Could Congress create another Valley Forge?
A history professor once asked their class, “Who was the first president of the United States?” He posed the question near the end of class on a Friday, giving the students the weekend to think about it. It seemed like a simple question, but as the students dove into their research, they concluded that the U.S. was run by Congress from 1774 to 1789. That makes a total of 15 years when Congress acted as the legislative and executive branches of government for the young nation. During that time, Washington and his Continental endured unthinkable hardships in Valley Forge.
The issues with that form of governance were plentiful, so Alexander Hamilton, a former artillery officer and the nation’s first Secretary of the Treasury, called for a Constitutional Convention in Philadelphia in 1787. Hamilton called the Constitutional Congress to scrap America’s first constitution (the Articles of Confederation), ultimately rewriting it to include a chief executive/commander-in-chief.
The Constitutional Convention had to elect a president to preside over the meeting, and who better a candidate than the nation’s commander-in-chief during the Revolutionary War, General George Washington. Washington knew all too well how an ineffective legislature could doom the nation, having witnessed firsthand its shortcomings during the course of the war, especially during his darkest days at Valley Forge.
A harsh winter in Valley Forge
Author Tom Clavin would argue that Valley Forge, where a harrowing six months of starvation, survival, and providence led to solidifying Washington as the undisputed commander-in-chief, was the pivotal moment in the Revolutionary War.
In 2018, Clavin and co-author Bob Drury published their nonfiction work “Valley Forge,” purportedly written as a reminder that “the greatest threat Washington faced was his own Continental Congress and officers who were trying to depose him.”
“After getting kicked out of Philadelphia the Continental Congress was in disarray,” said Clavin.
On Sept. 26, 1777, the British army marched into Philadelphia and sent the Continental Congress running for their lives.
“Some of its members simply went home,” Clavin added. “Others sat near the fires in their temporary lodgings in York (PA) wringing their hands, being more followers than leaders.”
Washington had failed to keep the British from taking the capital, but his army survived, and he took refuge in Valley Forge, just 25 miles from Philadelphia. Without a proper store of supplies (that were promised by the Continental Congress), and the weather steadily worsening, the situation was desperate.
“Congress was virtually broke and diverting what little money it had to harebrained schemes, like invading Canada,” said Clavin. “Congress was hard-pressed to support anything, including a commander-in-chief telling them his army might dissolve or disperse any day.”
An analysis of Washington’s letters to the Continental Congress reveals a perilous situation during the winter of 1777 to 1778. In a letter dated Dec. 23, 1777, Washington wrote to the president of the Continental Congress, “Unless some great and capital change suddenly takes place… this Army must inevitably be reduced to one or other of these three things: starve, dissolve or disperse.”
Less than a week later, Washington added: “I would take the liberty of solliciting [sic] your most serious and constant attention; to wit, the cloathing [sic] of your Troops, and the procuring of every possible supply in your power from time to time for that end.”
But nothing came, and Washington was forced to make do with what he could. The spring thaw enabled the delivery of more supplies, but soon his troops faced another nightmare — disease. It’s estimated that 2,000 men (a sixth of the Continental Army) died from typhus, influenza and other illnesses.
If it weren’t for the steadfast leadership of Washington, Valley Forge would have been the death knell for the Continental Army, and catastrophic for the future of the U.S.
“We can’t overstate the importance of the Continental Army’s survival at Valley Forge, and their performance at the Battle of Monmouth Court House, in the salvation of the Congress,” said Clavin.
Washington not only survived at Valley Forge, but thrived, training his troops with the help of foreign generals, and engaging the British into a hard-fought draw shortly after he broke camp.
Thanks to these efforts, “The members [of Congress] could go back to their cherished Philadelphia,” according to Clavin. It was moments like these that offered the ability for the framers to adopt the Constitution in 1789, which is the foundation of U.S. governance to this day.
Congress in trying times
Valley Forge was followed by three more years of war, as well as six years as a fledgling nation until Hamilton called the Constitutional Convention in 1787. Article II, Section 2 of the United States Constitution lays out the powers for the Executive branch where it states, “The President shall be Commander in Chief of the Army and Navy of the United States, and of the Militia of the several States…”. It’s a good thing they delegated this power to an executive, as Congress continued to have trouble, including in the 1790s, when one-third of senators quit their post while in office.
But Congress would bounce back, establishing itself as a check on the president’s power. They would also pass meaningful legislation as well, such as the Equal Protection Clause in the 14th Amendment, or women’s right to vote in the 19th Amendment. Let’s not forget the Bill of Rights granted in the Constitution of 1789, which was the most progressive document on human rights at the time.
It was thought that the president would handle the vast majority of foreign affairs, and Congress would occupy itself with domestic concerns, while each provided checks and balances on the other. This has worked pretty well over the course of 230 years, with a few notable exceptions.
The first instance comes in the years preceding the Civil War when the 30th to 32nd Congress failed to compromise, which resulted in war. They further exacerbated problems after enacting the Fugitive Slave Act, one of the few pieces of legislation they actually did pass. The divided Congress saw the country split into two, and it was so largely upon party lines — Republicans in the North, and Democrats in the South.
During other points in history, Congress has received extremely low grades for effectiveness, but perhaps none eclipse the current Congress we have today. The 112th to 116th Congress are aligned with the 30th to 32nd Congress, and when looking at the numbers we see that they are among the least productive, due to the lack of legislation passed, have had a high number of shutdowns (four), and have seen extremely low approval ratings (between 12 to 23 percent).
According to The Government Affairs Institute at Georgetown University, partisan politics play a part, as both houses of Congress are currently controlled by opposite parties, and on average that leads to 27 percent legislation passed. And it certainly doesn’t look like the partisanship will dissolve anytime soon.
As learned from Valley Forge, and the need to establish the executive branch of government afterward, this is a recipe for disaster. On the flip side, the U.S. is hardly a huddled, unsupplied group of ragtag soldiers surviving in Valley Forge. Congress was unable to respond to that crisis, and like the pre-Civil War era, not responding to heightened tempers and polarizing partisanship can be rather detrimental.