The Continental Congress continued the usage of the title in 1775, when it unanimously decided to appoint George Washington as General. His commission named him “General and Commander in Chief, of the Army of the United Colonies.” He was required to comply with orders and directions from Congress, which did not hesitate to instruct the Commander in Chief on military and policy matters.
The practice of entitling the office at the apex of the military hierarchy as Commander in Chief and of the subordinating the office to a political superior, whether a King, Parliament, or Congress, had thus been firmly established for a century and a half and was thoroughly familiar to the Framers when they met in Philadelphia. Perhaps this settled historical usage accounts for the fact that there was little discussion of the Commander in Chief Clause at the Convention.
In the plan that he read to the Convention on May 29, South Carolinian Charles Pinckney introduced the title of President and proposed, “He shall, by Virtue of his Office, be Commander in Chief of the Land Forces of U.S. and Admiral of their Navy.” Presumably, Pinckney had drawn on the traditional usage of the title employed in the South Carolina Constitution of 1776, which had provided for a “president and commander in chief,” and that of 1778, which had included a provision for a “governor and commander in chief.” There was no such plan or provision in the Randolph (or Virginia) Plan, which was read to the Convention on the same day. The New Jersey Plan, introduced by William Paterson on June 15, did not conclude whether the Executive should consist of a single person or several. But it did resolve that the Executive was “to direct all military operations,” and that none of the persons composing the federal executive “shall on any occasion take command of any troops, so as personally to conduct any enterprise as General, or in other capacity.” The qualifying clause was meant to discourage a military takeover of the government. When Hamilton submitted a plan to the Convention on June 18, as taken down by Madison, he probably did not propose the title Commander in Chief, but he undoubtedly had it in mind when he said the President was “to have the direction of war when authorized or begun.” The words Commander in Chief were adopted by the Convention without debate and without explanation.
Hamilton’s speech summarized the essence of the President’s powers as Commander in Chief: when war is authorized or begun, the President is to command the military operations of American forces. He elaborated on this theme and sharply distinguished the powers of the King and those of the President in Federalist No. 69. It is a fair deduction that Hamilton’s discussion in Federalist No. 69 captured the matured conclusions of the Convention. As Commander-in-Chief, Hamilton wrote, the President’s authority would be “much inferior” to that of the British King;
“it would amount to nothing more than the supreme command and direction of the military and naval forces, as first General and admiral . . . while that of the British King extends to the declaring of war and to the raising and regulating of fleets and armies—all which by the Constitution . . . would appertain to the legislature.”