Saturday, November 01, 2008

Jacob Collamer on Congressional war powers

Jacob Collamer (1791 - 1865), Republican Senator from Vermont

The Cheney-Bush administration will soon depart into the proverbial dustbin of history. But the destructive consequences of their misrule will remain with us for a long time. Identifiable consequence of their Christian jihad in Iraq, in particular, will continue for decades.

The next President and the next Congress will face the duty of reconstructing the rule of law and Constitutional government at the federal level, especially but by no means exclusively in foreign policy. I take it for granted that in the ugly alternative that John McCain becomes President, he will not recognize such a duty. On the contrary, after a McCain-Palin Presidency, that goal could also be pushed out for a generation or more.

This post presents a quotation from a speech in Congress in 1859 over whether President James Buchanan, the second-worst President of the United States after Bush Junior, should be granted the authority to seize the Spanish colony of Cuba. But, first, here's a more recent reminder from the late historian Arthur Schlesinger, Jr. about why war powers are a particularly important issue. From War and the American Presidency (2004):

For many months, however, President Bush's extraordinary reversal of the direction of American foreign policy had little effective opposition, or even debate. Why should this have been? After all, nothing in a democracy demands more searching discussion than the choice between peace and war. But voters rallied round the flag after September 11, 2001, because Americans felt, as never before, personal vulnerability to enemy attack. In this "homeland security" mood, Democrats believed that criticism of the president's policies might be mistaken for a deficiency of patriotism.
I think the press and television are also to be blamed for the absence of debate. Editorial pages of our most distinguished newspapers were shamefully - and incredibly - oblivious to the drastic significance of the shift to preventive war as the basis of American foreign policy. Comments by Cheney and Rumsfeld were given top billing in most American papers, even the New York Times, while reasoned speeches by Edward Kennedy and Robert Byrd opposing the rush to preventive war were consigned to a paragraph on the back pages or wholly ignored. A philanthropist had to pay the Times to print the full text of Byrd's powerful February 12, 2003, speech against the war in a full-page advertisement on March 9.
Sen. Jacob Collamer (1791 - 1865) of Vermont was an antislavery Republican who served in the Senate 1855-1865. The particular issue at hand was expansionism to the south, first of all the seizure of Cuba, which was then a Spanish colony. Southerners were increasingly aggressive in their demands that new Latin American territories, such as Cuba, Nicaragua and a larger portion of Mexico, be occupied and converted into American states. Slave states. Economics were part of the pressure. But what was key was the political imperative to territorial expansion that drove the Slave Power.

The following excerpt is from a speech of Collamer's of 02/21/1859 in the Senate, as reported by The Congressional Globe, which had not yet been succeeded by the Congressional Record as the official record of Congressional proceedings. He references the Mexican War, aka, la guerra de los Estados Unidos a México, assume the official version about Mexican territorial aggression to be true. His point gets to the generally accepted principle, although antislavery advocates were generally opposed to the Mexican War and contested President Polk's highly dubious factual claims about the official cause of war. Collamer to the Senate:

Mr. President, the Constitution provides that Congress shall declare war. What is war? I say, forcible occupation of any part of any country by armies is war. You need not qualify it by saying it is an act of war, that it is hostility, or something of that kind - it is war. Sir, when the Emperor of Russia took possession of the principalities of Moldavia and Wallachia with a military force, merely on the ground claimed to give protection to the Greek Church, all Europe declared that war existed. [He refers to the Crimean War of 1853-56.] They made no more declarations. It was prosecuted as a war, and terminated as a war, after all its scenes of blood. When Mexico sent an army across the Rio Grande they were driven out, after the battles of Palo Alto and Resaca de la Palma; but the act they did was to come over with an army, to cross the Rio Grande into a country which they claimed; and what was done? Our Congress declared that war existed by the act of Mexico. So we ourselves have indorsed [sic] it, that the occupancy of any part of any country by a military force is war. Now, sir, I have merely this to say: when the Constitution says that Congress shall declare war, I take it, it necessarily implies this: that no war shall exist in this country by the act of the functionaries of this Government unless Congress has passed upon the constitutional causes of that war. When power is given to them to declare war, there is given to them, and to them only, the power to judge whether there is occasion for a war; and it necessarily follows that if any war exists in this country, not declared upon us from abroad, but by the act of this country, if war exists by any other instrumentality than the declaration of Congress, it exists unconstitutionally.

The people of this country had been, long before the adoption of their form of Constitution, the colonists and descendants of the people of England. They had lived under a Government where the discretion of the king could involve the nation in war when he pleased; they had had enough of that; and accordingly, in the Constitution, they carefully reserved the power to make war to be alone in Congress. When it is said that really our people would be better protected abroad if it was known that the President could at once use force and make war when he pleased, that those Governments would be more careful in the treatment of our citizens, what does that mean? Why it means this: a monarchical form of Government with the power of war in the hands of the Executive, is a desirable Government, better than ours. It is a power needed, and it should be had, in the Executive. Sir, the Constitution is not so; the people thought otherwise when they made it. But it is said the President can involve this nation in war whenever he pleases, in the exercise of his diplomatic power; he has nothing to do but to send an insolent correspondence to a foreign nation and involve the nation in war. Because the President may, by abusing the power that he has, make a war, is a miserable argument that we should give him the right to make war when he pleases without abusing anything. If he abuses his diplomatic power for such a purpose, he may be impeached. If you tell him he may use his discretion about going to war when one of our men is imprisoned in Mexico, he can go to war and cannot be impeached. It is no reason, because he has the power by abusing his diplomatic functions to involve this nation in war and subject himself to an impeachment, that, therefore, you shall give him the power to make war so that he shall do it without impeachment.
For another historical footnote, the Czar of Russia at the time was regarded by democrats in Europe and in America as the symbol of reactionary, oppressive autocracy. Russia had confirmed their status as such in their important role in the repression of the democratic revolutions that swept Europe in 1848. Although Britain and France united with the (Islamic) Ottoman Empire to fight Russia in the Crimean War, the Czar was still widely regarded as the ultimate guarantee of monarchical government in most of Europe.

In that regard, it's worth noting that Collamer, born during George Washington's first term as President, recognized in this speech that the power to start wars was one of the most dangerous powers of a monarchy. And that giving the President the sole authority to initiate war was a fundamental contradiction of Democratic government. In this, he echoed what Congressman Abraham Lincoln had written 11 years to his friend William Herndon in a letter of 02/15/1849 about Presidential power to start a war on his own authority:

The provision of the Constitution giving the war-making power to Congress, was dictated, as I understand it, by the following reasons. Kings had always been involving and impoverishing their people in wars, pretending generally, if not always, that the good of the people was the object. This, our [Constitutional] Convention understood to be the most oppressive of all Kingly oppressions; and they resolved to so frame the Constitution that no one man should hold the power of bringing this oppression upon us.
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