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


Abuses of Power

The separation of the power to initiate war from the power to conduct it, reflected the interplay of different values. The decision to commence war requires the most solemn, deliberative debate. It emphasizes the values of collective decision making. But the decision of how to conduct war, to determine strategy and tactics, pivots on a different value, that of efficiency. In Federalist No. 74, Hamilton adduced the basic reason for making the President Commander-in-Chief: the direction of war “most peculiarly demands those qualities which distinguish the exercise of power by a single hand.”  The power of directing a war and emphasizing the common strength “forms a usual and essential part in the definition of the executive authority.”

While the Framers rejected the Locke-Blackstone model for foreign affairs, they nevertheless drew their conception of the Commander in Chief Clause directly from English history. The office of Commander in Chief has never carried the power of war and peace. The title of Commander in Chief was introduced by King Charles I in 1639 in one of England’s wars with the Scots, and has always been used as a generic term referring to the highest officer in a particular chain of command.  With the eruption of the English Civil Wars, both the King and Parliament appointed commanders in chief in various theaters of battle.  The ranking Commander in Chief, purely a military post, was always under the command of a political superior, whether by appointed by the King, Parliament or, with the development of the cabinet system in the eighteenth century, by the secretary of war.

Commanders in Chief in the Colonies

England transplanted the title to America in the eighteenth century by appointing a number of commanders in chief and by the practice of entitling colonial governors as commanders in chief (or occasionally as vice admirals or captains general). The appointment of General Thomas Gage as Commander in Chief from 1763 to a776 caused the colonists grave concern, for he proceeded to interfere in civil affairs and acquired considerable influence over Indian relations, trade and transportation. The bitter memory of his decision to quarter troops in civilians’ homes spawned the Third Amendment to the Constitution.  These activities and others prompted the colonists in the Declaration of Independence to complain of King George III that he had “affected to render the Military Independent of and superior to the Civil Power.” 

But the colonists had no reason to fear the governors who were given the title Commander in Chief, even though they controlled the provincial force, since the colonial assemblies claimed and asserted the right to vote funds for the militia as well as to call it into service.  In fact, grievances came from the governors, who complained of the relative impotence of their positions. The colonists’ assemblies (and later, the states’) assertions of the power of the purse as a check on the Commander in Chief reflected an English practice that was instituted in the middle of the seventeenth century. By 1665, Parliament, as a means of maintaining political control of the military establishment, had inaugurated the policy of making annual appropriations lasting but one year.   This practice sharply emphasized the power of Parliament to determine the size of the army to be placed under the direction of the Commander in Chief.

The practice had a long influence, for, under its constitutional power to raise and support armies and to provide a navy, Congress acquired the right that the colonial and state assemblies had had to vote funds for the armed forces. An additional historical parallel in Article I, Section 8, Clause 13 of the Constitution provides that “no Appropriation of Money to that Use shall be for a longer Term than two Years.”  The requirement of legislative approval for the allocation of funds to raise troops underscored the principle of political superiority over military command. It also constitutes a sharp reminder that a Commander in Chief is dependent on the legislature’s willingness to give him an army to command.