John C. Calhoun has gone down in American history as the great theorist of state rights, with the associated doctrines of nullification and the concurrent majority, qualifying him as the intellectual grandfather of secession and the Confederacy. But in his early public career, Calhoun was a staunch nationalist, a supporter of the War of 1812, and one of the Republic’s most distinguished Secretaries of War. Among his significant contributions to American statecraft was a Report on the Reduction of the Army, dated December 12, 1820. The Report, written with the assistance of Generals Jacob Brown and Winfield Scott, was prepared in response to a call by the House of Representatives for a plan “for the reduction of the army to six thousand non-commissioned officers, musicians, and privates, and preserving such parts of the corps of engineers, as, in his opinion, without regard to that number, it may be for the public interest to retain; and, also, what saving of the public revenue will be produced by such an arrangement of the army as he may propose in conformity with this resolution.” Since the end of the War of 1812, Congress had pressed continually for substantial cuts in the nation’s armed forces (the U.S. Army’s authorized strength had been placed at 12,000 troops in 1815). The need for military economy and the threat posed to liberty by a standing army and blue-water navy were long-standing themes of the old-line Jeffersonians. The nation’s finances had also been seriously disrupted by the Panic of 1819, which added to the political pressure for cuts in the military budget.
In his Report, Calhoun sought to make lemonade out of a lemon by setting out the principles of an “expansible army” that should guide the administration and Congress. To decide how that army ought to be properly configured, Calhoun observed, it was necessary first to establish “the general principles on which it is conceived our military peace establishment ought to be organized.” (The core of this position, although it would have been impolitic for Calhoun to remind Congress of this fact, came from the old Federalist Party after the experience of the American Revolution and its aftermath.)
The objects for which a standing army in time of peace ought to be maintained may be comprised under two classes: those which, though they have reference to a state of war, yet are more immediately connected with its duties in peace; and those which relate immediately and solely to war. Under the first class may be enumerated, as the leading objects, the garrisoning of the forts along our Atlantic frontier in order to preserve them, and to cause the sovereignty of the United States to be respected in their immediate neighborhood, and the occupying of certain commanding posts on our inland frontier, to keep in check our savage neighbors, and to protect our newly formed and feeble settlements in that quarter.
These are, doubtless, important objects; but are by no means so essential as those which relate immediately and solely to a state of war; and, though not to be neglected wholly, ought not to have any decided influence in the organization of our peace establishment. Without, therefore, making any further remark on this point of the inquiry, I will proceed to consider the other class, on which, as it comprises the great and leading inducement to maintain in this country a regular army in peace, the prominent features of its organization ought to depend.
For Calhoun, the war for which the United States ought to be preparing was a great-power war, not conflict purely against Indian tribes. “However remote our situation from the great powers of the world, and however pacific our policy, we are, notwithstanding, liable to be involved in war; and, to resist, with success, its calamities and dangers, a standing army in peace in the present improved state of the military science, is an indispensable preparation. The opposite opinion cannot be adopted, without putting to hazard the independence and safety of the country.” For reasons of ideology and economy, many Congressmen still considered the militia to be “the great national force,” but for the militia to be effective, “every experienced officer must acknowledge, that they require the aid of regular troops. Supported by a suitable corps of trained artillerists, and by a small but well-disciplined body of infantry, they may be safely relied on to garrison our forts, and to act in field as light troops. In these services, their zeal, courage, and habit of using fire-arms, would be of great importance, and would have their full effect. To rely on them beyond this, to suppose our militia capable of meeting in the open field the regular troops of Europe, would be to resist the most obvious truth, and the whole of our experience as a nation.”
War is an art, to attain perfection in which, much time and experience, particularly for the officers, are necessary. It is true, that men of great military genius occasionally appear, who, though without experience, may, when an army is already organized and disciplined, lead it to victory; yet I know of no instance, under circumstances nearly equal, in which the greatest talents have been able, with irregular and undisciplined troops, to meet with success those regularly trained. Genius, without much experience, may command, but it cannot go much further. It cannot at once organize or discipline an army, and give it that military tone and habit which only, in the midst of imminent danger, can enable it to perform the most complex evolutions with precision and promptitude. Those qualities which essentially distinguish an army from an equal assemblage of untrained individuals, can only be acquired by the instruction of experienced officers. If they, particularly the company and regimental officers, are inexperienced, the army must remain undisciplined; in which case, the genius, and even experience of the commander, will be of little avail.
The great and leading objects, then, of a military establishment in peace, ought to be to create and perpetuate military skill and experience; so that, at all times, the country may have at its command a body of officers, sufficiently numerous, and well instructed in every branch of duty, both of the line and staff; and the organization of the army ought to be such as to enable the Government, at the commencement of hostilities, to obtain a regular force, adequate to the emergencies of the country, properly organized and prepared for actual service. It is thus only that we can be in the condition to meet the first shocks of hostilities with unyielding firmness, and to press on an enemy, while our resources are yet unexhausted.
If the country disregarded “the sound dictates of reason and experience” and neglected in peace its military establishment, it must expect a replay of the dark days of 1812-1814, when the nation nearly succumbed to Britain (although again, Calhoun was too politic to say so).
We must, with a powerful and skilful enemy, be exposed to the most distressing calamities. Not all the zeal, courage, and patriotism of our militia, unsupported by regularly trained and disciplined troops, can avert them. Without such troops, the two or three first campaigns would be worse than lost. The honor of our arms would be tarnished, and the resources of the country uselessly lavished; for, in proportion to the want of efficiency, and a proper organization, must, in actual service, be our military expenditures.
When taught by sad experience, we would be compelled to make redoubled efforts, with exhausted means, to regain those very advantages which were lost for the want of experience and skill. In addition to the immense expenditure which would then be necessary, exceeding manifold what would have been sufficient to put our peace establishment on a respectable footing, a crisis would be thus brought on of the most dangerous character. If our liberty should ever be endangered by the military power gaining the ascendency, it will be from the necessity of making those mighty and irregular efforts to retrieve our affairs, after a series of disasters, caused by the want of adequate military knowledge; just as, in our physical system, a state of the most dangerous excitement and paroxysm follows that of greatest debility and prostration. To avoid these dangerous consequences, and to prepare the country to meet a state of war, particularly at its commencement, with honor and safety, much must depend on the organization of our military peace establishment.…
Economy is certainly a very high political virtue,—intimately connected with the power and the public virtue of the community. In military operations,—which, under the best management, are so expensive, it is of the utmost importance; but, by no propriety of language, can that arrangement be called economical, which, in order that our military establishment in peace should be rather less expensive, would, regardless of the purposes for which it ought to be maintained, render it unfit to meet the dangers incident to a state of war.
The American military establishment, albeit reduced in size, should be postured so “that at the commencement of hostilities, there should be nothing either to new model or to create. The only difference, consequently, between the peace and the war formation of the army, ought to be in the increased magnitude of the latter; and the only change in passing from the former to the latter, should consist in giving to it the augmentation which will then be necessary. It is thus, and thus only, the dangerous transition from peace to war may be made without confusion or disorder; and the weakness and danger, which otherwise would be inevitable, be avoided.”
Two consequences result from this principle. First, the organization of the staff in a peace establishment ought to be such, that every branch of it should be completely formed, with such extension as the number of troops and posts occupied may render necessary; and, secondly, that the organization of the line ought, so far as practicable, to be such that, in passing from the peace to the war formation, the force may be sufficiently augmented, without adding new regiments or battalions; thus raising the war on the basis of the peace establishment, instead of creating a new army to be added to the old, as at the commencement of the late war. The next principle to be observed is, that the organization ought to be such as to induce, in time of peace, citizens of adequate talents and respectability of character to enter and remain in the military service of the country, so that the Government may have officers at its command, who, to the requisite experience, would add the public confidence. The correctness of this principle can hardly be doubted, for, surely, if it is worth having an army at all, it is worth having it well commanded.
Calhoun, then, proposed to retain the army’s staff at full strength and make no change in the number of regiments, battalions or companies. The reduction would be carried out simply by reducing the enlisted personnel of each company to half strength. The strength of the Army could be doubled by adding privates to the existing companies, and could be still further augmented by splitting the expanded companies into two, doubling the number of officers and adding new recruits. Given this approach, Calhoun calculated that the proper size of the reduced force was 6,316 NCOs, musicians, and privates, rather than the Congressional target of 6,000; which would be expansible to 11,588 without adding a single officer or company. With only 288 additional officers, the Army could expand to more than 19,000.
In other Reports and plans during his tenure, Calhoun did not neglect the “first class” of objects for a peacetime military establishment: “the garrisoning of the forts along our Atlantic frontier in order to preserve them, and to cause the sovereignty of the United States to be respected in their immediate neighborhood, and the occupying of certain commanding posts on our inland frontier, to keep in check our savage neighbors, and to protect our newly formed and feeble settlements in that quarter.” He offered plans for the fortification of strategic points along the Great Lakes, the Atlantic coast and the Gulf of Mexico. These forts were to be connected with each other and with other important industrial and agricultural centers by a network of roads and canals, to push the military frontier—and secure settlement—hundreds of miles further to the West.
To supplement harbor defenses planned in the wake of the War of 1812, Calhoun proposed a complete system of interior land and water communications. (This system, to be built in the name of national security, would have finessed the disputed constitutionality of such “internal improvements” by the Federal Government.) This system was to include a canal joining Lake Michigan with the Illinois River, providing for north and south traffic by way of the Mississippi, the mouth of which would be protected by permanent fortifications. The existing Atlantic coast highway would become a “durable and well-finished road” linking Maine and Louisiana. Rivers and bays were to be connected to form an inland waterway between Boston and Savannah. Cities along the Atlantic and in the West would be connected by strategic routes between Albany and the Great Lakes, where the Erie Canal was under construction; between the Chesapeake Bay area and the Ohio River; and between the Charleston-Augusta region and the Tennessee. These routes were already being developed piecemeal by the states and local communities, but Calhoun urged federal expenditures to complete and connect them. For the northern frontier, he additionally favored waterways to link Albany with Lake George and Lake Ontario, and a similar water connection between Pittsburgh and Lake Erie. Farther to the west he favored the road then under construction from Detroit to Ohio. In the South a military highway would connect New Orleans with the Tennessee River, while inland water channels would link the former with Mobile Bay.
Calhoun’s grand design was never implemented in its full extent, due to ideological opposition, territorial changes (the Transcontinental Treaty), and cost constraints. Congress essentially ignored his Report on Reductions and simply cut its authorizations and reduced the Army’s strength to 6,183 by eliminating regiments and reducing the number of officers. Congress also dramatically slashed funding for fortifications. But the idea of an expansible army, and the strategic logic behind it, lived on, to be given form early in the 20th century.