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Early National Period (1783–1815)

Following the American Revolution, the United States faced potential military conflict on the high seas as well as on the western frontier. The United States was a minor military power during this time, having only a modest army and navy. A traditional distrust of standing armies, combined with an exaggerated belief in the effectiveness of amateur militia, precluded the development of well-trained units and a professional officer corps. Jeffersonian leaders preferred a small army and navy, fearing that a large military establishment would involve the United States in excessive foreign wars, and potentially allow a domestic tyrant to seize power.
In the Treaty of Paris after the Revolution, the British had ceded the lands between the Appalachian Mountains and the Mississippi River to the United States, without consulting the Native Americans who lived there. Because many of the tribes had fought as allies of the British, the United States compelled tribal leaders to sign away lands in postwar treaties, and began dividing up these lands for settlement. This provoked a war in the Northwest Territory in which the U.S. forces performed poorly; the Battle of the Wabash in 1791 was the most severe defeat ever suffered by the United States at the hands of American Indians. President Washington dispatched a newly trained army to the region, which decisively defeated the Indian confederacy at the Battle of Fallen Timbers in 1795.

When revolutionary France declared war on Great Britain in 1793, the United States sought to remain neutral, but the Jay Treaty, which was favorable to Great Britain, angered the French government, which viewed it as a violation of the 1778 Treaty of Alliance. French privateers began to seize U.S. vessels, which led to an undeclared “Quasi-War” between the two nations. Fought at sea from 1798 to 1800, the United States won a string of victories in the Caribbean. George Washington was called out of retirement to head a “provisional army” in case of invasion by France, but President John Adams managed to negotiate a truce, in which France agreed to terminate the prior alliance and cease its piracy.

In 1801, the United States fought another undeclared war, this time with the city-state of Tripoli. When President Thomas Jefferson discontinued the custom of paying tribute to the Barbary States, the First Barbary War followed. After the U.S.S. Philadelphia was captured in 1803, Lieutenant Stephen Decatur led a raid which successfully burned the captured ship, preventing Tripoli from using or selling it. In 1805, after William Eaton captured the city of Derna, Tripoli agreed to a peace treaty. The other Barbary states continued to raid U.S. shipping, until the Second Barbary War in 1815 ended the practice.

By far the largest military action in which the United States engaged during this era was the War of 1812. When Great Britain and France went to war again in 1803 with renewed vigor, the United States sought to remain neutral while pursuing overseas trade. This proved difficult, and the United States finally declared war on Great Britain in 1812, the first time the U.S. had officially declared war. Not hopeful of defeating the Royal Navy, the U.S. attacked the British Empire by invading British Canada, hoping to use captured territory as a bargaining chip. The invasion of Canada was a debacle, though concurrent wars with Native Americans on the western front (Tecumseh’s War and the Creek War) were more successful. After defeating Napoleon in 1814, Great Britain was able to send troops from Europe to America, leading to the burning of Washington on 25 August 1814, although the Chesapeake Bay Campaign was thwarted at the Battle of Baltimore. A second British offensive was defeated by Andrew Jackson at the Battle of New Orleans. By this time, diplomats in Europe had worked out a peace treaty, restoring the status quo ante bellum.

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