Connecting History

Connecting History logo

Milestones

Milestones logo

Hot off the Press

Book Reviews logo

History Talk

History Talk logo

Let’s Do Something Constitutional on Constitution Day

by Joyce Appleby on Sep 5, 2007

Joyce Appleby

On September 17, Constitution Day, in 2002, scholars presented a petition, signed by 1,200 American historians, urging members of Congress to assume their constitutional responsibility to determine whether or not to declare war on Iraq. Reminding them that Congress had ignored this provision since its 1941 declarations of war on Japan, Germany and Italy, the petition explained why the Founding Fathers gave this power to them and to no other body.

As the petition explained: “Americans deserve to hear their representatives deliberate about a possible war, lest such a momentous course of action be undertaken by the president alone after a public airing filled with rumors, leaks, and speculations.” It continued: “Leaving the president solely in control of war powers” has been “to the detriment of our democracy and in clear violation of the Constitution.”

Now, four years into a disastrous war initiated without a congressional declaration, no member of Congress has publicly raised this issue since. A majority of Democratic representatives actually voted against the resolution giving President Bush the okay to invade Iraq, but none has announced that it was time to stop amending the constitution by selective neglect. No one has even suggested a congressional resolution to make the point.

The American people revere their Constitution. They can’t seem to get their fill of books about the Founding Fathers either. Yet there’s something empty about such reverence if our elected officials ignore key grants of power.

Take the case of the executive authority over the military. Article 2, Section 2, couldn’t be clearer: “The President shall be Commander in Chief of the Army and Navy of the United States, and of the Military of the several States when called into the actual service of the United States.” Nowhere in this concise document is there any grant of the sweeping powers now claimed for the commander in chief.

Indeed, the congressional power to declare war and the president’s power to head the military in time of war go together. The men who submitted their constitutional draft to the several states for ratification on September 17, 1787, left the declaring of war to members of Congress because their constituents would bear the brunt of war should they make the awful choice of resorting to violence. The Framers made the president commander in chief for efficiency and to avoid a dangerous concentration of power in Congress.

Passing resolutions giving the president permission to invade a country instead of formally declaring war is an evasion of responsibility on the part of Congress and a disregard of duty, moral as well as constitutional, to the men and women they represent.

Denying writs of habeas corpus, spying on Americans, abrogating treaties have all excited attention in recent years, but no abuse of power has graver consequences than leaving the war-making powers exclusively in the hands of the president.

The national rumor mill is full of stories that President Bush is planning to attack Iran. If ever there were a moment for Congress to reassume its constitutional powers to determine when American forces go to war, now is the time. Let’s stop this silent amending of the Constitution that we hold so dear.


Joyce Appleby, UCLA emerita professor, is author of "The Relentless Revolution: A History of Capitalism" (2010).