Explore Freedom

Explore Freedom » The Failed Attempt to Leash the Dogs of War

FFF Articles

The Failed Attempt to Leash the Dogs of War


Of the many powers that government is granted, none has more potential for disaster than the power to wage war. Not only does warfare cost a country in terms of lost lives, it also has detrimental effects on the economy and society itself. In order to keep the country out of senseless and unjust wars, the Framers wrote provisions into the Constitution that would make it difficult to enter into any but the most necessary of wars. As the 20th century progressed, however, the chains that the Framers used to bind the government began to break.

The men who drafted the Constitution knew war well. For one thing, they had just recently engaged in warfare themselves. Fighting the American Revolution against their own government over the course of eight years had a direct impact on many of them. Of course George Washington had led the American forces against the British, and many of the constitutional delegates had lost friends and property throughout the course of war.

They were also educated in the history of government. James Madison in particular was a scholar of past governments and the effects that warfare had had upon them. In a letter to Thomas Jefferson, Madison lamented the problems in creating a government that protected the country from invasion yet maintained a proper respect for individual liberty:

The management of foreign relations appears to be the most susceptible of abuse, of all the trusts committed to a Government, because they can be concealed or disclosed, or disclosed in such parts & at such times as will best suit particular views; and because the body of the people are less capable of judging & are more under the influence of prejudices, on that branch of their affairs, than of any other. Perhaps it is a universal truth that the loss of liberty at home is to be charged to provisions against danger, real or pretended, from abroad.


And Madison knew that of all the calamities that can befall a country, nothing could be more detrimental to the freedom of the citizenry than warfare. War concentrates power into the hands of the few and saps the will of citizens to resist, as they become stupefied with patriotic fervor. As Madison said,

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.

The Founders also knew that if war were to befall the country, the cause was just as likely to come from within the country as without. For it is not invading armies that pose the greatest threat to liberty, but the state itself. Alexander Hamilton argued in Federalist No. 8,

Safety from external danger is the most powerful director of national conduct. Even the ardent love of liberty will, after a time, give way to its dictates. The violent destruction of life and property incident to war — the continual effort and alarm attendant on a state of continual danger, will compel nations the most attached to liberty, to resort for repose and security, to institutions, which have a tendency to destroy their civil and political rights. To be more safe they, at length, become willing to run the risk of being less free.

Separation of powers

The main architect of the Constitution was James Madison. A devotee of Montesquieu, he knew that unchecked government power had been the undoing of most societies in the annals of human history, and he himself had witnessed first-hand the oppressive reign of King George III. When piecing together the fabric of the federal government, Madison employed Montesquieu’s novel idea of separating the powers of government into different offices, an idea that was nothing less than genius.

Montesquieu was looking for a system of “checks and balances,” a phrase he coined. The power that was granted to the government would be divided and overlapping. Not only would some offices in government have powers different from those of other offices, but some powers would trump those of other offices. For example, the U.S. Congress can pass a law but the president cannot. However, the president can veto a bill, while no one person in Congress has veto power.

The separation-of-powers doctrine is a running theme of the Constitution. The power to enact laws is given to Congress, the power to enforce them is given to the president, and the power to interpret them is given to the judiciary. Some powers are delegated to the national government while the states retain others, such as most traditional laws pertaining to criminal offenses. Even the power in the Congress itself is split; for example, the House has the power to propose bills raising revenue, and the Senate has the power to confirm presidential appointees to federal office.

The separation-of-powers doctrine was used in order to keep the country out of needless and destructive wars. The Constitution grants Congress the power to declare war but not to wage it. The president can wage war but cannot declare it. The president cannot raise the funds or troops for a particular war — that power lies with Congress.

The idea was to make warfare a difficult stage to reach, a stage that should be attainable only should war be just and necessary.

The separation of war powers involved no fuzzy line. As Alexander Hamilton stated in Federalist No. 74,

The President of the United States is to be “Commander in Chief of the army and navy of the Untied States, and of the militia of the several States when called into the actual service of the United States.” The propriety of this provision is so evident in itself; and it is, at the same time so consonant to the precedents of the State constitutions in general, that little need be said to explain or enforce it. [Emphasis in original.]

Standing armies

The other route to war that the Founders feared was that of a standing army. People today cannot even contemplate not having an enormous standing military, but in the late 18th century, Americans considered a standing army to be a primary tool of despotism.

A standing army is composed of professional soldiers, that is, of men who make their living preparing for war and waging it. It is a good idea to have a standing army if it is thought that there is a good chance of an imminent attack or invasion, but other than possibly deterring an attack, it offers few benefits and yet poses dangerous risks. The Founders thought it much wiser to depend on citizen-soldiers in the militias for defense.

For one thing, a standing army enables the military to take the reins of power by force more easily than would otherwise be the case. There is nothing as effective as tanks and bombs to get someone or some country to do what you want. Most coups d’état that have plagued recent history — and there have been many — have been executed by standing armies. For example, the ruler of the U.S. government’s current ally in the war on terrorism, Gen. Pervez Musharraf of Pakistan, was installed as president in a coup by Pakistan’s standing army.

Standing armies caused problems centuries ago just as they do today. The Founders knew that history was rife with governments that had been overthrown by their own militaries. Before the Constitution was unveiled to the public, Madison warned his colleagues at the Constitution Convention in Philadelphia,

A standing military force, with an overgrown Executive will not long be safe companions to liberty. The means of defence against foreign danger, have been always the instruments of tyranny at home. Among the Romans it was a standing maxim to excite a war, whenever a revolt was apprehended. Throughout all Europe, the armies kept up under the pretext of defending, have enslaved the people.

And so it was that the Constitution had provisions against a standing army. It did not prevent a standing army outright, for in times of peril one would be necessary. But the funds for a standing army had to be renewed every two years. As the Constitution says in Article I, Section 8,

The Congress shall have the Power To … raise and support Armies, but no Appropriation of Money to that Use shall be for a longer Term than two Years….


It was thought that after a national crisis had passed, Congress would have the chance to dissolve the army by simply doing nothing. The money used to pay soldiers and to buy weaponry would disappear and the army would cease to exist. And for a long time, it worked.

The dogs of war unleashed

As of 1999, the U.S. military had troops in 132 countries. The budget for the U.S. military is larger than those of the next 20 largest militaries combined. Since 1950, the military has been deployed 71 times to 42 countries and U.S. soldiers have died in 17 operations in 16 countries with more than 98,000 U.S. dead and more than 279,000 wounded. All of this has occurred without a declaration of war. This is hardly the leashed military and small defensive army that the Founders envisioned.

The walls of separation that the Constitution provides to keep apart the power to declare war and the power to wage war have dissolved. The idea that Congress alone has the power to take the country to war is now considered quaint. The military is now at the president’s disposal and he is free to decide where it will be sent, when it will be sent, and how long it will be there. Congress has abrogated its duty to keep the country from war with its use of “authorizations” that grant the declaration-of-war power to the president. The president did not simply assume this power — Congress willingly surrendered it.

Though we have had a standing army for most of the history of this country, it was the usual practice to shrink the military to a relatively small defensive level once a conflict had ended. World War I saw the military grow exponentially to become a threatening offensive force, but once peace had been declared, it was shrunk to pre-war levels. But after World War II, the Founders’ fear of a menacing standing army became realized. Not only did the military not shrink after World War II was over, it grew exponentially in the following years.

There can be no denying that the Framers’ efforts to protect the nation from involvement in unnecessary and unjust wars and from an enormous standing army have failed. The two mainstays of their plan — a small defensive military force and a constitutional separation of war powers — are dead letters. The country is routinely engaged in conflicts in every corner of the globe, none of which has anything to do with the military’s only legitimate purpose: to defend the country from invasion. The power to wage war has coalesced under the executive and the government maintains an increasingly imperialistic foreign policy. Free of the constitutional chains that the Framers imposed upon it, the federal government is now on a road of empire, intervention, militarism, aggression, occupation, and torture, not to mention increased taxes, inflation, and despotism at home.

  • Categories
  • This post was written by:

    Bart Frazier is vice president at The Future of Freedom Foundation. Send him email.