Jefferson’s Purge of the U.S. Army

When Jefferson became the president of the United States, one of his primary goals was to limit the size and power of the United States Army and Navy. He did this by supporting the March 1st, 1802, Congressional authorization that enabled him to create a Corps of Engineers. This formal recognition of the need to address one of the shortcomings that the Continental Army faced fighting the British, i.e., a dearth of trained engineers who could build bridges, roads, buildings, and fortifications.

During Washington’s presidency, he ushered through Congress the Army Act of 1790 which created the modern U.S. Army. When Jefferson was sworn in as president, the U.S. Army consisted of four regiments of infantry, two regiments of engineers, and two of artillery. Its strength, as authorized by Congress, was 5,438 officers and men.

Using the authority of the Military Peace Establishment Act, Jefferson reduced the size of the U.S. Army by about one-third to 3,289 officers and men. Its order of battle now consisted of two regiments of infantry, one of artillery and a company of engineers.

Jefferson was quite open in his desire to ensure that the country didn’t have a standing army or navy. However, strong Federalist opposition and the need to protect settlers moving west prevented him from dissolving the Army.

Jefferson used the reductions to force officers who were Federalists and commissioned during Washington’s and Adams’ presidency from the Army. Jefferson labeled them “detractors” and accused them of having “questionable” loyalties despite having proved themselves in the American Revolution and in fights with Native Americans on the frontier.

The men forced to resign were replaced by members of the Democratic-Republican Party, most of whom did not have the background or experience of the men they replaced. But Jefferson, did not stop with this purge. He ordered his Secretary of the Treasury Albert Gallatin to allocate no more than $2 million of the Federal budget for the U.S. military which would be split 50 – 50 between the Army and the Navy.

The Military Establishment Act of 1802 also gave Jefferson broad powers to dictate how the military functions, most of which are still in effect, albeit changed, today. For example, Section 2 specifies the number of officers of each rank allowed in each unit. Today, in each Defense bill, Congress sets the numbers of officers by rank and requires the results of each promotion board to be approved by Congress.

Section 4 sets officer and enlisted pay.  In Section 8, it requires that the government provide uniforms for enlisted men, but officers must buy their own, a practice that is still followed in 2024.

Section 11 sets terms of enlistment, authorizes the establishment of a recruiting service to attract citizens to join the military and sets the first age (18 to 35) and physical requirements (minimum height of 5′ 6″ and in good health). Recruits between 18 and 21 must provide written consent from their parents before they are allowed to enlist!

For those wounded or disabled in service of the country, Section 14 of the act requires that the government pay them a pension. Section 20 requires those entering the U.S. military to take an oath of office in which the individual says I, (name of person) do solemnly swear that I will bear trued faith and allegiance to the United States of America, and I will serve them honestly and faithfully against their enemies or opposers, whomsoever. And, I will observe and obey the orders of the President of the United States and the orders of those appointed over me according to the rules and the Articles of War.

In the following 221 years, millions of American citizens have spoken those words with their right hand raised. Sections 26, 27, and 28 were uses as the basis for the creation of the U.S. Military Academy at West Point.

All in all, there are 29 clauses in the 1802 Military Peace Establishment Act which gave broad powers to the Executive Branch on how it should run the armed forces. Jefferson’s goal was to limit the size and scope of the U.S. military and keep it as a “glorified” militia.

If Jefferson were alive today, he would be horrified at how large the D.O.D. has become. He has only to look in the mirror for its origins since it all started with a piece of legislation that he supported and encouraged his fellow Democratic-Republicans pass.

1821 Thomas Scully portrait of Thomas Jefferson at age 78 that hangs at West Point.

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