As the newly minted nation emerged from the Revolution, it confronted a fundamental question: could a military establishment be created that met both the ideological concerns for liberty and the necessity for internal and external security? For a constellation of reasons, under the Articles of Confederation ratified by the states in 1781, the answer was a resounding “No!” The Confederation faced severe economic problems, in part resulting from war-induced dislocations but made worse because Congress did not have the power to tax. And many people asked why the country needed an expensive peacetime preparedness program. After all, the colonists had very little mobilized military power in 1775 and yet had gone on to victory against the mighty British Empire.
Equally disturbing, in 1783–84 the climate of opinion was hostile toward regular forces because the Revolution ended on three discordant notes for civil-military relations that reanimated Radical Whig ideological fears. One crisis was the so-called Newburgh Conspiracy, with its implied threat by Continental Army officers against the Continental Congress. In this ugly affair, when Congress refused to accede to officers’ demands for half-pay for life as a postwar pension, some of the officers appeared to threaten civil supremacy. Also raising civil-military tensions was the Society of the Cincinnati, which was officially founded in the spring of 1783 to bind Continental Army officers together in a fraternal and charitable organization. To those sympathetic to Radical Whig ideology, the Society seemed anti-democratic in several ways. For example, membership was hereditary, passing to the oldest male descendent of a Continental Army officer, and thereby seemingly creating a privileged class based on birth, not merit. Finally, a mutiny occurred among some enlisted men after news of the preliminary peace arrived. Having served honorably for years under often dire conditions, the men demanded immediate discharge and payment. Nearly bankrupt and still not positive that peace was really at hand, Congress promised a financial settlement at some later date and offered the men furloughs, not discharges. Several hundred disgruntled Continental Army soldiers from Pennsylvania mutinied; they held Congress and the Pennsylvania state government hostage with fixed bayonets for several hours before the incident ended, fortunately, without bloodshed.
As a result of all these factors an outburst of antimilitarism swept the country in the Revolution’s aftermath. The Confederation government was unable to maintain anything other than a miniscule military establishment. It completely disbanded the Continental Navy and Marines, and disbanded the Continental Army, keeping only eighty men and a handful of officers in service. The military institutions founded in 1775 disappeared completely. Thus no modern regiment directly traces its lineage to the Continental Army, which was not, then, a standing regular army in the sense that the British Army was. The latter had existed in war and peace ever since 1645. On the other hand, the Continental Army was akin to Washington’s Virginia Regiment: just another in a long line of ad hoc, volunteer, expeditionary forces that disbanded when the emergency ended.