Constitutional FAQ Answer #108 – The U.S. Constitution Online – USConstitution.net

Constitutional FAQ Answer #108

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Q108. “Who has the power to declare

A. There is a short answer and a much longer answer. The short answer is
that the Constitution clearly grants the Congress the power to declare war, in
Article 1, Section 8. This power is not shared
with anyone, including the President.

The President, however, is just as clearly made the Commander in Chief of
all of the armed forces, in Article 2, Section
. In this role, the President has the ability to defend the nation or to
take military action without involving the Congress directly, and the
President’s role as “C-in-C” is often part of the reason for that.

What this has resulted in is the essential ability of the President to order
forces into hostilities to repel invasion or counter an attack, without a formal
declaration of war. The conduct of war is the domain of the President.

These two distinct roles, that of the Congress and that of the President,
bring up the interesting and important questions: can the United States be “at
war” without a declaration of war? If we can, then what is the point of a
declaration? If not, then what do we call hostilities without a formal

The question of the need for a declaration of war dates all the way back to
the presidency of Thomas Jefferson. Jefferson sent a squadron of warships to
the Mediterranean to protect U.S. shipping against the forces of the Bey of
Tripoli. Jefferson’s instructions to the squadron were that they act in a
defensive manner only, with a strictly defined order of battle. When a
Tripolitan cruiser shot at a U.S. ship, the U.S. forces seized the ship,
disarmed it, and released it. Jefferson’s message to Congress on the incident
indicated that he felt the acts to be within constitutional bounds. Alexander
Hamilton wrote to Congress and espoused his belief that since the United States
did not start the conflict, the United States was in a state of war, and no
formal declaration was needed to conduct war actions. Congress authorized
Jefferson’s acts without declaring war on the Bey.

Not all acts of war, however, need place the United States into a state of
war. It is without doubt an act of war to fire upon a warship of another
nation. In 1967, during the Six Day War, Israel attacked the USS Liberty, an
intelligence ship operating off the Sinai coast. But the United States did not
react as though it were at war, even though many considered the attack
deliberate (both Israel and the U.S. later determined the attack to have been a
mistake caused by the cloud of war).

It may be correct to say, then, that an act or war committed against the
United States can place the United States into a state of war, if the United
States wishes to see the act in that light. A declaration of war by the
Congress places the Unites States at war without any doubt. Absent a
declaration of war, the President can react to acts of war in an expedient
fashion as he sees fit.

Last Modified: 10 Aug 2010

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