Right after the American Revolution ended and the Treaty of Paris was signed on September 3rd, 1783, the United States of America began to disarm. On December 3rd, 1783 Washington said good-bye to his officers and the Continental Army was no more.
One by one, the ships of the Continental Navy were sold off or scrapped. Ships that were turned into privateers went back to being merchant and fishing vessels. When the 32-gun frigate Alliance was sold in August 1785, the Continental Navy was no more.
There were two principle reasons for this unilateral disarmament. One was money. Under the Articles of Confederation, the Continental Congress couldn’t raise taxes and the country was deeply in debt to the French and to its own citizens who loaned money to the government money to fund the revolution.
The second was the Founding Fathers deeply distrusted standing armies and navies and thought a strong navy was too imperialistic. They were afraid having a large army and navy would lead to binding alliances and entanglement in foreign wars.
However, not having an army or a navy created problems for the new republic which, according to many European leaders and pundits of the time, wouldn’t last 10 years. Between 1783 and 1792, the realities of governing and international commerce struck. The central couldn’t protect its citizens who were pushing west from attacks by unhappy Indians egged on by Brits in Canada.
Overseas, U.S. merchant ships were being seized by the Barbary Pirates based along the north coast of Africa. Ransoms were paid to free the ships and the Congress negotiated treaties with some of the pirate leaders to pay a fee for unmolested passage.
Our Founding Fathers decided there had to be a better way. The first step was hold a Constitutional Convention and create a more effective government. In Article I, Section 8 sentence 1, what would become the Federal government was given the power to “lay and collect taxes, impose duties and provide for the common defense.” Sentences 10 through 16 of Article I that establishes the legislative branch of government gave it the power to raise, regulate an army and a navy.
Even though the Constitution was ratified in 1788 and authorized an army and navy, we still didn’t have one. Finally, in 1792, the Congress authorized the creation of the Legion of the United States which became a three regimental sized force of approximately 5,000 men. It was disbanded in 1796 but its units became the foundation of what we now call the U.S. Army.
In the spring of 1794, the Congress became tired of authorizing payments to pirates in the Mediterranean. On March 27th, 1794, it passed the Navy Act that authorized the construction of six large frigates and the men to man them. By doing so, it created the modern U.S. Navy. It would take several years to build the ships and recruit and train the men, but by 1796, the U.S. Navy was in action as was the U.S. Army and the United States of America was defenseless no more.