An Act for the Establishment of Troops

On September 29, 1789, the final day of its first session, the United States Congress passed “An act to recognize and adapt to the Constitution of the United States, the establishment of the troops raised under the resolves of the United States in Congress assembled.” The act legalized the existing U.S. Army, a small force inherited from the Continental Congress that had been created under the Articles of Confederation.

Infantry: Continental Army, 1779-1783, IV / H.A. Ogden; lith. by G.H. Buek & Co., N.Y. Henry Alexander Ogden, artist; c1897. Prints & Photographs Division

Although the Constitution of the United States charged Congress with raising and regulating military forces, newly elected House and Senate members delayed acting on this provision. Busy organizing the federal government and debating the location of the new capital, Congress neglected dealing with the issue of military forces until prodded by President and Commander in Chief George Washington.

On August 7, Washington reminded both Houses that the provision for troops made under the Continental Congress must be superseded by action under the new Constitution. The establishment of United States troops was an issue, the president wrote:

…the national importance and necessity of which I am deeply impressed; I mean some uniform and effective system for the Militia of the United States. It is unnecessary to offer arguments in recommendation of a measure, on which the honor, safety and well being of our Country so evidently and essentially depend: But it may not be amiss to observe that I am particularly anxious it should receive an early attention as circumstances will admit; because it is now in our power to avail ourselves of the military knowledge disseminated throughout the several States by means of the many well instructed Officers and soldiers of the late Army; a resource which is daily diminishing by deaths and other causes.

George Washington to Congress, August 7, 1789, Indian Affairs. Series 2, Letterbooks 1754-1799. Letterbook 25, April 6, 1789 – March 4, 1791. George Washington Papers. Manuscript Division

Portrait of Henry Knox, Secretary of War. Constantino Brumidi, artist; photograph of painting by Lycurgus S. Glover, c1904 [painting in the President’s room of the United States Capitol]. Detroit Publishing Company. Prints & Photographs Division

This appeal, delivered by Secretary of War Henry Knox, was not immediately acted upon. Three days later, on August 10, Washington again urged Congress to address the issue. Finally, on September 29, 1789, the House of Representatives and the Senate passed the act that officially established the army under the Constitution of the United States.

Learn More

  • The digital collection A Century of Lawmaking for a New Nation: U.S. Congressional Documents and Debates, 1774-1875 contains many resources that provide insight into the formative years of the United States government and the creation of the military. The Journals of both the House of Representatives and the Senate as well as the Annals of Congress are available in this collection.  The Annals, which cover the years 1789 to 1824, were not published contemporaneously, but were compiled between 1834 and 1856, using the best records available–primarily newspaper accounts. Speeches in the Annals are paraphrased rather than presented verbatim. Also, the American State Papers contain the legislative and executive documents of Congress during the period 1789 to 1838, including documents concerning military affairs.
  • The George Washington Papers is the largest collection of original Washington documents in the world. It encompasses Washington’s correspondence, letterbooks, commonplace books, diaries, journals, financial account books, military records, reports, and notes for the period 1741 through 1799.

Lieutenant John F. Kennedy

In October 1941, John F. Kennedy was appointed an ensign in the United States Naval Reserve, joining the staff of the Office of Naval Intelligence. After entering the Motor Torpedo Boat Squadron Training Center in Melville, Rhode Island, he was promoted to the rank of lieutenant (junior grade) in October 1942, and shortly thereafter ordered to report for duty as commanding officer of a motor torpedo boat in Panama. Prior to his departure, playwright Clare Boothe Luce, a close friend of the Kennedy family, sent the young naval officer a good luck coin that once belonged to her mother. On September 29, 1942, Kennedy wrote to Luce thanking her for sharing such an important token with him.

[John F. Kennedy, head-and-shoulders portrait,…] [between 1960-1970]. Prints & Photographs Division

I came home yesterday and Dad gave me your letter with the gold coin. The coin is now fastened to my identification tag and will be there, I hope, for the duration. I couldn’t have been more pleased. Good luck is a commodity in rather large demand these days and I feel you have given me a particularly potent bit of it.

Letter, John F. Kennedy to Clare Boothe Luce thanking the congresswoman for a good luck coin, 29 September [1942]. (Clare Boothe Luce Papers). Manuscript Division

Kennedy transferred to the Pacific theater in February 1943 and became commanding officer of PT109 in April, operating against the Japanese near the island of New Georgia in the Solomon Islands. On the night of August 1-2, Kennedy’s boat was rammed and cut in two by a Japanese destroyer. Although he was injured during the attack, Kennedy managed to locate one of his injured crew and lead him to safety; most of his crew survived. He later received the Navy and Marine Corps Medal for his heroism.

A few months later, Kennedy again wrote to Luce. With his note, he enclosed a gadget, originally intended to be a letter opener, made “from a Jap 51 cal. bullet and the steel from a fitting on my boat, part of which drifted onto an island.” He concluded his message with a word of thanks for Luce’s earlier gift:

With it goes my sincere thanks for your good-luck piece, which did service above and beyond its routine duties during a rather busy period.

John F. Kennedy to Clare Boothe Luce, October 20, 1943.Clare Boothe Luce Papers (correspondence, box 116). Manuscript Division

No stranger to the front line herself, Luce covered World War II as a journalist. She published Europe in the Spring, an anti-isolationist account of her experiences in embattled Europe, in 1940—in the early days of World War II.

Portrait of Clare Boothe Luce. Carl Van Vechten, photographer, Dec. 9, 1932. Van Vechten Collection. Prints & Photographs Division

Learn More