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War: Presidents and the Constitution

Commander in Chief:
The US Constitution’s separation of powers allows Congress the power to declare war, raise and provide for the armed forces, as well as other war powers. However, 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.

The extent of executive power has been debated over the years. 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.

In 1973, the War Powers Resolution was enacted to limit the President’s power to commit U.S. military forces abroad.