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The Constitution and Lybia
Mike Ramsey

I appreciate the opportunity to blog on the Constitution and the Libya intervention.  In a post at Slate, Jack Goldsmith says that the Constitution’s original meaning in this area is “indeterminate.”  I respectfully disagree:  I think congressional approval is clearly required.  In this post I’ll set out my basic argument, and in the next one I’ll consider leading counterarguments.

Every major figure from the founding era who commented on the matter said that the Constitution gave Congress the exclusive power to commit the nation to hostilities.  Notably, this included not only people with reservations about presidential power, such as James Madison and Thomas Jefferson, but also strong advocates of the President’s prerogatives, such as George Washington and Alexander Hamilton.  As President, Washington on several occasions said that he could not undertake offensive military actions without Congress’ approval.  Hamilton is especially significant, because his views on the need for a strong executive went far beyond those of his contemporaries.  Yet Hamilton made it very clear that he read the Constitution not to allow the President to begin a war – as he put it at one point, “it belongs to Congress only, to go to war.”  (References are found in my article “Textualism and War Powers,” 69 U. Chicago L. Rev. 1543 (2002), in part I.A).

Does the Libya intervention amount to a “war” in constitutional terms?  Samuel Johnson’s influential 18th century dictionary defined “war” broadly as “the exercise of violence under sovereign command, against withstanders.”  International law writers of the time expressed similarly expansive definitions.  Although there are surely borderline cases, our use of force against Libya easily qualifies: the opponent is the Libya government, and our objective is to use “violence under sovereign command” to force that government to change course. 

The fact that our use of force is limited to air strikes should not matter.  Limited wars were well-known in the 18th century (Britain and France fought a limited war at sea and in North America during the American Revolution).  The U.S. fought two limited wars early in its history, against France beginning in 1798 and against Tripoli in 1801.  So far as I know, every person commenting on these events at the time thought that Congress had to authorize any initiation of force, even limited naval attacks.   (In 1801, Hamilton argued that authorization wasn’t needed because Tripoli, not the U.S., began the war; but he agreed that congressional authorization would otherwise be necessary even in the context of an attack on a single Tripoli warship.)

Thus the founding generation thought the Constitution reserved war-initiation power to Congress.  How could this be, though, if Congress has only the power to “declare War”, which we may think refers to making a (now-outmoded) formal announcement? Why can’t the President begin a war informally, merely by ordering an attack, without a declaration?

The answer is that in founding-era terminology war could be “declared” either by formal announcement or by military action initiating hostilities.  John Locke’s classic Two Treatises of Government from the late 17th century referred to “declar[ing] by word or action.”  Blackstone and Vattel, two of the 18th century legal writers most influential in America, also used “declare” in this way.  Vattel wrote: “When one nation takes up arms against another, she from that moment declares herself an enemy to all individuals of the latter.”  Johnson’s dictionary gave as one definition of “declare” to “shew in open view” – which, applied to warfare, would obviously encompass military attacks.  (References are found in my Chicago Law Review article, Part III; for a more comprehensive account, see this outstanding article by Saikrishna Prakash). Thus in 18th century terms initiating an attack was as much “to declare war” as was making a formal announcement; Congress’ Article I, Section 8 power is not narrowly about issuing formal announcements, but broadly about authorizing the sorts of actions that begin war. 

Perhaps, though, the President also has power to declare war (after all, the Constitution expressly says only that Congress has it, not that the President doesn’t, and it could be part of the President’s power as commander-in-chief).  Returning to Hamilton, a key passage in his Federalist 32 argued that often constitutional power could be held concurrently by different entities.  But, he continued, an exclusive grant of power would arise where concurrent power would be “totally contradictory and repugnant” – that is, when one branch’s exercise of a power would wholly undermine an express grant to another branch.  Hamilton didn’t give the example of declaring war here, but it fits his model: war, once launched, cannot be undone without consequences.  If Congress’ power is to decide when war should begin, it follows that the President cannot independently launch attacks.

And the Constitution’s drafters expressly described the clause as designed to exclude presidential war-initiation power.  James Wilson told the Pennsylvania ratifying convention:  “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 power of declaring war is vested in the legislature at large.”

 As a result, the founding generation’s views are clear and have firm basis in the Constitution’s text: the declare war clause gives Congress the exclusive power to decide when war should be “declared” – meaning begun by “word or action.”  In Libya, President Obama has “declared” a war – a limited one, to be sure, but still a war by 18th century definitions – without congressional approval.  That contravenes both the Constitution’s text and the founding era’s consensus understanding.

This post originally appear at Opinio Juris.