America’s Founders understood that their Revolution possessed the potential not only to advance freedom but also to place it in peril. Armed conflict could be necessary, yet its effects could be pernicious.
As James Madison warned, “of all the enemies to public liberty war is, perhaps, the most to be dreaded, because it comprises and develops the germ of every other.” International strife was “the parent of armies,” the costly institutions that spawned “debts and taxes” and joined with them to constitute “the known instruments for bringing the many under the domination of the few” (James Madison, “Political Observations,” April 20, 1795).
In addition, according to Madison, wars tended to place too much authority in the hands of chief executives, who gained new powers and new opportunities to dole out offices and honors. Legislatures grew weaker and common citizens grew less attentive to their rights. Since war could do so much to increase the power of government, it could also do much to decrease the liberty of individuals.
Yet the purpose of American government, the Declaration of Independence made clear, was to secure individual liberty. Famous are the “self-evident” “truths” that “all men are created equal, with certain inalienable rights,” including “life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness.” Less often quoted are the important words that follow: “to secure these rights, governments are instituted among men.” No wonder the central dilemma of the War for Independence—how to construct a military powerful enough to defeat (or at least outlast) the army and navy of Great Britain, at the time the world’s greatest power, but not so powerful to pose a threat to the liberty for which the Revolution was fought—resulted in checks on the American military’s authority and a balance between its capacity for decisive action and its accountability to civilian control.
Well aware that, throughout history, military men such as Rome’s Julius Caesar and England’s Oliver Cromwell had promised to fight for representative government but then seized power for themselves, members of the Continental Congress turned to George Washington, a delegate from Virginia, to lead the Continental Army. While many factors made him an attractive candidate for the post, not to be overlooked is the fact that, after gaining military experience during the French and Indian War, he had spent the bulk of his adult life not in uniform but as a civilian legislator in the House of Burgesses. The selection of Washington did much to establish in America a tradition of military deference to civilian political leaders, with whom he engaged in candid correspondence but whose authority he never questioned.
After the war, however, former officers of the army would come to have a great deal of influence. They were prominent among the group of elected officials and other statesmen who, in 1787, supported replacing the Articles of Confederation with the Constitution. Given their memories of wartime government under the Articles—the lack of direction, command, and control; the inability to secure adequate revenue; the paucity of pay and provisions—it is no wonder that supporters of a more powerful central government included Washington, who acquiesced to James Madison’s request that he preside over the Constitutional Convention. Washington had defied Old World expectations by giving up power as commander in chief when the war ended—an act that King George III reportedly said would make him “the world’s greatest man”—so he lent legitimacy to the proceedings and reassured skeptical Americans that the new constitution would not be a threat to liberty. Yet the Constitution granted to the central government significant new powers, especially in external affairs. Independent of the states, that new central government could tax, raise and maintain an army, declare war, and ratify treaties. These powers were distributed among branches of the federal government. For example, while the new president (whom everyone seemed to know would be Washington) was commander in chief, Congress had the power to declare war. While the president could negotiate treaties with other nations, it was the Senate that ratified them and the House of Representatives that appropriated any funds needed to bring them into effect. Powers were divided not only among branches of the national government but also between the national government and the states.
Thomas Jefferson, in his 1801 inaugural address, summed up the arrangement as a balance between state governments working as “the most competent administrations of our domestic concerns” and “the General government in its whole constitutional vigor, as the sheet anchor of our peace at home, and safety abroad” (Thomas Jefferson, “First Inaugural Address,” March 4, 1801).
But as the Anti-Federalists of the 1780s had predicted, the national government did not always appear to abide by the Constitution—especially in times of international strife. One of the issues that galvanized Jefferson’s supporters in the election of 1800 was President John Adams’s 1798 signing of the Sedition Act, a measure empowering the government to jail for up to two years anyone who “shall write, print, utter or publish…false, scandalous, and malicious” criticism of the president, Congress, or the laws of the United States (An Act in Addition to the Act, Entitled “An Act for the Punishment of Certain Crimes Against the United States,” 1798). Passed during the undeclared Quasi-War with France, proponents of the measure presented it as a way to strengthen America against foreign and domestic enemies.
Jefferson and other opponents of the Sedition Act cast it as a clear violation of the First Amendment, ratified only seven years earlier, which promised that “Congress shall make no law…abridging the freedom of speech, or of the press; or the right of the people peaceably to assemble, and to petition the Government for a redress of grievances” (The United States Constitution, First Amendment).
Once in office, however, Jefferson also proved himself capable of expanding or exceeding the powers granted to the government in the Constitution in order to pursue foreign policy goals. His 1807-1809 embargo of all international trade—a scheme envisioned as an exercise in the “peaceable coercion” of Great Britain and France, each of which challenged America’s neutrality during the Napoleonic Wars—represented a very broad interpretation of Congress’s Article I, Section 8 power “to regulate Commerce with foreign Nations.” Jefferson even privately confessed that the 1803 Louisiana Purchase violated the Constitution, which gave the national government no specific power to add new territory to the United States. But the measure, which doubled America’s size and preempted the presence on its western frontier of a strong European rival, struck him as a necessary means to reduce the possibility of war.
Despite Jefferson’s efforts to preserve peace, his successor, President Madison, found that circumstances made armed conflict difficult to resist. The War of 1812 against Great Britain led to nearly calamitous consequences for the United States, which endured not only invasion but also internal dissent escalating to calls for the secession of New England. Yet Madison proved himself almost unique among wartime presidents.
Even after British troops burned the Executive Mansion (known as the White House after its reconstruction) and other government buildings in the District of Columbia, he took no actions that permanently expanded government power or even temporarily compromised civil liberty.
Subsequent conflicts, especially beginning with the Civil War, did much to expand the size, scope, and power of the national government. In 1860 there were 16,000 men in the U.S. Army and the federal government had a budget of $63 million. Four years later, more than a million men wore the blue uniform of the Union and the budget had surged to $1.2 billion. In an attempt to further the war effort, President Abraham Lincoln suspended habeas corpus without congressional authorization, imposed the first federal income tax, oversaw the first national draft, authorized the seizure of private property, and led the government not only to become, for the first time, the economy’s single largest purchaser but also the owner and operator of its own manufacturing facilities. As would be the case after World War I, World War II, and the Cold War, after 1865 the government relinquished some but not all of its new powers and reduced the size of the military from wartime highs. In the case of the Union Army, the demobilization was quick and sweeping, as by 1875, the U.S. Army had 24,031 enlisted men and 1,540 officers, down from a high of 1.3 million men during the Civil War.
Each new war brought new challenges to civil liberty. Woodrow Wilson’s Espionage Act of 1917 led to hundreds of arrests and his Sedition Act of 1918 criminalized even spoken criticism of America’s involvement in World War I. One Hollywood producer was sentenced to ten years in jail for a film deemed to stir ill feelings toward Britain, a U.S. ally. Titled “The Spirit of ’76,” it concerned the American Revolution. Little more than two decades later, President Franklin Roosevelt signed off on the forced internment of more than 100,000 men, women, and children of Japanese ancestry, the majority of whom were U.S. citizens. It was an example of fear-fueled intolerance that makes the “McCarthyism” of the early Cold War seem mild by comparison. Each of these conflicts relied, in part, on the forced conscription of Americans into the military.
Twentieth century wars also resulted in infringements of property rights and economic liberty.
The First World War occasioned the passage of the National Defense Act, which forced manufacturers to sell their products to the government at prices determined by the Secretary of War, while the Army Appropriations Act empowered the president to seize control of transportation networks. Meanwhile, the Lever Act gave him effective control over the nation’s food and fuel production. Government restrictions of citizens’ economic freedoms were even greater in World War II, when agencies such as the Office of Price Administration and the Office of Economic Stabilization imposed limits on wages, prices, profits, and consumption. In April 1952, during the Korean War, President Harry Truman even went so far as to confiscate steel mills from their owners—an action that the Supreme Court ruled unconstitutional a few months later.
While wars during the nineteenth century focused on the defense, expansion, or consolidation of America’s North American territory, later conflicts, beginning with Spanish-American War, took the U.S. military far from home in engagements that reflected America’s growing power to influence other nations. The result was significant controversy about the rightful role and responsibility of the United States abroad. From at least the time of the Spanish-American War, people questioned whether it was it appropriate to send young men into battle to make the world safe for democracy if their opponents posed no clear threat to the United States. Was it fair to order American military personnel to risk their lives in conflicts designed to attempt to secure liberty for people of other nations?
These questions gained increased resonance in the years after World War II. As the United States emerged as a global superpower, presidents more frequently sent into combat servicemen without the sanction of congressional declarations of war.
As the Cold War with the Soviet Union drew the United States into regional conflicts such as Korea and Vietnam—and as the pace of warfare accelerated with the advent of air power and intercontinental ballistic missiles armed with nuclear weapons—the balance of war powers tilted dramatically toward the White House. This allowed the president to take decisive action, and Congress still retained its constitutional power to control military funding, but it became much easier than the Framers ever imagined to commit the United States to armed conflict. An attempt to blunt the executive’s ability to act unilaterally came in the form of the 1973 War Powers Resolution. With majorities of over two-thirds, both houses of Congress overrode President Richard Nixon’s veto of the measure, which requires the president to notify Congress within 48 hours of sending troops into combat and limits to 90 days military engagements not sanctioned by congressional authorization or a declaration of war. Yet President Nixon and every subsequent president questioned the constitutionality of the measure, which in practice has proven less enforceable than a constitutional amendment.
One result of these developments is that, for the past several decades, “war” has lost its precision as a term to describe government action.
The United States waged wars not only in places such as Korea, Vietnam, Panama, Iraq, and Afghanistan but also began to deploy the rhetoric of war against more amorphous enemies. Like earlier conflicts, wars against poverty and illegal drugs raised questions about the propriety, under certain circumstances, of curtailing civil and economic liberties in order to achieve collective goals. Advances in intelligence-gathering technology and threats to the United States from terrorists not associated with foreign governments seem likely to make these questions even more complicated and controversial in the twenty-first century. As James Madison understood, the government’s most basic responsibility was to use force, if necessary, to defend Americans against threats to their liberty. Providing government with such power, however, might itself pose a threat to liberty.