Thank God for John C. Calhoun!!!!

WARNING!!! This post is not about states’ rights.

John C. Calhoun is one of the most infamous “war hawks” in American history. On the eve of the War of 1812, Calhoun noted that a second war for the protection of American liberties was not necessary, but that it would be a positive thing. He believed a second war would energize another generation of American patriots. What amazing rhetoric for someone that never stood against a British line of fire. However, following the War of 1812, Calhoun had new sentiments about America’s “defenses.” Disgust.

Mismanagement by the War department throughout the war disgusted Calhoun. From this conflict Calhoun learned of the ineffectiveness of the American military. When the American voting populous elected James Monroe President in 1817, he chose John C. Calhoun as his Secretary of War. As Monroe’s War Secretary, Calhoun sought to reform the American military. [1]

calhounI chose this portrait of Calhoun because it shows him a more glorious pose, rather than his inglorious photos with neck beard and crazy hair. His eyes have the look of intent. His face is stern and strong. Perhaps the look of certainty? His hand, pointing to a position on a map. This Charles Bird King portrait of Calhoun, painted during his tenure as Secretary of War,  displays the military vision of Calhoun.

The description of the portrait reads:

In this portrait by Charles Bird King, John C. Calhoun stares intently out of the frame, entreating the viewer to look to where he points.  He holds a map showing the northeast corner of the new state of Missouri and nearby territories.  The map also includes the “Road to Chariton,” marked by a diagonal red line. At the spot on the map where Calhoun’s finger points, the Army built the territory’s first fort. Depicted at the beginning of a long career in government, Calhoun was Secretary of War under President James Monroe in 1817, and encouraged the Army’s Corps of Engineers to survey and explore the Western territories. [2]

The Jeffersonian view that permeated the formation of the American military in the first decade of the 19th century maintained that the army should be skeleton in form. A thin, regular troop force that made up the core of the American army. This plan extended to the navy as well. These forces served primarily in the defensive functions of keeping order. If an attack occurred, the ranks of the armed forces could be swelled by the “citizen soldier.’ The goal was that in a time of war, the army would be a large formidable force made up of citizen soldiers, with the regular army at its core. Due to a number of factors ranging from the ineptness of militia to the absence of a trained, professional officer corps., the American “Jeffersonian” military proved ineffective. [3]

Learning from the failures of the war of 1812, Calhoun sought to revitalize the American military standard. Calhoun advocated what Lawrence D. Cress called the “moderate Whig” intellectual tradition towards military. This tradition called for a regular army (as in standing not skeletal) that remained in full Parliamentary control. Or in the case of America, the army would be under Congressional control. Many felt that a well trained and disciplined professional army performed better in combat and in societal functions. This plan further called for the training and maintenance of a professional officer corps. to accommodate the increase in army size.

Calhoun presented his “expansible army” plan in December of 1820. He argued that if any reduction of armed forces took place, that it should be refined to the ranks of the regulars but not the officers, thus maintaining a strong element of leadership. This can be interpreted as a highlight in American military history as it dictates a progression towards standardization. But more importantly, this plan demonstrates a Civil relationship, between government and military, never before achieved in such a manner by the United States.

According to William Skelton,  historians such as Cress and Samuel Huntington claim that Congress rejected Calhoun’s plan and thus the radical Whig (Jeffersonian) tradition  prevailed. Skelton believes this argument is wrong. He states that Congress accepted the basic features of Calhoun’s plan in a diluted way. Congress passed a reduction act that did downsize the army. However, the reduction ratios tell another story. Congress reduced the Army’s enlisted strength by over one-half (from 11,709 to 5,586) but Congress only reduced the officers corps by one fifth (from 680 to 540). Calhoun walked away from the event satisfied. In 1838 Congress enlarged the size of the army. Slowly, the prevailing opinion of the military saw drastic change. In 1844, Chairman of the House Committee on Military Affairs Hamilton Fish expressed the prevailing view when he explained that the Army:

“is organized on the principle of being rather being the ‘skeleton of the army,’ than ‘the army’ itself; and of being small but capable of sudden and great enlargement and perfection. With an unusual proportion of officer to the number of men, its enlargement may be made efficient and thorough in an incredible short time.” [4]

Fish’s quote demonstrates a couple of things. One, it shows that the government fully believes that the well trained officer staff could train recruits efficiently at fast rates. This allows the government to maintain a level of professionalism in the army, without maintaining a large standing army. This moderation between the “Radical” and “Moderate Whig” traditions became the basis of the American fighting force for quite some time. Fish also displays the amount of civil control the government has over the army. The ability to raise and train the officer staff through congressional appointments and recommendations to West Point gave Government the power over officers.

In 1846 the Army saw another enlargement as America transitioned into a Western military power with efficient soldiers and a well trained class of officers. Under the Presidency of James K. Polk, the American military structure reached Clausewitzian fruition.  The vehicle of military progress, set in motion in large part by John C. Calhoun, finally emerged to fulfill America’s new military strategy…..expansion.

  1. (National Portrait Gallery. Smithsonian Institute)
  3. Russel Frank Weigley. The American Way of War: A History of the United States Military Strategy and Policy.
  4. William B. Skelton. Samuel P. Huntington and the Roots of the American Military Tradition, The Journal of Military History.

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