Commander in Chief Power: Historical Background

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ArtII.S2.C1.1.1 Commander in Chief Power: Historical Background

Article II, Section 2, Clause 1:

The President shall be Commander in Chief of the Army and Navy of the United States, and of the Militia of the several States, when called into the actual Service of the United States; he may require the Opinion, in writing, of the principal Officer in each of the executive Departments, upon any Subject relating to the Duties of their respective Offices, and he shall have Power to grant Reprieves and Pardons for Offences against the United States, except in Cases of Impeachment.

Surprisingly little discussion of the Commander-in-Chief Clause is found in the Convention or in the ratifying debates. From the evidence available, it appears that the Framers vested the duty in the President because experience in the Continental Congress had disclosed the inexpediency of vesting command in a group and because the lesson of English history was that danger lurked in vesting command in a person separate from the responsible political leaders.1 But the principal concern here is the nature of the power granted by the clause.

May, The President Shall Be Commander in Chief, in The Ultimate Decision: The President as Commander in Chief (E. May ed., 1960), 1. In the Virginia ratifying convention, Madison, replying to Patrick Henry’s objection that danger lurked in giving the President control of the military, said: “Would the honorable member say that the sword ought to be put in the hands of the representatives of the people, or in other hands independent of the government altogether?” 3 J. Elliot, The Debates in the Several State Conventions on the Adoption of the Federal Constitution 393 (1836). In the North Carolina convention, Iredell said: “From the nature of the thing, the command of armies ought to be delegated to one person only. The secrecy, dispatch, and decision, which are necessary in military operations can only be expected from one person.” 4 id. at 107. back

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