Conflicting Views of the Continental Army

The American Founding Fathers and the citizens of the American Colonies had a lot of conflicting views about government and governance at the time of the American Revolution. Post war, the states existed as effectively autonomous sovereign nations tied together by shared yet distinct histories. During the war, the citizens needed an army capable of defeating the British, but also feared the power that a strong standing army would hold. Throughout the revolution and post-war period, the states understood that they would need to pay the army and pay for the support they received, but no one wanted to have a central authority collect monies to pay the soldiers and mercenaries who fought against the British. Joseph Ellis captures the conflict in his book The Quartet and writes,


“The unspoken and unattractive truth was that the marginal status of the Continental Army was reassuring for the vast majority of Americans, since a robust and professional army on the British model contradict the very values it was supposedly fighting for. It had to be just strong enough to win the war, or perhaps more accurately not lose it, but not so strong as to threaten the republican goals the war was ultimately about.”


The Continental Army at points was barely holding together with minimal supplies and food. Robert Morris, a private citizen, stepped in and paid the soldiers and army himself, from his own private funds, and was viewed as a war profiteer. The Colonies sought independence, but fears of a strong standing army and a history of abuses by a central authority created fear among the colonies that hampered their efforts to build a robust force to bring them the independence they desired.


The conflict within the mindset of the colonies is a phenomenon we still see happening within American politics today. Foreign policy and healthcare are two arenas where similar conflicts still emerge and are quite visible. We want stability, positive outcomes, and assurances that we will not be bothered with inconveniences, but we are barely willing to pay for it. We expect our government to be farsighted and to operate perfectly, but we refuse to fund it fully and look for any abuse of power and any misuse of money as an example of why we cannot trust and cannot fully fund our government. Healthcare eats an enormous amount of total spending (governmental, private, and individual) in our country, but we don’t seem to actually work toward the things that make us healthier. The government spends less that 1% of total budget on foreign affairs, but people assume we spend much more. In both of these areas, spending more directly to assist health and foreign aid would reduce the problems that arise later on and become our excuses and examples of why we cannot trust government. From our founding through today it seems that our distrust of government has been less in line with reality, and more in line with our fears and the stories we tell ourselves about what we need and what values we should try to live up to as a nation.

Two Revolutions

Joseph Ellis’ book, The Quartet has an interesting subtitle: Orchestrating the Second American Revolution, 1783-1789. The small details of the history of our nation’s founding are easily forgotten, but after the American revolution, the colonies existed as mostly independent entities bound by the Articles of Confederation. The Constitution, which still governs our land, was not adopted at the time of the Revolutionary War, and Ellis calls its adoption The Second American Revolution.


Ellis describes the two revolutions at the start of our Nation’s independent history this way, “The first American Revolution Achieved Independence. … The Second American Revolution modified the republican framework existent in the states in order to create a nation sized republic.” The story of the adoption of our constitution is a story of viewing political power and American nationhood in a new light. It required shifting people’s views of the possible and convincing the citizens of each state that they would be better off with a stronger national government to support the independent state governments. At a time when everyone thought of politics as local politics, barely extending beyond the state capital, the Second Revolution was an attempt to convince all of the former British Colonies that they should consider what took place in other colonies as relevant to their own political lives and allow a national government to have sovereignty over their local governments.


Ellis continues, “The first phase of the American Revolution was about the rejection of political power; the second phase was about controlling it.” Bringing about the second revolution was not an easy task. American’s had just revolted against a strong central government led by a powerful leader. Convincing the citizens of Maine or Georgia that a political power located far away should have influence and say over the direction of the state was reminiscent of the type of power and government they had recently rejected. The thinking involved in bringing the American Constitution into being was truly revolutionary, and required skillful politics, careful persuasion, and dynamic leadership from a handful of America’s most beloved founding fathers to change the minds and opinions of a diverse group of citizens across the new nation.

Bringing a Nation Into Being

Joseph Ellis looks at the founding of the nation in stark clarity in his book The Quartet: Orchestrating the Second American Revolution, 1783-1789. Ellis cuts through the ideas and stories we tell of our nation’s founding, and looks at the most pivotal actors that worked to establish a strong constitutional government in the United States.


Ellis begins by explaining that a national government was not something that our founding fathers were very interested in and that most people thought of themselves primarily as statesmen (as Virginians or Pennsylvanians) rather than as Americans. He writes, “creating a national government was the last thing on the minds of American revolutionaries, since such a distant source of political power embodied all the tyrannical tendencies that patriotic Americans believed they were rebelling against.”


Following the Revolutionary War, the United States operated more or less as independent states, loosely bound by the Articles of Confederation. Ellis suggests that four men in particular were crucial for bringing about a “second revolution” and forming a new more powerful central government across the states. George Washington, Alexander Hamilton, James Madison, and John Jay are the four founding fathers that Ellis attributes the birth of our nation to. Without their coordinated actions, Ellis argues, a new Constitution could not have come into being and the idea of “America” would have never taken hold.


Our founding fathers were not a unified group of wise sages who knew exactly what was needed to spark a political revolution to bring freedom, prosperity, innovation, and a new nation into being. Our founding fathers were a diverse group who argued constantly and could hardly agree on how the states should relate to one another. The quartet that Ellis identified were instrumental in forming the idea that the states should operate in unison with a strong overarching government, something that felt dangerous given the revolution against central authority that had just been raged. Washington, a Virginian, was the public face of a new government, leading the way to convince the south that the ideas of Hamilton, Madison, and Jay were sound. Hamilton, Madison, and Jay engaged in an effort to convince the states that a unified constitution would be valuable, prosperous, and fair with the writing the Federalist Papers. Their arguments evolved over time and existed as an exploration of their constitutional idea as much as a clearly defined goal for a new nation. Without the actions of these four, the nation may have never gotten going. They created the idea of America and brought about the system of government that we know today.


It is important to remember how close things came to not happening. The stories we tell ourselves about our founding make it seem as thought America was destined to become a great nation. We talk about our founding fathers as though they were a unified group of impossibly wise leaders, but the reality was that they were political amateurs, fearful of dissent and tyranny and unsure about a national government to bring them together. Our politics today calls back the founding fathers and argues about their intents, but it is clear from reading Ellis’ book that even our founding fathers themselves were not clear about their own intent.