The President shall be Commander in Chief of the Army and Navy of the United States, and of the Militia of the several States, when called into the actual Service of the United States; he may require the Opinion, in writing, of the principal Officer in each of the executive Departments, upon any Subject relating to the Duties of their respective Offices, and he shall have Power to grant Reprieves and Pardons for Offences against the United States, except in Cases of Impeachment.
Article II, Section 2, Clause 1
1: The President shall be Commander in Chief of the Army and Navy of the United States, and of the Militia of the several States, when called into the actual Service of the United States; he may require the Opinion, in writing, of the principal Officer in each of the executive Departments, upon any Subject relating to the Duties of their respective Offices, and he shall have Power to grant Reprieves and Pardons for Offences against the United States, except in Cases of Impeachment.
The President of the United States may choose to be addressed merely as “Mr. President,” but another title more accurately conveys the tremendous power and prestige associated with the modern position; that of “Commander in Chief.” This fact might have surprised the nation’s founders. They did not intend for the position of military leader to be the most important function of the chief executive. The title itself is grouped in a clause which also instructs the President to form a cabinet and issue pardons. Congress, not the President, received the more substantial powers of declaring war and raising an army. Yet in modern times, it is the President who firmly controls the strongest standing military in the world, with the ability to act on a global scale without consulting the legislative branch of government. Congress has not declared war since the 1940s, but U.S. Presidents have deployed millions of soldiers into dozens of military engagements. The meaning of Article II, Section 2, Clause 1 has not changed, but its broad mandate and the increased military might of the United States has resulted in the development of a powerful executive that the framers of the Constitution could scarcely have envisioned.
During the drafting of the Constitution, few objected to giving the President supreme command over the military, especially once the principle of creating a unitary executive had been agreed upon. The bloody struggle for independence from Britain and the problems involved in coordinating the efforts of independent-minded States had taught America’s founders the importance of having at times a single decision-maker, able to marshal the resources of the entire country in its common defense. Many of the existing State constitutions already placed their governor or chief executive in charge of the militia. John Jay, writing in Federalist No. 4, argued that the separate armies of the States, “in a proper line of subordination to the Chief Magistrate,” would perform far more effectively than a divided military. However, in keeping with the principle of checks and balances, the unquestioned military authority of the executive branch was mitigated by legislature. Crucially, the Commander in Chief only performed his duties “when called into the actual Service of the United States.” Alexander Hamilton believed that this provision, coupled with the lack of any significant standing army or navy, meant the President would serve merely as “first General and Admiral of the confederacy.” Except in cases of national defense, Congress would have to declare war and provide funds in order for the President to effectively exercise his authority as Commander in Chief. Civilian control of the military was thus firmly established and divided between the executive and the legislature, while also establishing a clear chain of command. The President would have very strong powers as Commander in Chief during wartime, but otherwise would depend on the approval and cooperation of Congress.
In upholding the Constitution, the President of the United States, in his capacity as Commander in Chief, swears to provide for the “common defense.” While it would appear at first glance that the framers intended for the President to act in this capacity only when the United States was attacked or when authorized by Congress, the intricacies of international conflict and diplomacy often complicated which branch of government held the edge in war powers. When pirates attacked American merchant ships in the early 1800s, President Jefferson responded by arming merchant ships and invading Tripoli. Congress authorized the measure, but did not declare war. Hamilton insisted that “when a foreign nation declares…war upon the United States…any declaration on the part of Congress is nugatory; it is at least unnecessary.” Such an interpretation suggested that the Commander in Chief could deploy the military in any way he saw fit, if America had been attacked first. Nearly fifty years later, the creation of a standing army allowed President Polk to initiate the Mexican-American War. American forces ordered close to the disputed boundary with Mexico fought a border skirmish, and Congress was forced to support the actions of United States troops already committed to battle. The position of Commander in Chief proved to be the decisive foreign policy tool for a President willing to wield it.
The balance of power would continue to shift back and forth between Congress and the President, until decidedly moving in favor of the executive branch during the Cold War. In order to compete with the Soviet Union, Congress approved huge increases in military spending while simultaneously differing to a series of strong Presidents on foreign and military policy. The United States, now with military commitments around the world, needed a Commander in Chief willing to exercise American power swiftly, without constant consultation with Congress. During the Korean War, President Truman created a precedent by specifically citing his position as Commander in Chief as sufficient authority for deploying troops to the Korean peninsula. By further classifying the deployment as a “police action,” Truman avoided seeking the permission of Congress. Like the Congress of Polk’s day, the legislature was thus faced with the uncomfortable decision of either supporting the President or cutting funding for troops already in combat. In most subsequent military actions, including Vietnam and the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, Congress has passed bills authorizing the use of military force. Other times, such as President Reagan’s invasion of Lebanon or President Obama’s bombing of Libya, the executive branch has relied solely on the Commander and Chief clause. Under this interpretation, which continues to hold sway, the President can unilaterally use the military as he or she sees fit when American interests are at stake.
The framers rightly predicted that the country would need an executive strong enough to respond to the volatile emergencies of war, but they could not have foreseen the future success and growth of their fragile republic. The powers of the President thus expanded exponentially along with America’s military and international commitments. At the same time, Congress diminished its own war making powers, first by creating a standing military force and then by passing resolutions authorizing indefinite and nearly unlimited military action. The American people should be grateful that the framers designed a flexible system which allowed for a strong Commander in Chief in times of crisis, but they should also be mindful of the restrictions originally placed on the President, and the vital war-time responsibilities given to Congress.
Andrew Baskin is a researcher at the Constitutional Sources Project (www.ConSource.org). His past projects have focused on the evolving nature of war powers in the United States. He graduated with a B.A. in history from Washington University in St. Louis.