Two-hundred and twenty years ago this week, the patriots who had stuck through the long process of drafting a Constitution for the new United States finally approved the document. The primary purpose of their creation was, in the language of their time, to “chain the dogs of war.”
The American colonies has suffered the cruel fates of wars plotted and pursued by the royal families of distant Europe, and they set about to assure that the nation they had freed from the grip of British imperialism would not, itself, be subjected to the imperial whims of presidents who might someday imagine themselves to be kings.
“The executive should be able to repel and not to commence war,” explained Roger Sherman, a delegate to the Constitutional Convention from Connecticut, who moved to make clear the intent of the founders that nothing in their exposition of the powers of the executive branch should be conceived as authorizing the president to “make war.” An executive could assume the mantle of commander-in-chief only when it was necessary to defend the country; never to wage kingly wars of whim.
Sherman’s resolution was approved overwhelmingly by the Philadelphia convention that finished its work September 17, 1787.
George Mason, the Virginia delegate who was the strongest advocate for restraint on the executive, summed up the sentiments of the delegates when he said: “I am for clogging rather than facilitating war.”
So was the Constitution defined. Indeed, in arguing for its ratification, Pennsylvania delegate James Wilson explained, “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, or a single body of men, to involve us in such distress; for the important part in declaring war is vested in the legislature at large.”
The procedures are clearly outlined. Wars must be declared by the houses of Congress. And the power to continue any war is rested entirely in the funding authority that is given Congress. The president does not enjoy the privilege of declaring or maintaining a war. He is merely a manager of military affairs in a time of conflict; and even in that he is required to defer on matters of consequence to the Congress.
This, we know, to be the law of the land.
Yet, as we mark the 220th anniversary of the Constitution, more than 160,000 young Americans are mired in the quagmire of an undeclared war in Iraq. More than 3,700 of them have died already, and the toll expands on a daily basis – as does the rate at which innocent Iraqis are killed, maimed and rendered homeless. More than $200 million is extracted from the federal treasury each day to pay for this war, despite the fact that it is, by any Constitutional standard, entirely illegitimate.
The founders would not question for a moment that the Congress has the authority to use the power of the purse to end this war. Indeed, they would argue today as they did in their time, that a failure to do so would imperil the Republic.
But the founders would be even more worried about the precedent set by the current president’s seizure of ungranted authority for warmaking and so much else, and they would remind us, as George Mason did, that with regard to the Constitution: “No point is of more importance than that the right of impeachment should be continued.”
The voters dealt with last fall with the Republican Congress that had collaborated with Bush to thwart the rule of law. The unfortunate reality of the moment is that a Democratic Congress that was elected to restore a measure of balance to the federal stage has responded to necessity with caution. But that does not change the eternal reality of the Republic, which is that this “opposition” Congress has a simple, basic, yet essential Constitutional duty. Members of the House and Senate must impeach and try a president who is assaulting the most basic precepts of the American experiment. Anything less is a mockery of the document they swear an oath to defend – and an invitation to this and future presidents to further unchain the dogs of war that the founders struggled so mightily to contain.
John Nichols’ new book is