To some it seemed like a technicality, but on this day in 1789, President George Washington succeeded in getting the First Congress to recognize the U.S. Army under the terms of our new Constitution.
The Revolutionary War version of the Army had been formed under Washington on June 14, 1775 as the Continental Congress decided it was needed in the conflict with Great Britain. The first version of the Army worked with state militias on the fight for independence.
The Articles of Confederation, which were finally ratified in 1781, established the ability to raise troops for the common defense of the United States. (It also allowed individual states to declare war under certain conditions.) But the Confederation government greatly scaled back the remains of the Continental Army into a new regiment with 700 men.
In general, there were great concerns about the need for a standing army outside of times of war. The Constitutional Convention of 1787 in Philadelphia provided checks on any standing army by allowing the President to command it, but Congress to finance it using short-term legislation.
Congress had the power to do this under Article I, Section 8, Clause 12, known as the Army Clause. “The Congress shall have Power To . . . raise and support Armies, but no Appropriation of Money to that Use shall be for a longer Term than two Years,” the Clause read.
As the First Congress entered its final day on September 29, 1789, now-President Washington insisted that the lawmakers pass an Act clarifying the Army’s role under the new Constitution.
Back on August 7, President Washington wrote to Congress to remind them that legislation was needed to replace the outdated part of the Articles that pertained to the military.
“I am particularly anxious it should receive an early attention as circumstances will admit; because it is now in our power to avail ourselves of the military knowledge disseminated throughout the several States by means of the many well instructed Officers and soldiers of the late Army; a resource which is daily diminishing by deaths and other causes,” Washington wrote.
Despite a personal appeal from Secretary of War Henry Knox, Congress didn’t act. Washington had to write a second time to the lawmakers, who finally made it the first order of business on the final day of its first session.
Congress finally passed an Act for “Establishment of the Troops,” which also allowed for the President to call up state militias under some circumstances. It also required a loyalty oath to the Constitution by anyone in service.
At the time, the standing federal Army had about 800 members, including officers. Today, the U.S. Army was expected to have about 450,000 active duty personnel in 2018, its smallest number since 1940.