Getting Started
History and Constitutional Background
Selection of the President and Term Limits
Presidential Succession
Head of State
Presidential Appointments
Presidential Responsibilities
Interaction with the Legislative Branch
Interaction with the Judicial Branch


Convention Debates on the War Power

The Framers’ decision to grant Congress the war power is illuminated by the  August 17 debates at the Constitutional Convention. An early draft reported by the Committee of Detail vested Congress with the power to “make war.” This bore sharp resemblance to the Articles of Confederation, which had placed the “sole and exclusive right and power of determining on peace and war” in the Continental Congress.  Charles Pinckney, who expected Congress to meet only once a year, objected to the plan because he thought the legislative proceedings “were too slow” to protect the security interests of the nation.  The draft also proved unsatisfactory to James Madison and Elbridge Gerry.  In a joint resolution, they moved to substitute “declare” for “make,”  “leaving to the Executive the power to repel sudden attacks.” The meaning of the motion is unmistakable. Congress was granted the power to make—that is, to initiate—war; the President, for obvious reasons, would be empowered to act immediately to repel sudden attacks without authorization from Congress. 

There was no quarrel whatever with respect to the sudden attack provision, but there was some question as to whether the substitution of “declare” for “make” would effectuate the intention of Madison and Gerry. Roger Sherman of Connecticut thought the joint motion “stood very well,” saying, “The Executive shd. Be able to repel and not commence war. George Mason of Virgina was against giving the power of war to the Executive, because he was not “to be trusted with it.”  He was for “clogging rather than facilitating war.” The textual change was approved.  Rufus King of Massachusetts furnished an explanation:  ‘make’ war might be understood to ‘conduct” it, which was an executive function,” a function reserved to the Commander-in-Chief.  

The debates and the vote on the war power make it clear that Congress along possesses the authority to initiate war. The war-making power was specifically withheld from the President; he was given only the authority to repel sudden attacks. James Wilson, who played a role only slightly less important than Madison’s in the Constitutional Convention, told the Pennsylvania ratifying convention:  “This system will not hurry us into war; it is calculated to guard against it. It will not be in the power of a single man . . . to involve us in such distress; for the important power of declaring war is vested in the legislature at large.”  Similar assurances were provided to other state ratifying conventions.

Pierce Butler of South Carolina was the lone delegate at the Constitutional Convention to advocate a presidential power to initiate war. He “was for vesting the power in the President, who will have all the requisite qualities, and will not make war but when the Nation will support it.” This drew from Elbridge Gerry the rejoinder that he “never expected to hear in a republic a motion to empower the Executive alone.” Butler’s view received no second, which was not surprising, given the fact that several Framers in the course of discussion on June 1, had emphasized their opposition to a presidential war power. The very notion, it seemed, smacked of monarchism and the royal prerogative and, as a consequence, engendered fear and resentment.  But give Butler credit for being a quick study.  By the end of the August 17 debate on the War Clause, Butler clearly understood the Framers’ decision to place the war power under legislative control, as evidenced by his motion “to give the Legislature power of peace, as they were to have that of war.” The motion, which represented an about-face on Butler’s part, drew no discussion, and it failed by a vote of 10-0. In all likelihood, it  was viewed by delegates as utterly superfluous given the understanding that the war power encompassed authority to decide on matters of war and peace. By the end of the Philadelphia Convention, then, there was no support among the delegates for a presidential power to initiate war.

Butler continued his effort to distance himself from his “one-hour” advocacy of an executive war making power. At the South Carolina ratifying convention on January 16, 1788, Butler explained to his fellow delegates the nature of the Constitutional Convention’s debate on the war power. He said, “Some gentlemen were inclined to give this power to the President; but it was objected to, as throwing into his hands the influence of a monarch, having an opportunity of involving his country in a war whenever he wished to promote her destruction.” Butler failed to mention that he had been the only advocate of a presidential war power.

Fear of a Powerful Executive

The Constitutional Convention’s rejection of the executive model for foreign affairs was attributable to two principal factors. First, the Framers were attached to republican ideology, the core principle of which is collective decision making in domestic as well as foreign affairs. Second, the founders, influenced by their own experience under King George III, whom they regarded as a tyrant, and by their understanding of history, lived in fear of a powerful executive, and were adamantly opposed to a President’s unilateral control of foreign policy. History had its claims. In Federalist No. 75, Hamilton stated: “The history of human conduct does not warrant that exalted opinion of human virtue which would make it wise in a nation to commit interests of so delicate and momentous a kind, as those which concern its intercourse with the rest of the world, to the sole disposal of . . . a President.”  In a letter to Jefferson in 1798, Madison observed,

“The constitution supposes, what the History of all Govts demonstrates, that the Ex. Is the branch of power most interested in war & most prone to it. It has accordingly with studied care, vested the question of war in the Legisl.” 

The Framers’ decision to create a radically new blueprint for the conduct of foreign affairs justified Wilson’s remark that it was incorrect to consider “the Prerogatives of the British Monarch as a proper guide in defining the Executive powers. Some of these prerogatives were of a Legislative nature. Among others that of war and peace.”