War of Independence (detail of Boston massacre print)

A New Commander in Chief

In 1789, a new constitution delineated structures and functions of a federal government, and strengthened the foundation for a government of law. After spirited public debate, and an agreement to add amendments protecting individuals’ liberties and states’ rights, eleven states ratified the Constitution in 1787–88; the last two joined them in 1789 and 1790. On April 30, 1789, George Washington became the nation’s first president.

Under the Constitution, the president is commander in chief of the army and navy. Washington initially saw his role as that of a general: he took to the field with troops when farmers in western Pennsylvania challenged a federal tax on whiskey. But ultimately he established the convention of commanding the military as a civilian.


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