EDITOR’S NOTE: St. George Tucker was the most widely cited legal scholar of the early American Republic. This article on the Constitutional power to declare war is excerpted from his work, Blackstone’s Commentaries. Published in 1803, this was the major treatise on American law in the early 19th century. Lawyers arguing before the Supreme Court of the United States would frequently cite to Tucker’s Blackstone – more often than any other commentator until 1827.
In the text below, Tucker emphasizes that the power to decide whether or not the nation would engage in war was to be kept close to the People instead of in the hands of one person. “…the representatives of the people have the right to decide this important question”
The power of declaring war, with all its train of consequences, direct and indirect, forms the next branch of the powers confided to congress; and happy it is for the people of America that it is so vested. The term war, embraces the extremes of human misery and iniquity, and is alike the offspring of the one and the parent of the other. What else is the history of war from the earliest ages to the present moment but an afflicting detail of the sufferings and calamities of mankind, resulting from the ambition, usurpation, animosities, resentments, piques, intrigues, avarice, rapacity, oppressions, murders, assassinations, and other crimes, of the few possessing power!
How rare are the instances of a just war! How few of those which are thus denominated have had their existence in a national injury! The personal claims of the sovereign are confounded with the interests of the nation over which he presides, and his private grievances or complaints are transferred to the people; who are thus made the victims of a quarrel in which they have no part, until they become principals in it, by their sufferings.
War would be banished from the face of the earth, were nations instead of princes to decide upon their necessity. Injustice can never be the collective sentiment of a people emerged from barbarism. Happy the nation where the people are the arbiters of their own interest and their own conduct! Happy were it for the world, did the people of all nations possess this power.
In England the right of making war is in the king. In Sweden it was otherwise after the death of Charles XII. until the revolution in 1772, when from a limited monarchy, Sweden became subject to a despot.
With us the representatives of the people have the right to decide this important question, conjunctively with the supreme executive who may, on this occasion as on every other, (except a proposal to amend the constitution,) exercise a qualified negative on the joint resolutions of congress; but this negative is unavailing if two thirds of the congress should persist in an opposite determination; so that it may be in the power of the executive to prevent, but not to make, a declaration of war.
The several states are not only prohibited from declaring war, but even from engaging in it, without consent of congress, unless actually invaded, or in such imminent danger as will not admit of delay. This is certainly a very wise prohibition. . . . in fact, every barrier which can be opposed to the hasty engaging in war, is so much gained in favour of the interests of humanity.
Upon the same principle it seems to be, that the states are likewise prohibited from granting letters of marque and reprisal: a measure which not unfrequently precedes a declaration of war where individuals of one nation are oppressed or injured by those of another, and justice is denied by the state to which the author of such oppression or injury belongs.
Did the several states possess the power of declaring war, or of commencing hostility without the consent of the whole, the union could never be secure of peace, and since the whole confederacy is responsible for any such act, it is strictly consonant with justice and sound policy, that the whole should determine on the occasion which may justify involving the nation in a war.
The keeping up troops or ships of war in time of peace, is also prohibited to the several states upon the same principle. For these kinds of preparations for hostility are such as frequently may provoke, and even justify hostility on the part of other nations. But whenever war is actually declared, this prohibition ceases, and any state may adopt such additional measures for it’s own peculiar defence as it’s resources will enable it to do. The prohibition to emit bills of credit, must, however, infallibly narrow the means of recurring to these resources; a consequence which probably was not adverted to by the state conventions, as I do not recollect any amendments proposed on that subject.
The power of declaring war, with all it’s immediate consequences, was granted to congress under the former confederation, and nearly the same restrictions against engaging in war, keeping up troops and vessels of war in time of peace, were laid upon the individual states by the same instrument.
Among the amendments proposed by the convention of this state, and some others, to the constitution, there was one, “that no declaration of war should be made, nor any standing army or regular troops be raised or kept up, in time of peace, without the consent of two-thirds of the members present in both houses. And that no soldier should be enlisted for a longer term than four years, except in time of war, and then for no longer term than the continuance of the war.” North-Carolina, as well as some other of the states, concurred in proposing similar amendments, but none has yet been made in this respect.
One of the most salutary provisions of the constitution, under this head, appears to be, that no appropriation of money to the use of an army, shall be for a longer term than two years. Perhaps it would have been better to have limited such an appropriation to a single year. But inasmuch as no appropriation can be made for a longer time than the period affixed for the duration of congress, it will be in the power of the people, should the reasons of such an appropriation be disapproved by them, to remove their representatives, on a new election, from a trust which they may appear willing to betray.
It is, therefore, to be hoped, that such a consideration will afford a sufficient check to the proceedings of congress, in regard to the raising and supporting armies. With regard to a navy, the nature of such an establishment, to have any good effect, must be permanent. It would, therefore, have been extremely unwise to impose any prohibitions on that subject.