"You talk, my good sir, of employing influence to appease the present tumults in Massachusetts. I know not where that influence is to be found, or, if attainable, that it would be a proper remedy for the disorders. Influence is not government. Let us have a government by which our lives, liberties, and properties will be secured, or let us know the worst at once." (George Washington, referencing Shays’ Rebellion in a letter to Light-Horse Harry Lee)
The history of the United States is, to a large extent, a history of armed conflict. The nation was first forged in war, a tough fight for independence against one of the world’s largest empires, and that fight would resume less than a generation later with the War of 1812.
Then, there were constant low-level conflicts with Native Americans as the nation expanded westwards, and occasionally, the country engaged in full-scale war against the Sioux, Comanche, and Apache. The country also fought the Mexican-American War, starting in 1846, and the bloody Civil War starting in 1861. These conflicts helped the United States establish its modern boundaries and what kind of nation it would be.
In the 20th century, the United States came into its own as a global power through even more armed conflicts, including World War I, World War II, the Korean War, the Vietnam War, and campaigns against several Middle Eastern nations. While not all of these wars were won, they did establish the nation as a superpower, a status America retains today.
However, there have been many other conflicts, some small, some considerable, that helped shape the country and its foreign policy, even as they have been overlooked. While every student knows of the Vietnam War, few are familiar with the Sumatran Expeditions, and while America’s involvement in the Middle East is constantly in today’s headlines, the battles against the Barbary pirates are widely forgotten.
In fact, there were conflicts in the 1780s and 1790s that tested the territorial integrity of the country at home. Shays’ Rebellion consisted of men who had just years earlier participated in the American Revolution and were not afraid to break down a government they did not like. Indeed, many of them reveled in it.
The Revolutionary War won America her independence, but the nation still had states and local populations with varying interests. When Massachusetts enacted laws that Daniel Shays and others didn’t like, the rebels had no qualms about taking up arms, and while the rebellion was eventually put down, changes were made to prevent similar problems in the future.
A few years later, in the wake of Secretary of the Treasury Alexander Hamilton implementing a tax on whiskey, violence broke out in 1794 among the opponents of the tax, who numbered in the thousands. President Washington himself felt compelled to raise a militia force and personally lead it to deal with the rebels - the only time an American president has led soldiers in the field.
Ultimately, no pitched battle took place once the militia was marched into western Pennsylvania, but dozens were arrested and tried for treason in the wake of the episode. While the breaking up of the revolt was praised by most Americans, some continued to oppose the tax until Jefferson’s administration repealed it upon coming to power in 1801.
Early America’s Forgotten Wars: The History and Legacy of the Overlooked Conflicts that Helped Shape the Young Nation looks at some of the fighting the nation did in the wake of the Revolution against domestic and foreign enemies as it strove to attain and maintain its sovereignty and legitimacy.