The President, The People, And The Power To Make War


On August 22, 1789, President George Washington, sound Constitutionalist that he was, appeared with his Secretary of War in the Senate chamber to “advise” with the senators on a treaty with the southern Indians and to seek their “consent.” The reading of the document began. The wasp-tempered Senator William Maclay, from the back country of Pennsylvania, was annoyed because the passing carriages made it difficult for him to hear the words; he and other senators, in the process of forming an agrarian political opposition to President Washington, were ready to be annoyed at anything that came from this administration with its “monarchical” tendencies. The President wanted an immediate vote, but the Maclay group called for time to study the documents connected with the treaty. George Washington, according to Maclay, “started up in a violent fret.” Had he not brought along the Secretary of War precisely to answer any questions that might arise? President Washington calmed down, the delay was granted, the treaty was ratified. But Maclay wrote in his diary, “The President wishes to tread on the necks of the Senate…. This will not do with Americans.” As for George Washington, he is said to have let it be known that “he would be damned if he ever went there again.” He did not go there again for advice on a treaty, and neither did any other President.

The clash over this minor document was a preview of the coming years, when the collaboration between the Chief Executive and the Congress, in the case of treaties or other aspects of international affairs, proved prickly and at times violent. Inevitably, Presidents tended to feel that they had superior information and were acting only after mature consideration of the matter; congressmen were interfering out of impulse, ignorance, politics, or a yen to encroach on White House prerogatives. Inevitably, congressmen, considering themselves sound in judgment and closer to the popular will, tended to believe that Chief Executives were trying, as Senator Maclay had declared, to create situations in which “advices and consents [would be] ravished, in a degree, from us.”

Before many decades it also became clear that while Congress might have the war power, a determined Chief Executive could put the House and the Senate in a position where they had little alternative except to vote war. The Democratic President elected in 1844, the unsmiling, tenacious James K. Polk, believed it was manifest destiny for America to expand. Texas had been formally annexed, but Mexico still considered it a rebellious province, and border disputes continued; California lay a luscious plum ready for the plucking from Mexico. President Polk kept trying to maneuver Mexico into acceptance of his ambitions, while he built a fervid public opinion behind expansionism. Finally the President ordered General Zachary Taylor into territory claimed by Mexico, and Mexican troops attacked American cavalry, killing or wounding sixteen.

On Sunday, May 10, 1846, President Polk went to church but, as he put it, “regretted” that he had to spend the rest of the Sabbath on a quite different matter —working out a war bill and a strategy for Congress. The measure provided an appropriation of ten million dollars and the calling up of fifty thousand volunteers. The disciplined Democratic majority in the House of Representatives limited debate to two hours, and only in the last minutes did the Polk leaders present a preamble to the bill that was a declaration of war. The House and the Senate included a strong anti-war faction. But now all members were in the position where they either voted for the whole measure or—with a good deal of public opinion near hysteria—voted against money and troops for General Taylor’s forces. The House approved, 174-14; the Senate, 40-2.

Those dogged fourteen Noes in the House included ex-President John Quincy Adams; and Representative Abraham Lincoln, just arrived in Washington, would soon begin his sharpshooter against the war. Major intellectuals joined in the assault. Henry Thoreau spent a night in the Concord lockup for refusing to pay his poll tax in protest, and when his aunt paid the money, much to his annoyance, he went back to Waiden Pond and wrote his famous essay “Civil Disobedience.” The agitation went on, but within five months American troops were swinging along the plaza of Mexico City, gazing in awe and in triumph at the great baroque cathedral and the pink walls of the Halls of Montezuma, asserting by their mud-spattered presence that President Polk was about to achieve in abundance the territorial acquisitions he sought.

Half a century later the obverse of the coin was showing. Of all wars the United States has fought, none has come to be considered more pointless and reprehensible than the Spanish-American War, and that venture was the doing of Congress, driven on by public opinion. During the 1890’s a rebellion in the Spanish colony of Cuba, brutally combatted by the Madrid government, caught up a mountingjingo sentiment in the United States. Before long the principal opponents of armed intervention were the American businessmen owning property in Cuba, who wanted things settled without dislocating their economic arrangements, and the two Presidents of the era, Grover Cleveland and William McKinley.