was a very important part of the economy, there was always a bit more support for the navy than for the army. What Exit? is correct that John Adams was an ardent believer in a strong navy, but he was followed in the White House by Thomas Jefferson, who was anything but (Theodore Roosevelt, who wrote what was for many years the definitive book on the subject, The Naval War of 1812, was scathing about Jefferson’s neglect of the navy).

The two-year appropriation rule was a compromise that would allow the federal government to field a small standing army, but ensure that it was subject to Congressional (and ultimately, popular) control.

It’s true that most of the Framers distrusted large standing armies, and they envisioned national defense as primarily a state function. They were realists enough to recognize, however, that the U.S. faced a long period of Indian conflict on the Western frontier, and the British had retreated to Canada but still posed a long-term threat. The federal government had to be empowered to raise and train at least a nucleus of an army that could be expanded with state militia in time of war.

The fear of a permanent appropriation dates to the British conflict between the Stuarts and Parliament, during which the Stuarts sought sources of funds that wouldn’t be subject to Parliamentary control. A king with secure funding for an army could disregard, or not summon, Parliament.

As it turned out, the two-year clause has had little significance. Congress quickly settled into an annual budget cycle for every appopriation, and the army has been treated no differently than any other function. Indeed, to the extent that Congress has moved toward long-term appopriation, it has been for social “entitlement” programs, not for the army.

Until recently, the most expensive portion of the military budget was shipbuilding. Until WWI, men were essentially free, and artillery was a relatively minor cost. No tanks, no planes, no communications equipment. But ships were always expensive, and took time to build. So while you could stand up an army relatively quickly in response to a threat, you couldn’t do that with the Navy. It had to be build and ready.

Interesting and as an aside, does the Constitution act as a guide to the limits of what government should do, or a guide to the bare minimum it should provide for the US population.

That is a 200-year-long debate that will never be settled.

The former. The colonies turned states recognized the need for unity beyond a mere alliance, but didn’t want to have fought for independence from Britain only to have a not-as-distant government dictate to them. Theoretically the federal government has only those powers granted it and no more (although expansive Supreme Court rulings like the Commerce Clause have made a sham of that). The Constitution also explicitly bans the use of measures that historically were abused to persecute political opponents- things like ex post facto laws, bills of attainder, etc. And it sets out requirements for what the government must do before it is allowed to convict someone of a crime (have a jury decide guilt, etc.)

220 years, actually… this week!

Can’t resist: what, they bared their bellies and went at it like sumo wrestlers??? :smiley:

Crap! I missed that.


While they saw a standing navy as less of a threat to the government, they did see in it a major cause of interregional troubles. They (especially Jefferson, at first) saw the French and British navies as provacateurs and did not see the need for a defensive navy. Also, before the War of 1812 the US merchant force was a major provider of goods throughout the world as a neutral flag. The relatively new book Six Frigates is a nice layperson read about the early navy (through War of 1812).

You can’t look at the constitutional restrictions on military and naval funding without looking at the experience of England – a history the Founders were all too aware of and which offered all sorts of bad examples the founders sought to avoid. The example of the post- English Civil War Commonwealth with a large standing army and rule by Cromwell’s Lieutenant Generals, the evils of a standing army during the Glorious Revolution (1688-1689) and things like the military occupation of Boston and the imposition of what amounted to military rule of Boston following the Tea Party, and the military occupation of the Scottish Highlands after the Jacobite Uprising of 1745, scared the daylights out of the Founders. Out of that fear you had Washington resigning his commission, and the disbanding of the Continental Line and you had devices put in the Constitution and in the Amendments (e.g., the prohibition on quartering troops in private homes and the Second Amendments guarantee of the right to bear arms) that tended to make the creation of an over powerful permanent military establishment very unlikely. Perhaps because the Royal Navy had never posed the sort of threat to civil and political liberty that the army had in 17th and 18th Century England, the Founders were not so concerned about an over powerful and despotic navy.

Fundamentally, what I am saying is that you cannot hope to understand the motives and objectives of the Founders without some sort of understanding of the Stuart Kings, the English Civil War, the Commonwealth, the Restoration, the Glorious Revolution, the wars with France starting with the ascension of William III through the fall of Quebec and the rise of the House of Hanover. Those wise men did not operate in a vacuum. The ideas of John Locke and Thomas Hobbes did not materialize from thin air. They all had the example of recent English history as their text book and laboratory.

Well said, Gelding.