A Peacetime Army
"That perhaps necessary evil"
by Stephen Witte
The distribution of our little army to distant
garrisons where hardly any other inhabitant
is to be found is the most eligible arrangement
of that perhaps necessary evil that can be contrived.
--Albert Gallatin, 1802
allatin’s sentence neatly summarizes the Jeffersonian concept of a peacetime military establishment. The tiny force of 3,300 men that Gallatin called "a perhaps necessary evil" was, in 1802, scattered along the new republic’s western frontier. In December 1801, President Jefferson's first annual message to Congress conceded the army's weakness, noting "for defence against invasion their number is as nothing." Far from being a source of consternation for the administration, this situation was exactly what Jefferson and his Cabinet wanted. Jefferson's message went on to state that he did not consider it "needful or safe that a standing army should be kept up in time of peace." Instead, he recommended that the nation rely upon state militia as its first line of defense. In the unlikely event of a foreign invasion, Jefferson expected the militia to buy the necessary time for the nation to raise more substantial military forces. In peacetime, a small number of troops to garrison a few vital western posts would suffice.
Based on Theodore J. Crackel, Mr. Jefferson's Army: Political and Social Reform of the Military Establishment, 1801-1809 (New York: New York University Press, 1987), 125, with additions.
Jefferson's claim that a large standing army was not "needful" was at least plausible. The United States was at peace, and no European power maintained sufficient military forces in North America to pose a realistic threat to American security. Anthony Wayne's victory over the Indians of the "Ohio country" at the Battle of Fallen Timbers in 1794 had opened the southern part of that territory to white settlement. In Jefferson's opinion, the maintenance of peace between whites and Indians on the western frontier would not require a large military force any more than would relations with the European powers.
The argument that it would not be “safe” to maintain a large peacetime army demands some explanation. Jefferson's Republican party had clashed with the Federalists over military policy repeatedly in the 1790s. The crux of the matter was the Adams administration’s decision to build up the armed forces in response to French provocations during the so-called "Quasi-War" (1798-1800). Republicans feared that the Federalist-dominated "New Army" would, in combination with the controversial Alien and Sedition Acts of 1798, impose "tyranny" in the place of representative government. John Adams was not interested in establishing a military dictatorship, as he disbanded the "New Army" once France had offered acceptable peace terms. Nonetheless, Jefferson's stated intent to keep the regular army small was in perfect accord with the desires of the newly-elected Republican congressional majority.