The Prize Cases.

The basis for a broader conception was laid in certain early acts of Congress authorizing the President to employ military force in the execution of the laws.137 In his famous message to Congress of July 4, 1861,138 Lincoln advanced the claim that the “war power” was his for the purpose of suppressing rebellion, and in the Prize Cases139 of 1863 a divided Court sustained this theory. The immediate issue was the validity of the blockade that the President, following the attack on Fort Sumter, had proclaimed of the Southern ports.140 The argument was advanced that a blockade to be valid must be an incident of a “public war” validly declared, and that only Congress could, by virtue of its power “to declare war,” constitutionally impart to a military situation this character and scope. Speaking for the majority of the Court, Justice Grier answered: “If a war be made by invasion of a foreign nation, the President is not only authorized but bound to resist force by force. He does not initiate the war, but is bound to accept the challenge without waiting for any special legislative authority. And whether the hostile party be a foreign invader, or States organized in rebellion, it is none the less a war, although the declaration of it be ‘unilateral.’ Lord Stowell (1 Dodson, 247) observes, ‘It is not the less a war on that account, for war may exist without a declaration on either side. It is so laid down by the best writers of the law of nations. A declaration of war by one country only, is not a mere challenge to be accepted or refused at pleasure by the other.’ ”

“The battles of Palo Alto and Resaca de la Palma had been fought before the passage of the act of Congress of May 13, 1846, which recognized ‘a state of war as existing by the act of the Republic of Mexico.’ This act not only provided for the future prosecution of the war, but was itself a vindication and ratification of the Act of the President in accepting the challenge without a previous formal declaration of war by Congress.”

“This greatest of civil wars was not gradually developed by popular commotion, tumultuous assemblies, or local unorganized insurrections. However long may have been its previous conception, it nevertheless sprung forth suddenly from the parent brain, a Minerva in the full panoply of war. The President was bound to meet it in the shape it presented itself, without waiting for Congress to baptize it with a name; and no name given to it by him or them could change the fact. . . .”

“Whether the President in fulfilling his duties, as Commander in-chief, in suppressing an insurrection, has met with such armed hostile resistance, and a civil war of such alarming proportions as will compel him to accord to them the character of belligerents, is a question to be decided by him, and this Court must be governed by the decisions and acts of the political department of the government to which this power was entrusted. ‘He must determine what degree of force the crisis demands.’ The proclamation of blockade is itself official and conclusive evidence to the Court that a state of war existed which demanded and authorized a recourse to such a measure, under the circumstances peculiar to the case.”141


1 Stat. 424 (1795): 2 Stat. 443 (1807), now 10 U.S.C. §§ 331334. See also Martin v. Mott, 25 U.S. (12 Wheat.) 19, 32–33 (1827), asserting the finality of the President’s judgment of the existence of a state of facts requiring his exercise of the powers conferred by the act of 1795. [Back to text]
7 J. Richardson, supra, at 3221, 3232. [Back to text]
67 U.S. (2 Bl.) 635 (1863). [Back to text]
7 J. Richardson, supra, at 3215, 3216, 3481. [Back to text]
67 U.S. (2 Bl.) at 668–70. [Back to text]