The U.S. should stay out of foreign conflicts. That idea is shared by doves, critics of U.S. power and “America firsters,” including many who voted for President Trump. The U.S. has a right, and at times a duty, to use its military power. That idea animates some liberals and neoliberals, some old-school conservatives and neocons, and some who voted for President Trump.
Adherents of each position appeal to what they view as the nation’s foundational values. John Adams famously warned that Americans should not go abroad “in search of monsters to destroy,” say the doves. The United States was conceived as a beacon of liberty with a special moral purpose, say the hawks.
In assessing such claims today, it's worth considering why our founders formed a standing army after the Revolution. What was it they wanted to defend and promote? Who was the enemy, and what was at stake?
The first regular, uniform, federally administered U.S. army was created early in George Washington’s first term as president, in response to a shocking event: the greatest military victory that indigenous North Americans would ever enjoy over the United States, the high-water mark in resistance to U.S. expansion westward. This devastating defeat of the young republic dwarfs in U.S. casualties and historical significance the famous 1876 Battle of the Little Bighorn. It occurred in November 1791, on a bank of the upper Wabash River in modern-day Indiana. A large confederation of indigenous nations, led by the philosophical Miami chief Little Turtle and the flamboyant Shawnee chief Blue Jacket, wiped out much of the force serving under Gen. Arthur St. Clair: a 1,500-strong hodgepodge of state militiamen, short-term enlistees, a few regular troops, wives, girlfriends, children, drivers, cooks and other civilians.
In minutes, what the Washington administration had billed as a swift, highly targeted action to pacify a few recalcitrant savages turned into a horrifying rout. Native tactics and discipline were exemplary. The few surviving U.S. troops threw down their guns and sprinted, and the people of the United States and their government went into a state of shock. Western expansion looked stymied.
Expansionist ambition was a key factor in the movement that led to the founding of the U.S. As a young man, Washington had explored and invested financially in the potential wealth of the great woodland that stretched from the Ohio River’s headwaters to its mouth at the Mississippi, and from Kentucky and western Virginia up to the Great Lakes. It was chiefly in reaction to British restrictions on land speculation across the Appalachians that he'd taken up the cause of American independence in the 1770s. In the 1780s, Washington's all-important support for forming a nation was again inspired by his continuing financial and political interest in westward expansion. For him, as for many of his peers, without what the United States called its Northwest Territory, the nation had no future.
As president, Washington was eager to maintain a regular army, but after the War for Independence, the Continental Army he had commanded was disbanded in keeping with a century-long American ethos: the preference for militia and short-term, dedicated enlistments rather than a paid, peacetime, nationally organized “standing army,” an institution widely associated with monarchical oppression. Congress had therefore declined to act on its constitutional power to create a force of any effective size and duration.
Out of the grisly defeat of St. Clair's troops, Washington got both his army and the Ohio Valley.
It took politics. The famous ideological conflict between Alexander Hamilton and Thomas Jefferson, between elite high finance and yeoman agrarianism, was in full swing, yet each man also passionately supported western settlement. In Washington's Cabinet, they worked together behind the scenes to defeat longstanding opposition in the House of Representatives to forming a national army. Then Washington cut private deals with senators, and the law creating our first army passed. To buy time for a military buildup after the Wabash rout, the administration engaged in sham negotiations with the confederated tribes.
The new army began with a surprise: Washington chose Anthony Wayne as its commander. A hero of the Revolution, Wayne had become mired in debt and public controversy in the 1780s; his reputation was at such a low point that James Monroe, then in the Senate, was among those who thought the appointment would go down in history as Washington’s biggest mistake.
Instead, Wayne won the young nation’s first and perhaps most decisive victory. Relying on dogged perseverance and an obsession with military discipline, “Mad Anthony," as he was known to his men (to his enemy he was “the Black Snake”), defeated the confederated Native forces at the Battle of Fallen Timbers, not far from today’s Toledo. The victory positioned the U.S. to take permanent possession of what would become, with amazing speed, a booming industrial heartland: western Pennsylvania, western Virginia, Ohio, Michigan, Illinois, Indiana, Wisconsin.
American military power was thus born in invading what is now the Midwest, forcing the region's original inhabitants into concentrated areas, realizing returns on real-estate investments, and shifting the center of national production west of the Appalachians. It was the nation's founding military action, setting the stage for all that followed. But it was also a war with no name, and it remains a historical blank spot.
That blankness may serve a purpose. We tend to date our political and cultural division over military power to events after the Civil War: the Plains Indians wars and the U.S. actions beyond what are often called our natural borders, such as Teddy Roosevelt leading the Rough Riders in Cuba. As a critic of American military aggression, Mark Twain argued in 1900 against “the eagle putting its talons on any other land.”
For more than a century, Twain’s fellow critics of American aggression have insisted that expansionism contradicts founding republican values. Yet a frank look at our first war reveals expansionism as a critical component of American republicanism — indeed, a factor in American independence itself — and continental empire an overriding goal of the most influential American founders.
The eagle's talons have been on other lands from the beginning. Our country requires, perhaps more urgently every day, an informed public debate on how and why we use our vast military power. Any such debate ought to begin not with appeals to America's founding values but with critical attention to its founding actions.
William Hogeland’s latest book is “Autumn of the Black Snake: The Creation of the U.S. Army and the Invasion That Opened the West.”
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