Now that we have stepped back from the brink of another stupid war, it is time we the people demand that questions of war and peace be brought back into their proper venue, the U.S. Congress.
If the last 70 years of perpetual war has taught us anything, it has to be that James 15Madison was right when he insisted that the power to wage war is rightly vested in the legislative branch.
This is a theory that President Barack Obama believed before he became president.
Yet, when he decided he wanted to wage war against Libya, he did not get approval from Congress. Indeed, his administration issued a legal opinion that basically said he did not need congressional approval to wage war.
This runs contrary to what James Madison said on multiple occasions: “In no part of the constitution is more wisdom to be found than in the clause which confides the question of war or peace to the legislature, and not to the executive department.”
Madison explained that putting the power of war into the hands of a single person is simply too dangerous.
Or, as Madison put it, war was the “true nurse” of the growth of state power, i.e., war is the major way by which the executive office increases its power, patronage, and taxing power.
“The trust and the temptation would be too great for any one man: not such as nature may offer as the prodigy of many centuries, but such as may be expected in the ordinary successions of magistracy,” he wrote. “War is in fact the true nurse of executive aggrandizement. In war a physical force is to be created, and it is the executive will which is to direct it. In war the public treasures are to be unlocked, and it is the executive hand which is to dispense them. In war the honors and emoluments of office are to be multiplied; and it is the executive patronage under which they are to be enjoyed. It is in war, finally, that laurels are to be gathered, and it is the executive brow they are to encircle. The strongest passions, and most dangerous weaknesses of the human breast; ambition, avarice, vanity, the honorable or venial love of fame, are all in conspiracy against the desire and duty of peace.”
This temptation makes going to war attractive for a president. But it ravishes the nation in terms of blood and treasure and lowers our standing in the eyes of the international community. Additionally war tends to reduce our liberties.
Again, Madison: “Of all the enemies to public liberty war is, perhaps, the most to be dreaded, because it comprises and develops the germ of every other. War is the parent of armies; from these proceed debts and taxes; and armies, and debts, and taxes are the known instruments for bringing the many under the domination of the few. In war, too, the discretionary power of the Executive is extended; its influence in dealing out offices, honors, and emoluments is multiplied; and all the means of seducing the minds, are added to those of subduing the force, of the people. The same malignant aspect in republicanism may be traced in the inequality of fortunes, and the opportunities of fraud, growing out of a state of war, and in the degeneracy of manners and of morals engendered by both.”
This effect is multiplied when the nation is engaged in perpetual war, as we have been since the end of World War II. This goes contrary to George Washington’s warning in his farewell address in which he warned against foreign entanglements: “The great rule of conduct for us in regard to foreign nations is in extending our commercial relations, to have with them as little political connection as possible.” A speech, by the way, written with the help of Madison.
The real concern with our continual state of war is the obvious loss of freedoms. We are certainly less free today than we were 70 years ago. Or even 10 years ago. And the freedoms continue to dwindle away.
As Madison warned, “No nation could preserve its freedom in the midst of continual warfare.”