What was the Military Peace Establishment Act (1802)?


The Military Peace Establishment Act documented and advanced a new set of laws and limits for the US military.

It was approved by Congress and signed on 16 March 1802, by President Thomas Jefferson, who was fundamental in its drafting and proposal. The Act outlined in 29 sections the rules, the number of officers and military personnel and the management of provisions that would be granted to the military overall.

The Act also directed that a corps of engineers be established and “stationed at West Point in the state of New York, and shall constitute a Military Academy” whose primary function was to train expert engineers loyal to the United States and alleviate the need to employ them from foreign countries. Jefferson also advanced the Act with political objectives in mind.

Brief History

Upon assuming the presidency in 1801 President Jefferson believed that the military was too large and noted that it was dominated by members of the Federalist party and lacked its own corps of engineers. He felt that the military overall should be reduced in size and that it needed to recruit and train its own engineers who would be stationed at a military academy. Calls for a military academy were first entertained by George Washington, Thomas Jefferson, Alexander Hamilton and others during the American Revolution. At that time Jefferson disagreed with Hamilton’s belief that such a military academy should be under the management of the federal government. As President, however, Jefferson abandoned the constitutional reservations he had held against federal control of a national military academy.

Jefferson had always felt that the “useful sciences” were important in education and in the protection of the young nation. In December 1800, while he was formulating his ideas for the military, Jefferson agreed to Secretary of War Henry Dearborn’s proposal to have only one regiment of artillerists and two regiments of infantry. Jefferson also consulted Pierre Samuel du Pont de Nemours in a letter asking, “what are the branches of science which in the present state of man, and particularly with us, should be introduced into an academy”? du Pont responded with a proposal of an all-inclusive plan of national education with primary schools, colleges, and four specialty schools – medicine, mines, social science and legislation – and “higher geometry and the sciences that it explains.” With emphasis on the importance of math and the sciences both Jefferson and du Pont maintained that the academy would be of great benefit to the nation. du Pont in his letter to Jefferson proclaimed: “No nation is in such need of canals as the United States, and most of their ports have no means of exterior defense.”

Two months after Jefferson’s inauguration, Dearborn announced that the president had “decided on the immediate establishment of a military school at West Point” and also on the appointment of chief engineer Major Jonathan Williams, grandnephew of Benjamin Franklin, to the position of superintendent, and “to direct the necessary arrangements for the commencement of the school.” Superintendent Williams said “Our leading star is not a little mathematical school, but a great national establishment… We must always bear it in mind that our officers are to be men of science, and such as will by their acquirements be entitled to the notice of learned societies.” On 01 March 1802, Congress authorised President Jefferson to organize a corps of engineers. After Jefferson signed the Military Peace Establishment Act on 16 March the United States Military Academy at West Point was soon established on the Hudson River in New York. On 04 July 1802, the US Military Academy formally opened for instruction.

At first it appeared that Jefferson’s Military Peace Establishment Act was calling for a reduction in the army’s authorised strength, but the Act resulted in the removal of few enlisted men. Jefferson and Dearborn instead began to relieve some of the most visible and partisan Federalists that were commissioned under John Adams’ presidency. Jefferson had inherited from the Adams administration a force fielded of four infantry regiments and two regiments of engineers and artillery, with 5,438 officers and men. From 01 June 1802, the newly organised army would comprise only two regiments of infantry, a single artillery regiment, and a tiny Corps of Engineers. Jefferson’s Act cut the officer’s corps by roughly one third, to a modest total of 3,289. Jefferson had wanted to do away with the standing army and the navy altogether, but in the face of repeated Federalist warnings he acquiesced by making only marginal reductions. He ordered Treasury Secretary, Albert Gallatin to spend no more than $2 million annually, divided equally between the army and the navy. Republican congressmen maintained that a substantial savings would be achieved as a result from the reorganisation. The Military Peace Establishment Act also provided for the creation of military agencies, which were to replace the quartermaster’s department. On 27 April Jefferson nominated three candidates with a background of notable service and who were promptly approved by the Senate on the 29th. The agents would be responsible for procuring and managing military stores, hospital supplies for the army, and goods for Indian annuities. At each post an army officer would function as an assistant military agent.

Jefferson also had political goals in mind with his proposed Act, wanting to add more members of the military who embraced Republican values. His intentions for the Act was not simply to reduce the military in size but to rid the Army of “detractors” and those with questionable loyalties. He intended also to bring reform to the Executive branch, replacing Federalists who at the time dominated the officer corps. Jefferson was concerned that the military was becoming an elitist organization that was assuming the same mindset found in members of the Society of the Cincinnati from the Revolutionary War era, and that the Military Peace Establishment Act would keep this tendency in check. With the military reduced to a few regiments, Jefferson maintained that much of the duty and responsibility of national security should be shouldered by the various state militias.


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