George Washington’s War Powers

Review: Logan Beirne’s 'Blood of Tyrants: George Washington & the Forging of the Presidency'

February 16, 2015

In February 1825, a group of well-wishers descended upon John Adams’ household to congratulate the elder statesman on his son’s election to the presidency. The proud father is said to have wept, remarking, "No man who ever held the office of President would congratulate a friend on obtaining it." The American presidency is a harrowing test of character, judgment, and skill. Our Constitution endows the chief magistracy with nearly pharaonic powers. As Commander in Chief, the president leads the armed forces of the United States. As the nation’s chief executive, he enforces and executes the laws. And as custodian of the foreign relations powers of the United States, he embodies the full sovereignty of the nation on the world stage.

But as Logan Beirne’s groundbreaking Blood of Tyrants—just released in paperback—shows, the office of the presidency was not conjured from abstract principles. It was forged with a specific candidate in mind: General George Washington.

When the Constitution was framed at Philadelphia in 1787, Americans had every reason to fear a powerful executive. They had, after all, spent seven years in open rebellion against the "royal brute" George III. But they had also seen the young republic nearly smothered in its infancy by the Articles of Confederation. The Confederation’s weak central government had divided the states, provoked rebellion in Massachusetts, and nearly led the new nation to war with its neighbors.

Supporters of the Constitution argued that a vigorous executive would help right the ship of state. Americans could trust the powerful presidency conceived at Philadelphia because the first president would be no ordinary politician; he would be the American Cincinnatus, George Washington. It was in this spirit that Pierce Butler, South Carolina’s delegate to the Philadelphia Convention, wrote:

I am free to acknowledge that [the president’s] Powers are full great, and greater than I was disposed to make them. Nor, Entre Nous, do I believe they would have been so great had not many of the members [of the Constitutional Convention] cast their eyes towards General Washington as President; and shaped their Ideas of the Powers to be given to a President, by their opinions of his Virtue.

Like Cincinnatus, President Washington would govern as virtuously in peace as he had led valiantly in war.

The story of Washington’s role in shaping the executive branchhas been ably told and re-told by historians, but these accounts tend to focus on Washington’s years in office. Blood of Tyrants tells the story of Washington in a different light. Beirne’s Washington is not the American Cincinnatus, but the American Fabius—the shrewd and courageous general who fought a war of attrition, wearing down superior forces battle by battle skirmish by skirmish until Britain could no longer sustain the will to fight. Beirne’s Washington is the Commander in Chief of the Continental Army, the frontier general who defeated an empire.

Beirne convincingly argues that the collective memory of Washington’s wartime leadership directly shaped the unitary powers of the presidency at Philadelphia. The Constitution’s War Powers Clause is breathtakingly short, stipulating, "The President shall be Commander in Chief of the Army and Navy of the United States[.]" But the powers of the Commander in Chief encompass command of the armed forces, control of intelligence, development of strategy, mustering of troops, acquisition of weaponry, and prosecution of war. All of these powers are concentrated in the hands of the president as Commander in Chief of the American armed forces, just as they had been concentrated in the hands of General Washington as Commander in Chief of the Continental Army.

Beirne demonstrates that this was a deliberate choice on the part of the framers of the Constitution. During the Revolutionary War, the Continental Congress experimented with different command structures. At the outbreak of hostilities, Washington had to consult with a stultifying array of congressional committees over decisions ranging from military recruitment to prisoner exchanges. By December 1776 Congress conferred upon him "full, ample and complete powers" renewable at six-month terms.

But the Constitution of 1789 went much further, directly vesting those powers in the president. As a result, the Commander in Chief today derives his war powers from an express grant and not by congressional grace.

In case after case, the Supreme Court has affirmed this view of the nature and scope of the war powers. Yet President Obama, himself a constitutional lawyer, disagrees. On February 11th, he submitted a draft resolution to Congress authorizing the use of military force against ISIL. In his cover letter to Congress, he explained,

Although existing statutes provide me with the authority I need to take these actions, I have repeatedly expressed my commitment to working with the Congress to pass a bipartisan authorization for the use of military force (AUMF) against ISIL. Consistent with this commitment, I am submitting a draft AUMF that would authorize the continued use of military force to degrade and defeat ISIL.

To be sure, bipartisan support for any military action is politically desirable but it is by no means necessary in a constitutional sense. The authority to engage in military action is inherent in the very office of the presidency under the war powers clause. By denying their constitutional underpinnings, our current Commander in Chief is emasculating the war powers and weakening the executive’s ability to defend the nation. General Washington would be aghast.

Washington would probably find President Obama’s proposed strategy against ISIL equally troubling. The draft AUMF proposes "necessary and appropriate [force] against ISIL" but rules out "enduring offensive ground combat operations[.]" A short-term, limited engagement against a ruthlessly committed enemy is no way to win a war. ISIL is fighting through Fabian tactics, and the Commander in Chief of the most powerful military in world has announced that he will fight them with both hands tied behind his back.

President Obama’s unprecedented conduct as Commander in Chief suggests that the history of the presidency matters now more than ever. Today’s executive actions set precedents that may become binding upon presidents tomorrow. As Blood of Tyrants shows, the precedents set by George Washington during the American Revolution laid the constitutional foundation for the war powers today.

Written in a clear, engaging style, Beirne’s narrative is riveting and insightful. Absent is the prim, moralistic hand-wringing often found in contemporary histories of the founding period. Beirne does not ask that we judge the past by the standards of the present, but he insists that we judge the present in light of our nation’s past. Blood of Tyrants is a welcome contribution to the history of the American Revolution and the American Presidency—and would make profitable reading for our current Commander in Chief.

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