Guest Essayist: Craig Bruce Smith

From the United States capitol of New York City’s Federal Hall, Congress passed one of the earliest acts of the seven-months-old federal government: a pivotal piece of legislation for the defense of the new nation and its people.

Passed on September 29, 1789 and approved by President George Washington, the act legally formalized a national army. In so doing, the some hundred congressmen and senators formally rejected the deep Anglo-American fear of a standing army assuming dictatorial control.

Technically, this moment could be considered the birth of the modern US Army, as it was done under US Constitution of 1787 that we still follow today.[1] However, there were older variants of the army under the Continental Congress and the Articles of Confederation. So when was the US Army actually born?

Wordily titled, “An Act to recognize and adapt to the constitution of the United States, the establishment of the troops raised under the resolves of the United States in Congress assembled and for other purposes,” the 1789 bill voted into tangible existence the military alluded to in the US Constitution.[2] Only ratified the previous year, the Constitution frequently refers to war (and a navy and militias), but only offers a single mention of an army in Article 2, Section 2, which outlines the powers of the executive branch. Without clearly creating any such organization, the document merely mentions: “The President shall be Commander in Chief of the Army and Navy of the United States, and of the Militia of the several States, when called into the actual Service of the United States.”[3]

Though legally created in 1789, the US Army’s true roots begin earlier. The colonies had long embraced a tradition of local militias and maintained the deep fear of standing armies that affected the British Empire since the time of Oliver Cromwell and the English Civil War. But in the American Revolution, an army became a necessity to defend the people against British hostility.

On April 19, 1775, fighting between the British army and colonial militias broke out in Massachusetts at Lexington and Concord. It didn’t take long before Massachusetts patriot and future major general Dr. Joseph Warren wrote to the newly convened Second Continental Congress sitting in Philadelphia that British designs to “to ruin and destroy the inhabitants of this colony” had made “the establishment of an army indispensably necessary.” Warren pleaded with Congress “that a powerful Army, on the side of America” was “the only mean left to stem the rapid Progress of a tyrannical Ministry. Without a force, superior to our Enemies, we must reasonably expect to become the Victims of their relentless fury.”[4] Despite clearly linking the fighting in his home colony to the “Cause of America,” there was still debate about committing military support and the actual raising of an army. Was this really America’s war?

As colonial militias became a “New England Army” and the city of Boston was besieged, petitions of peace and questions of independence were considered by Congress, while they also made recommendations to logistically aid the colonial forces in Massachusetts and encouraged other colonies to do the same.[5] The term Continental Army was used as early as June 3, 1775, though no such organization formally existed.[6] Men like Warren and Massachusetts delegate John Adams had been adamant that the New England militias needed Congressional support. Warren wrote, clearly understanding Anglo-American fears of the unchecked authority of a standing army, “we tremble at having an army (although consisting of our countrymen) established here without a civil power to provide for and control them.”[7]

Finally, on June 14, 1775, Congress created the Continental Army out of a growing sense of unity and necessity. Congress also created an oath for soldiers and officers that placed the army under civilian governmental control: “I have, this day, voluntarily enlisted myself, as a soldier, in the American continental army…And I do bind myself to conform, in all instances, to such rules and regulations, as are, or shall be, established for the government of the said Army.”[8]

A five-person committee (George Washington, Philip Schuyler, Silas Deane, Thomas Cushing, and Joseph Hewes) was promptly assembled to create the named rules and regulations. The next day Colonel Washington, famed for his service in the French and Indian War, was “unanimously elected” and commissioned as the Continental Army’s commander-in-chief.[9] Though there were others who desired the post, Washington’s Virginian roots helped bridge a divide between the northern and southern colonies. While simultaneously declaring his reluctance to accept, Washington donned his military uniform and appeared in front of Congress to declare he was ready and willing to serve. Washington affirmed he would submit himself to congressional authority and “enter upon the momentous duty, and exert every power I possess in their service and for the support of the glorious cause” of American liberty.[10]

Leaving immediately for Boston, Washington took command in Cambridge, Massachusetts on July 3, 1775 shortly after the Battle of Bunker Hill. Almost from his first moment in command, Washington constantly promoted civilian supremacy over the army and demanded “a due observance of those articles of war, established for the government of the army.”[11] In surrendering his commission back to Congress at the conclusion of the war in 1783 (along with the near complete demobilization of the army itself), he alleviated fears of a dictator backed by a standing army and firmly established the legacy of civilian supremacy. This is arguably the greatest moment in American history.

A year later on June 3, 1784, Congress resolved under the Articles of Confederation (America’s first constitution) to create the peacetime Regular Army comprised of only 700 men (also known as the First American Regiment) for the purpose of “securing and protecting the northwestern frontiers” after acquiring new lands from Britain after the Peace of Paris.[12] But the military proved ineffective under the Articles, because states had more power than the federal government. Partly in response to the failure of the government and its forces to suppress rural uprisings, such as in western Massachusetts’ Shays’ Rebellion, a new constitutional convention was called.

The 1789 congressional act continued the intent of the army as outlined in 1784 and 1775 as it was designed to “protect the inhabitant of the frontier” and “be governed by the rules and articles of war which have been established by the United States in Congress.”[13]

The act also created the oath of service that spelled out civilian supremacy and marked the military’s loyalty to the Constitution and the government — not to an individual: “…I will support the constitution of the United States…against all enemies…and to observe and obey the orders of the President.”[14] A variation of this oath still guides the Army today.[15]

A force of 700 soldiers unsurprisingly proved ineffective for the growing nation. In 1792, the army was again structurally reformed and enlarged as the Legion of the United States before finally adopting the name the “army of the United States” or US Army in 1796.[16]

So when was the Army as we know it today founded? 1775, 1784, 1789, 1792, or 1796? The answer depends on if you take a literal or spiritual interpretation.

Though legally created in 1789 under the current Constitution, the US Army instead chooses the spirit of liberty drawn from the American Revolution and the creation of the Continental Army. After all, it is these very ideals of liberty that continue to guide its soldiers and officers, and the entire nation.

In 1956, President Dwight Eisenhower, former five-star general and Supreme Allied Commander, signed an executive order for the creation of a US Army flag that prominently featured the date “1775” and declared it a “suitable design and appropriate for adoption.”[17] Today, the US Army continues to celebrate June 14, 1775 as its official “birthday” with much fanfare, memorials, military balls, and cake.[18]

Craig Bruce Smith is a historian and the author of American Honor: The Creation of the Nation’s Ideals during the Revolutionary Era. For more information, visit www.craigbrucesmith.com or follow him on Twitter @craigbrucesmith. All views are that of the author and do not represent those of the Federal Government, the US Army, or Department of Defense.

[1] For more work on the history of the US Army, also used as references throughout this article: Matthew S. Muehlbauer and David J. Ulbrich. Ways of War: American Military History from the Colonial Era to the Twenty-First Century. (New York: Routledge, 2014); Richard Stewart ED., American Military History. Volume I. (Washington, DC: US Army Center of Military History, 2009); David Hackett Fischer, Washington’s Crossing.  (New York: Oxford University Press, 2004), Ch. 1; Richard H. Kohn. Eagle and Sword: The Federalists and the Creation of the Military Establishment in America, 1783-1802. (New York: Free Press, 1975); Allen R. Millett and Peter Maslowski. For the Common Defense: A Military History of the United States. (New York: Free Press, 2012).

[2]“An Act to recognize and adapt to the constitution of the United States, the establishment of the troops raised under the resolves of the United States in Congress assembled and for other purposes,” 29 September 1789. https://history.army.mil/books/RevWar/ss/repdoc.htm

[3] US Constitution, 1787, https://www.ourdocuments.gov/doc.php?flash=false&doc=9&page=transcript

[4] Joseph Warren to the Continental Congress, 3 May 1775, Journals of the Continental Congress.

https://memory.loc.gov/cgibin/query/r?ammem/hlaw:@field(DOCID+@lit(jc0026)):

[5] John Adams, Autobiography, June-August 1775, Massachusetts Historical Society. https://www.masshist.org/digitaladams/archive/doc?id=A1_20&rec=sheet&archive=&hi=&numRecs=&query=&queryid=&start=&tag=&num=10&bc=/digitaladams/archive/browse/autobio1.php

[6] “Saturday, June 3, 1775 and “Saturday, June 10, 1775,” Journals of the Continental Congress.

[7] Joseph Warren to the Continental Congress, 16 May 1775, Journals of the Continental Congress.  https://memory.loc.gov/cgi bin/query/r?ammem/hlaw:@field(DOCID+@lit(jc00225)):; Adams, Autobiography.

[8] “Wednesday June 14, 1775,” Journals of the Continental Congress, https://memory.loc.gov/cgi-bin/query/r?ammem/hlaw:@field(DOCID+@lit(jc00235)):

[9] “Thursday June 15, 1775,” Journals of the Continental Congress, https://memory.loc.gov/cgi-bin/query/r?ammem/hlaw:@field(DOCID+@lit(jc00236)):

[10] George Washington, “Address to the Continental Congress,” 16 June 1775, Founders Online. https://founders.archives.gov/?q=%20Author%3A%22Washington%2C%20George%22%20Dates-From%3A1775-06-14&s=1111311111&r=7

[11] General Orders, 4 July 1775, Founders Online. https://founders.archives.gov/?q=%20Author%3A%22Washington%2C%20George%22%20Dates-From%3A1775-06-14&s=1111311111&r=26

[12] “Thursday, June 3, 1784,” Journals of the Continental Congress, Vol. 27, p. 530

[13] “An Act to recognize…the establishment of the troops…,”

[14] First Congress, Session I, Ch. 27. Resolutions, 1789 in The Public Statutes at Large of the United States of America. (Boston: Little and Brown, 1845,) p. 95-96.

[15] US Army, “Oath of Enlistment,” https://www.army.mil/values/oath.html and “Oath of Commissioned Officers,” https://www.army.mil/values/officers.html

[16] A.J. Birtle. “The Origins of the Legion of the United States,” the Journal of Military History. (Vol. 67, No. 4, October 2003,) pp. 1249-1261; Fourth Congress, Session I, 1796, https://www.loc.gov/law/help/statutes-at-large/4th-congress/c4.pdf

[17] Dwight Eisenhower, 12 June 1756, Executive Order 10670, National Archives. https://www.archives.gov/federal-register/codification/executive-order/10670.html

[18] John R. Maass, “June 14th: The Birthday of the U.S. Army,” US Army Center of Military History, https://history.army.mil/html/faq/birth.html; “Army Birthdays,” https://history.army.mil/faq/branches.htm

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