Recently by Thomas E. Woods, Jr.: Smashed Yglesias
A U.S. president has attacked another country, so it’s time for the scam artists to pull out their fake constitutional arguments in support of our dear leader. Not all of them are doing so, to be sure – in fact, it’s been rather a hoot to hear supporters of the Iraq war suddenly caterwauling about the Constitution’s restraints on the power of the president to initiate hostilities abroad. But I’m told that radio host Mark Levin criticized Ron Paul on his program the other day on the precise grounds that the congressman didn’t know what he was talking about when it came to war powers and the Constitution.
That means it’s time to lay out all the common claims, both constitutional and historical, advanced on behalf of presidential war powers, and refute them one by one.
“The president has the power to initiate hostilities without consulting Congress.”
Ever since the Korean War, Article II, Section 2 of the Constitution – which refers to the president as the “Commander in Chief of the Army and Navy of the United States” – has been interpreted this way.
But what the framers actually meant by that clause was that once war has been declared, it was the President’s responsibility as commander-in-chief to direct the war. Alexander Hamilton spoke in such terms when he said that the president, although lacking the power to declare war, would have “the direction of war when authorized or begun.” The president acting alone was authorized only to repel sudden attacks (hence the decision to withhold from him only the power to “declare” war, not to “make” war, which was thought to be a necessary emergency power in case of foreign attack).
The Framers assigned to Congress what David Gray Adler has called “senior status in a partnership with the president for the purpose of conducting foreign policy.” Congress possesses the power “to regulate Commerce with foreign Nations,” “to raise and support Armies,” to “grant Letters of Marque and Reprisal,” to “provide for the common Defense,” and even “to declare War.” Congress shares with the president the power to make treaties and to appoint ambassadors. As for the president himself, he is assigned only two powers relating to foreign affairs: he is commander-in-chief of the armed forces, and he has the power to receive ambassadors.
At the Constitutional Convention, the delegates expressly disclaimed any intention to model the American executive exactly after the British monarchy. James Wilson, for example, remarked that the powers of the British king did not constitute “a proper guide in defining the executive powers. Some of these prerogatives were of a Legislative nature. Among others that of war & peace.” Edmund Randolph likewise contended that the delegates had “no motive to be governed by the British Government as our prototype.”
To repose such foreign-policy authority in the legislative rather than the executive branch of government was a deliberate and dramatic break with the British model of government with which they were most familiar, as well as with that of other nations, where the executive branch (in effect, the monarch) possessed all such rights, including the exclusive right to declare war. The Framers of the Constitution believed that history testified to the executive’s penchant for war. As James Madison wrote to Thomas Jefferson, “The constitution supposes, what the History of all Governments demonstrates, that the Executive is the branch of power most interested in war, and most prone to it. It has accordingly with studied care vested the question of war in the Legislature.” Madison even proposed excluding the president from the negotiation of peace treaties, on the grounds that he might obstruct a settlement out of a desire to derive “Power and importance from a state of war.”
At the Constitutional Convention, Pierce Butler “was for vesting the power in the President, who will have all the requisite qualities, and will not make war but when the nation will support it.” Butler’s motion did not receive so much as a second.
James Wilson assured the Pennsylvania Ratifying Convention, “This system will not hurry us into war; it is calculated to guard against it. It will not be in the power of a single man, or a single body of men, to involve us in such distress; for the important power of declaring war is vested in the legislature at large: this declaration must be made with the concurrence of the House of Representatives: from this circumstance we may draw a certain conclusion that nothing but our interest can draw us into war.”
In Federalist #69, Alexander Hamilton explained that the president’s authority “would be nominally the same with that of the King of Great Britain, but in substance much inferior to it. It would amount to nothing more than the supreme command and direction of the military and naval forces, as first general and admiral of the confederacy; while that of the British king extends to the declaring of war, and to the raising and regulating of fleets and armies; all which by the constitution under consideration would appertain to the Legislature.”
According to John Bassett Moore, the great authority on international law who (among other credentials) occupied the first professorship of international law at Columbia University, “There can hardly be room for doubt that the framers of the constitution, when they vested in Congress the power to declare war, never imagined that they were leaving it to the executive to use the military and naval forces of the United States all over the world for the purpose of actually coercing other nations, occupying their territory, and killing their soldiers and citizens, all according to his own notions of the fitness of things, as long as he refrained from calling his action war or persisted in calling it peace.”
In conformity with this understanding, George Washington’s operations on his own authority against the Indians were confined to defensive measures, conscious as he was that the approval of Congress would be necessary for anything further. “The Constitution vests the power of declaring war with Congress,” he said, “therefore no offensive expedition of importance can be undertaken until after they have deliberated upon the subject, and authorized such a measure.”
“John Adams made war on France without consulting Congress.”
Supporters of a broad executive war power have sometimes appealed to the Quasi War with France, in the closing years of the eighteenth century, as an example of unilateral warmaking on the part of the president. Francis Wormuth, an authority on war powers and the Constitution, describes that contention as “altogether false.” John Adams “took absolutely no independent action. Congress passed a series of acts that amounted, so the Supreme Court said, to a declaration of imperfect war; and Adams complied with these statutes.” (Wormuth’s reference to the Supreme Court recalls a decision rendered in the wake of the Quasi War, in which the Court ruled that Congress could either declare war or approve hostilities by means of statutes that authorized an undeclared war. The Quasi War was an example of the latter case.)
An incident that occurred during the Quasi War throws further light on the true extent of presidential war powers. Congress authorized the president to seize vessels sailing to French ports. But President Adams, acting on his own authority and without the sanction of Congress, instructed American ships to capture vessels sailing either to or from French ports. Captain George Little, acting under the authority of Adams’ order, seized a Danish ship sailing from a French port. When Little was sued for damages, the case made its way to the Supreme Court. Chief Justice John Marshall ruled that Captain Little could indeed be sued for damages in the case. “In short,” writes war powers expert Louis Fisher in summary, “congressional policy announced in a statute necessarily prevails over inconsistent presidential orders and military actions. Presidential orders, even those issued as Commander in Chief, are subject to restrictions imposed by Congress.”
“Jefferson acted unilaterally against the Barbary pirates.”
Another incident frequently cited on behalf of a general presidential power to deploy American forces and commence hostilities involves Jefferson’s policy toward the Barbary states, which demanded protection money from governments whose ships sailed the Mediterranean. Immediately prior to Jefferson’s inauguration in 1801, Congress passed naval legislation that, among other things, provided for six frigates that “shall be officered and manned as the President of the United States may direct.” It was to this instruction and authority that Jefferson appealed when he ordered American ships to the Mediterranean. In the event of a declaration of war on the United States by the Barbary powers, these ships were to “protect our commerce & chastise their insolence – by sinking, burning or destroying their ships & Vessels wherever you shall find them.”
In late 1801, the pasha of Tripoli did declare war on the U.S. Jefferson sent a small force to the area to protect American ships and citizens against potential aggression, but insisted that he was “unauthorized by the Constitution, without the sanction of Congress, to go beyond the line of defense”; Congress alone could authorize “measures of offense also.” Thus Jefferson told Congress: “I communicate [to you] all material information on this subject, that in the exercise of this important function confided by the Constitution to the Legislature exclusively their judgment may form itself on a knowledge and consideration of every circumstance of weight.”
Thomas E. Woods, Jr. [send him mail; visit his website], a senior fellow of the Ludwig von Mises Institute, is the author of eleven books, most recently Rollback: Repealing Big Government Before the Coming Fiscal Collapse and Nullification: How to Resist Federal Tyranny in the 21st Century, as well as the New York Times bestsellers Meltdown: A Free-Market Look at Why the Stock Market Collapsed, the Economy Tanked, and Government Bailouts Will Make Things Worse and The Politically Incorrect Guide to American History. He is also the editor of five other books, including the just-released Back on the Road to Serfdom.