Republicanizing the Army

The Military Peace Establishment Act of 1802

by Stephen Witte

In his December 1801 message to Congress, President Jefferson announced that Secretary of War Henry Dearborn had compiled a list of "all the posts and stations where garrisons will be expedient" and "the number of men requisite for each garrison." As Dearborn's estimate of the number of men actually required exceeded the Army's authorized strength, Jefferson proposed that Congress consider a reduction in the force structure.

Jefferson's proposal became the Military Peace Establishment Act, passed by Congress on March 16, 1802. On the surface, the act called for a substantial cut in the Army's authorized strength. The force Jefferson inherited from the Adams administration fielded four infantry regiments and two regiments of engineers and artillery, with a manpower limit of 5,438 officers and men. From June 1, 1802, the reorganized Army would comprise only two regiments of infantry, a single artillery regiment, and a tiny Corps of Engineers. Authorized manpower would drop to 3,289 officers and men. Republican congressmen spoke of substantial savings to be realized from the reorganization.

Upon further examination, the reduction appears less radical. Since the Adams administration had not been able to recruit enough soldiers to fill the enlisted ranks, the Army's actual present-for-duty strength was less than 3,600 when Jefferson took office. Only about 300 men would actually have to be discharged to meet the new limit. The real changes imparted by the reorganization were in the officer corps, not the enlisted ranks. The overall effect was to "Republicanize" the officer corps, which heretofore had been dominated by Federalist appointees.

lewis's listAs a result of the reorganization, eighty-eight of the approximately 230 officers lost their positions. In his capacity as the President's secretary, Meriwether Lewis played an important role in the reduction process. Lewis prepared a report in which he classified the Army's officers by military merit and by political affiliation, if known. Both of these factors were considered in identifying candidates for dismissal. Officers rated as "unworthy" were discharged almost without regard to political affiliation. But among the twenty-six "qualified" officers dismissed from the service (rated by Lewis as either first or second class), only one was a Republican, and that one had himself requested his discharge. Seven men in this group were known Federalists. The remaining eighteen were politically apathetic, had "no political creed," or were of unknown political loyalties.

The 1802 reorganization provided an opportunity to appoint twenty new Republican officers. A new grade, ensign, was created to rank below that of second lieutenant. (This is the rank to which Nathaniel Pryor would be promoted after the expedition.) Ten ensigns were authorized in each of the two infantry regiments. Thus, even though eighty-eight officers were dismissed, the reorganized "1802" Army actually had only sixty-eight fewer officers authorized than in 1801. Moreover, the concentration of Republicans in the officer corps had substantially increased. Prior to reorganization, only 11 officers of 230 in the entire Army were known Republicans. After reorganization, the Army would include at least twenty-nine Republican officers in an officer corps numbering about 162. The Military Peace Establishment Act also provided a means for training good Republicans to fill future officer vacancies--the United States Military Academy at West Point. All in all, the Act of 1802 allowed Jefferson to carry out "a chaste reformation" of the Army.


Theodore Crackel, Mr. Jefferson's Army: Political and Social Reform of the Military Establishment, 1801-1809 (New York: New York University Press 1987), Chapter 2.

Jefferson's First Annual Message (December 8, 1801), in Annals of Congress, Seventh Congress, First Session (Washington: Gales and Seaton, 1851).

Military Peace Establishment Act of 1802, in Annals of Congress, Seventh Congress, First Session (Washington: Gales and Seaton, 1851), 1306-12.