Shirking Its War Power, the U.S. Congress Imperils Liberty
People interested in preserving the Constitutional self-government of the people of the United States often admonish us to read the Constitution. That admonition is sufficient, however only if one assumes that, when people read its words, they
- have a good sense of what the words mean;
- and are willing to do what’s needed to understand why the first generation of American patriots thought it necessary to include the provision they convey.
In recent days, President Trump’s decision to bomb Syria raised questions about the import and intent of the Article I.8.11 which vests the U.S. Congress with the power “to declare war…”. It makes sense to assume that most adult citizens of the United States have some sense of what this phrase means, if only because they have seen TV and movie portrayals of FDR’s dramatic speech, on the day after the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor. He concluded the speech by asking “that Congress declare that since the unprovoked and dastardly attack by Japan… a state of war has existed between the United States and the Japanese Empire.”
We all know that since Congress approved FDR’s request, armed forces of the United States have been engaged in large-scale wars—Korea and Vietnam come to mind—costly in terms of human lives and material resources. But WWII was the last time Congress formally declared war against other states.
So why is the U.S. Congress vested with this power? What purpose does it serve?
James Madison’s observation about this question might surprise more than a few people today, for he wrote: “Is the power of declaring war necessary? No man will answer this question in the negative. It would be superfluous, therefore, to enter into a proof of the affirmative.”
In one sense, however, we can easily grasp the truth of Madison’s observation. Human individuals and families are naturally prone to fear distrust and quarrel with one another. If peoples, states, and nations did not in some way mark the formal distinction between times of war and peace, this defect of our humanity would constantly work against the possibility of more than rudimentary human commerce and co-operation. Thus unable to expand the scope of our common defenses, humanity—already frail in comparison to many other animals—would be unlikely to survive its encounters with species that benefit from a tendency to work instinctively with herds and packs, and even (as with the apes) remarkable shrewdness.
The Declaration of war is a defiant utterance, intended to summon friends and, perhaps, give enemies reason to pause and reconsider their intent. What sense does it make that it has fallen into disuse, in recent decades, as far as we Americans are concerned? Any adequate answer would involve a lengthy excursion into parlous fields of international law and practice. It may be a positive sign that late 20th Century efforts to shift human interaction away from the default assumption of lawless war were not entirely useless.
However, Alexander Hamilton’s reference to the power to declare war raises another possibility, less positive for our self-government as a people. Noting the differences between the President of the United States and the king of Great Britain, Hamilton says:
…the one [i.e., the U.S. President] would have a right to command the military and naval forces of the nation; the other [i.e., the British King], in addition to this right, possesses that of declaring war, and of raising and regulating fleets and armies by his own authority.
When it comes to declaring war, the U.S. President is not left to his own devices. Hamilton’s discussion of the detrimental effect perpetual war has on liberty (Federalist 8) help us to think through the reason for this precaution.
Safety from external danger is the most powerful director of national conduct. Even the ardent love of liberty will, after a time, give way to its dictates. The violent destruction of life and property incident to war, the continual effort and alarm attendant on a state of continual danger, will compel nations the most attached to liberty to resort for repose and security to institutions which have a tendency to destroy their civil and political rights. To be more safe, they at length become willing to run the risk of being less free.
Hamilton’s observations focus our attention on that fact that the power to involve the nation in war isn’t all about war. It also about maintaining Constitutional self-government. That is the form of government consistent with liberty. It is also the central unalienable right highlighted in the American Declaration of Independence. Obviously, a malicious faction, bent on overturning our constitution self-government, might achieve their objective by deploying a strategy of perpetual war. If that war involved an ongoing threat right here at home, (like the threat of terrorist attacks against our schools, malls, and places of work), it would breed precisely the sense of desperate insecurity Hamilton describes as a threat to liberty.
The other day someone tweeted me to say that he hoped I was supporting President Trump. My first thought was that I owe my first allegiance to God, Right and our Constitutional Republic, not to any individual leader. When leaders and representatives act with respect for God, Right and our Constitutional Republic, I do my best to support them. When reason and common sense convince me that they are not doing so, I have no choice but to oppose their action.
Allowing our Presidents free reign to commit our armed forces to action when there is not a clear and present to the United States amounts to granting them the power to keep the nation perpetually at war. It’s plainly a bad idea. Pretending that we must police every government’s treatment of those it governs when their action does not directly target us, is a bad idea. Many self-styled conservatives scoff at everything about the United Nations. But the UN Security Council can properly be used as an outlet for our rightful indignation against monstrous actions by oppressive, dictatorial governments. Rather than immediately directing blows against such governments, on suspicion of atrocious actions, we had better gather the evidence that warrants the suspicion and “let facts be submitted to a candid world.”
As the latter quote from the Declaration shows, this was the prudence of the first generation of American patriots. It’s not a matter of avoiding foreign entanglements. It’s an imperative of prudent statecraft, for those seriously interested in sustaining our liberty as a people rightfully free. The world may, from time to time, need policing. But if and when we feel compelled to lend a hand, it should be done with the advice and consent of our elected representatives in Congress. That is no guarantee of an outcome safe for liberty. But the debate it involves allows us the chance to demand one. If we put personal loyalty to any President above our duty to do so, we give credence to the charge that we have already let our nation be sacrificed to the God of War, irreverently discarding the liberty wherewith our Creator makes us free.
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