Constitutional War Power: The Founders’ Framework
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Constitutional War Power: The Founders’ Framework


Lord Acton had the wonderful aphorism, “Power
tends to corrupt, and absolute power corrupts absolutely.” So when I think of government, I think you’ve
got a kind of a double level danger there, ’cause you’re taking people who are themselves
flawed, and in any situation will exercise those flaws, and then you’re putting them
into a sense, a position in which they have all this power around them. (music) What our founders, you know, if you look at
kind of the American Revolution, it was very much a focus on limiting what they saw as
dangerous power. And they were focused on the power of the
king, because Great Britain at, even though it had a parliament, the king still had extraordinary
power. Many of the founders pointed out the fact
that he could both d-, you know, decide to go to war and direct those wars. So the founders at the Constitutional Convention
were very explicit. They wanted to split that apart. You find in the debates, I mean again and
again, references to the problems of the king. I mean, even Alexander Hamilton, I mean somebody
who came very strongly for executive power, is one who afterwards said, “Look, the, you
know, the king had the power to declare war as well as manage the war. President has a much more limited power. The president only, you know, as commander-in-chief,
only directs military operations. The president doesn’t make these other decisions.” You know, where people are talking about the
oppression that came from the king, being able to put their countries into unjust wars. That’s where the founders wanted to say no. They wanted to check the power of war. (music) By restricting the k-, you know, the power
of the executive, you know, they saw an opportunity to empower the, the legislature, and in certain
ways, to protect the legislature as well from some of these corrupting influences. Thomas Jefferson talked about, “We checked,
you know, the danger of the dogs of war by transferring the power who sets them loose.” So that notion that somebody else is going
to hold those reins. And it wouldn’t be one person. It wouldn’t even be just one body of people. You had to get both houses of Congress. And then that goes to the president. And to me, that’s the real issue in terms
of war powers as well as anything else, which is you want to be very, very careful handing
this power over to people because it is seductive. You know, people come into your office and
say, “Why don’t you do X? Why don’t you do Y? Why don’t you do … ” You know, and you,
that feeling that, “I can do this. I can achieve something.” So when they created the American Republic,
they consciously decided to limit the power of any individual actor. And they also wanted to make sure they checked
each other, they balanced each other. And that applies to international affairs
as well as domestic. They were, you know, they looked at what had
happened. They’d seen the abuses. They didn’t want that to happen in the United
States. (music)

2 Comments

  • Bob Beckel

    Does the War Powers Act prevent a president from defending himself against
    an internal coup? Imagine Barack Obama smuggling terrorists and weapons
    into the US to effect a coup on the next administration. How does a duly
    elected president respond to the discovery of such a conspiracy?

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