Essay 26 – Guest Essayist: Joerg Knipprath

“He has affected to render the Military independent of and superior to the Civil power.”

It was an article of faith among English and American advocates of classic republicanism of the 18th century that the military must be subject to civilian control. In the United States Constitution, that faith is manifested expressly in the President’s role as commander-in-chief of the armed forces, including of the states’ militias when called into service of the United States. Moreover, the President, with the consent of the Senate, appoints military officers. In addition, at least five clauses of Article I, Section 8, of the Constitution assign to Congress various roles in controlling the armed forces of the United States and the states’ militias. One of those, prohibiting appropriations of funds for a term longer than two years, was seen by the framers as a cornerstone of control over the military. James Madison went so far as to claim in The Federalist No. 41: “Next to the effectual establishment of the union, the best possible precaution against danger from standing armies, is a limitation of the term for which revenue may be appropriated to their support.”

A similar spirit was manifested in the Articles of Confederation. Article IX of that document gave to Congress the power to appoint the high-level officers of the land forces in the service of the “united states” and all officers of the naval forces. Congress also would make the rules and regulations for those armed forces and direct their operations.

It was the asserted refusal of the British to subordinate their military forces in the colonies to civilian control that created one of the points of conflict leading to the American revolution. Both the Virginia Constitution of 1776 and the Declaration of Independence of the thirteen “united states” denounced the king’s “affect[ing] to render the Military independent of and superior to, the Civil power.” This was not in fact the case in Great Britain itself. The king and Parliament retained control of the military. Moreover, as opponents of the Constitution of 1787 pointed out later, military appropriations by Parliament were limited to a single year, even tighter than the proposed American restriction.

Therefore, the complaint was not against English constitutional custom regarding the relationship between the civil and military authorities, which was, in fact, quite republican in nature. The last time that the military in England was not under civilian control had been during the dictatorship of Lieutenant-General Oliver Cromwell in the 1650s. Instead, the charge against George III arose out of the Americans’ experience with the British treatment of the colonial governments, particularly the events in Massachusetts Bay.

As early as 1765, the Quartering Act required any colony in which British troops were stationed to supply them with provisions and lodging. If lodging in barracks was unavailable, the soldiers might be housed in certain private buildings, typically in inns and establishments that sold alcohol. As a last resort, the troops were to be housed in unoccupied other private buildings. The colonists saw this as a form of taxation to which they had not consented through their assemblies. Moreover, this act appeared to presage the stationing of a standing peacetime army on American soil, another abomination in the eyes of conscientious republicans.

The Act was put to the test in New York. In 1766, the colony’s assembly, which had acted under its own quartering law until the beginning of 1764, refused to comply with the Act. With the 1,500 troops in New York City obliged to remain on their cramped ships, Parliament voted to suspend the assembly in 1767, though no concrete action was taken to enforce the suspension. In 1768, the assembly agreed to provide the funds demanded by the British for supplies for the troops, except the expenses for beer and rum. The Secretary of State for the Colonies, Lord Hillsborough, acting on another vote by Parliament in 1769, thereupon suspended the assembly from further meetings. Once more, no further concrete action was taken, perhaps because a newly-elected assembly soon voted the full requisition.

The events of the mid-1770s brought about increasingly stern reactions from Parliament. The Boston Tea Party, in particular, was a catalyst for British resolve to bring the colonists to heel. The Boston Port Act of 1774 required the city to pay for the tea and for losses to British officials in the Boston riots. Until those obligations were satisfied, the port was sealed off to trade. The Act was enforced by British warships and several regiments of troops. More pointedly, the commanding-in-chief of British forces in North America, General Thomas Gage, was also appointed governor.

Gage replaced Thomas Hutchinson, a prominent local businessman and published historian. Hutchinson had deep family roots in New England, and his appointment was in line with emerging British policy to appoint reliable locals to these executive positions. Like many Loyalists, Hutchinson was torn between those family roots and his loyalty to the Crown. Attacked by both sides as too closely aligned with the other, his attempt to steer a middle course failed. Much of the blame was undeserved, but at a time when the utmost political sensibility and skill were required, Hutchinson too often was tone-deaf. Sam Adams and the other radicals blamed him for, well, pretty much everything. In turn, Lord North, the prime minister, blamed him for the deteriorating political situation in Massachusetts, which led to the appointment of General Gage. In another ironic twist, Gage eventually was removed from his offices, because the British thought him to be too lenient and sympathetic to the colonials.

The Massachusetts Government Act of May 20, 1774, altered the governing charter of Massachusetts Bay. Henceforth, the governor would appoint the council, which was previously elected by the colonial assembly. He also would appoint all lower court judges and nominate judges of the superior courts. Further, no town could call a meeting of its council more than once per year without the governor’s consent. In effect, this put both the judicial and legislative functions under more direct control of Gage, who, as noted, was the military commander.

Finally, Parliament passed the Quartering Act of June 2, 1774. This allowed the governor to order troops to be housed in private buildings without legislative authorization. From the British perspective, this was a reasonable imposition. It was to be used if no funds were appropriated by the colonial assemblies to find other quarters for the British soldiers, who had been forced to camp out on Boston Common for a long period. Recent historical research has determined that the Act, like its predecessors, only permitted quartering of troops in unoccupied buildings.

The locals, however, were convinced that the Act allowed troops to be housed in occupied homes. To them, this was yet another outrage against their liberties and a violation of what they saw as their ancient rights of Englishmen. After all, both the English Petition of Right of 1628 and the Declaration of Rights of 1689 had listed quartering of soldiers in homes without the consent of the owners or authorization by law among the grievances against the Stuart kings, Charles I and James II, respectively. It is no surprise then that, on independence, Article XXVII of the Massachusetts constitution of 1780 declared: “In time of peace no soldier ought to be quartered in any house without the consent of the owner; and in time of war such quarters ought not to be made but by the civil magistrate, in a manner ordained by the legislature.” At the time, “ought” meant a duty owed and was analogous to “must.” The Third Amendment to the Constitution contains an almost verbatim restriction.

The formal subordination of the military to the civil power remains today. In addition to the constitutional sections that deal with such subordination, an additional provision seeks to maintain at least a separation of the two. Article I, Section 6, of the Constitution prohibits anyone “holding any office under the United States [from being] a member of either house during his continuance in office.” Although the matter is not resolved, it appears from a decision of the Court of Appeals for the Armed Forces, United States v. Lane, that a member of Congress could not serve as an appellate military judge. Senator Lindsey Graham was a member of the U.S. Air Force Standby Reserve, as well as a Senator, when he was appointed to serve as a military judge. The court held that a military judge was an officer of the United States, and that the “Incompatibility Clause” disqualified Graham.

However, the Lane court refused to address whether or not all service or status in the military reserve disqualified one from being a member of Congress. Presumably being an active member of the military would do so for various reasons, constitutional and practical. However, members of Congress have been officers in the reserves while simultaneously serving in their legislative capacity. Finally, the subordination principle does not apply to former military officers or to service in a non-legislative capacity, at least so long as the person is subject to removal by the president and civilian control over the military is retained.

Joerg W. Knipprath is an expert on constitutional law, and member of the Southwestern Law School faculty, Professor Knipprath has been interviewed by print and broadcast media on a number of related topics ranging from recent U.S. Supreme Court decisions to presidential succession. He has written opinion pieces and articles on business and securities law as well as constitutional issues, and has focused his more recent research on the effect of judicial review on the evolution of constitutional law. He has also spoken on business law and contemporary constitutional issues before professional and community forums, and serves as a Constituting America Fellow. Read more from Professor Knipprath at:

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