The Politics of War Powers with Sarah Burns | BRI Scholar Talks
How has the president been able to decide when the United States goes to war without Congress deliberating and declaring war? In this video, BRI Senior Teaching Fellow Tony Williams and Associate Professor of Political Science at Rochester Institute of Technology, Sarah Burns, discuss her new book, "The Politics of War Powers: The Theory and History of Presidential Unilateralism." What is the proper constitutional balance between the Congress and presidency when it comes to war powers? What might the remedy be for restoring the balance and the separation of powers?
War and Constitutional Separation of Powers
The U.S. Constitution divides war powers between the president and Congress. The delegates to the Constitutional Convention were focused on creating a government powerful enough to protect liberty, but not so powerful that it would threaten liberty. They worked carefully to craft the war powers of the new government, knowing that history was full of examples of war, so that war powers were necessary, but also of rulers who had abused the power and endangered liberty in order to make war.
BRI Scholar Talks Video Playlist
Join BRI Senior Teaching Fellow Tony Williams as he sits down with scholars to discuss historical topics throughout U.S. History.
Separation of Powers with Checks and Balances
The Founders understood the principle expressed by the British historian, Lord Acton, “All power tends to corrupt; absolute power corrupts absolutely.” Through the complex system of checks and balances developed in the U.S. Constitution, they sought to assure that no person or branch of government could exercise unrestrained power. As James Madison advocated in Federalist No. 51, ambition should counteract ambition in a fashion that advances the public good.
War: Presidents and the Constitution
While Congress has the power to declare war, raise and provide for the armed forces, as well as other war powers, the President serves as Commander in Chief of the United States military. The Founders' commitment to civilian control of the military is evident in this decision. They believed that the collective wisdom of Congress would be put to good use in determining whether to declare war, but that once declared, one individual would best be able to wage war. Like many of the President's powers, the extent of his or her power as Commander in Chief has been debated. Do these powers apply anywhere other than military situations? Does the President's role as Commander in Chief empower him to act in ways that may abridge the rights citizens who are not members of the military? John Adams and Woodrow Wilson, who signed the Alien and Sedition Acts of 1798 and Espionage Act of 1917, respectively, into law, were accused of enforcing unconstitutional restrictions on freedoms of speech and press. Abraham Lincoln, who led the nation through Civil War, was accused of numerous civil rights violations, including what many believed was an unconstitutional suspension of habeas corpus.