“I prefer dangerous freedom over peaceful slavery.” ~Thomas Jefferson
American rebels listed King George III’s “catalogue of crimes” on July 4, 1776, declaring the monarch a tyrant and independence from the British crown. Eleven years later those rebels drafted a Constitution that delegated the power to make war to the Congress, not the President. Although formally observed today, for all express purposes it is a dead letter.
This is the third in a series of reflections on where America is headed and what key errors have led to the decline of the republic. The first essay looked at two recent Supreme Court decisions that usurped long held American freedoms. The second studied the emergence of the surveillance state. This reflection delves into the concentration of arbitrary power in the office of the president of the United States.
Beginning with the Korean War, the courts and Congress ceded to the president the power to initiate wars by reinterpreting “the commander in chief” passage of the Constitution. After Vietnam, in 1973, Congress passed a War Powers Act, which sought to curve this. However, it still grants the president the power to introduce military forces anywhere for any reason for 90 days.
This is a far cry from Article I Section 8 of the US Constitution: “The Congress shall have power to declare War.” Members of Congress like Representative Peter King (R-NY) — who have sworn to uphold the Constitution — say the president doesn’t need Congressional authorization to wage war.
The record on civil liberties at home is no better.
When at war with the southern states, President Abraham Lincoln suspended basic civil liberties such as habeas corpus and, according to Ted Galen Carpenter, “detained confederate sympathizers without trials or used military tribunals to prosecute them . . . A year after the war, in Ex Parte Milligan the U.S. Supreme Court rejected the executive branch’s promiscuous use of military tribunals, ruling such procedures unconstitutional.”
During World War I President Woodrow Wilson imprisoned anti-war activists, suppressed free speech, and imposed racial segregation on federal employees. In World War II, President Franklin Roosevelt, in addition to rounding up Japanese Americans and placing them in internment camps for the duration of the war, also won a case that would be seized on decades later by the Bush Administration. Ted Galen Carpenter explains in the October 2013 issue of Chronicles:
The focus of the Bush administration’s argument was the claimed authority to detain “enemy combatants,” either aliens or U.S. citizens, without providing them access to U.S. civilian courts. . . . That view relied heavily on the 1942 Supreme Court decision Ex Parte Quirin. . . . The Bush Administration extended the Quirin reasoning to cover not just an active, specific terrorist mission (as in Quirin) [so] that U.S. citizens accused of involvement in terrorist schemes were not entitled to due process and other constitutional rights.
Candidate Barack Obama blasted the Bush Administration’s record on civil liberties, but President Obama asserts in a 2011 legal memo the right to target US citizens for execution, without any charges or due judicial process. This is something that no previous president has done.
The United States’ founders drafted a constitution to set up institutions that protected US American liberty and did not rely on good politicians to save the day. Judges and bureaucrats, by reinterpreting “the living Constitution,” have undermined institutional safeguards and centralized arbitrary power in the presidency to the extreme that President Obama now has kill lists which include US citizens listed.
The policies of the British government that American rebels considered despotic were acts of parliament, not arbitrary edicts by a monarch. King George III declared war on the American colonists, but only because that is what parliament wanted. Since 1688, parliament has held political power in the United Kingdom.
Thomas Jefferson, the American rebel who drafted the Declaration of Independence, observed that:
Societies exist under three forms sufficiently distinguishable. 1. Without government, as among our Indians. 2. Under governments wherein the will of every one has a just influence, as is the case in England in a slight degree, and in our states in a great one. 3. Under governments of force: as is the case in all other monarchies and in most of the other republics. To have an idea of the curse of existence under these last, they must be seen. It is a government of wolves over sheep.
Over the past 150 years, the courts and the Congress in the United States have concentrated power in the office of the president to an extreme that undermines the original intent of the drafters of the Declaration of Independence. The American Heritage Dictionary offers a definition of tyranny as “A government in which a single ruler is vested with absolute power.”
The president of the United States today sits in the Oval Office, reviewing kill lists and unilaterally ordering extrajudicial executions, including American citizens. Are these the actions of a government in a free society?