“Even when there is a necessity of military power, within the land,” wrote Samuel Adams in 1768, “a wise and prudent people will always have a watchful and jealous eye over it…”
Eight years later, Adams signed his name to a Declaration of Independence that included among its complaints against King George III a notation that “He has affected to render the Military independent of and superior to the Civil power.”
The founders of the American experiment well understood the danger of ceding control over the military to generals. When they wrote a constitution in 1787, they sought to chain the dogs of war by requiring that the Congress declare the intent of the United States to engage in military conflicts and by empowering an elected president to serve as commander in chief.
This understanding of the need to maintain civilian control over the armed forces of a the nation has extended and deepened over time, with the enactment (as part of the 1947 law creating the Department of Defense) of a requirement that a military officer must be out of uniform for seven years before assuming the pivotal position of secretary of defense.
Most members of the Senate and House rushed to provide it, as Mattis is generally well-regarded within the military and within the corridors of power in DC.
But a few legislators who still embrace the wisdom of the founders objected. They did not do so out of disdain for Mattis, who many expect to be one of the more reasonable members of the new president’s Cabinet. They did so out of respect for our history, and concern, as Connecticut Senator Richard Blumenthal noted, about “the precedent that [a recently-retired general] assuming this office would set.”
Ultimately, the Senate voted 81-17 on Thursday to grant the waiver. That lopsided decision can be read as an indication of the likelihood that the Mattis nomination will be easily approved by the chamber.