This dire financial situation hit the enlisted men worst of all. If you examine, for instance, William Trego’s iconic painting The March to Valley Forge, you will notice the sorry state of the infantry. Some of them are trudging through the snow barefoot. Part of this was owing to the massive scope of the war effort. The United States was a poor country undertaking an expensive war, so provisioning was always bound to be difficult. (It is hard, after all, to find shoes for soldiers in a country that does not make many shoes.) But this difficulty was compounded by the government’s lack of sufficient access to credit markets, the need for inflation with all its attendant problems, and the Continental Congress’s short-sighted policy response to that inflation.

The war effort was the single greatest reason for the nationalist movement of the 1780s, which led in turn to the Constitution. The 1770s was characterized by a revolutionary fervor — informed by a simple, virtuous type of republicanism that rings through the Declaration of Independence. That was the ethos of Patrick Henry, Richard Henry Lee, and Samuel Adams. But five years later, it was others — such as George Washington, Robert Morris, James Madison, and Alexander Hamilton — who had to reckon with the prospect of a failed revolution. They had to deal with the impossible challenge of running a government completely unequipped for the task at hand. This is the origin of our Constitution, born first and foremost of the sacrifice of the Revolutionary soldiers.

So on this Memorial Day, spare a thought for our nation’s first veterans. They were relatively few in number and are now long, long gone, so they are easily forgotten. But their sacrifice was unique — for not only did they fight the most fearsome army in the world, they did so with a government that was unable to give them the support they so desperately required.