The Founders' Thoughts on War

The American Founders were very concerned about military conflict.

Yesterday evening, President Donald Trump ordered military strikes against Syria in retaliation for an alleged chemical weapons attack on civilians. There are two bitterly divided camps on the issue, one side which believes that chemical weapons attacks cannot be tolerated and require a response of force; the other, that the United States has no business in Syria whatsoever, and we ought to avoid another war in the Middle East.

I fall into the latter category. I think that more war in an already chaotic Middle East is ill-advised and only going to lead to more problems, including exacerbating the refugee crisis that is overwhelming Europe. Not only that, military action in Syria, as it stands right now is unconstitutional and illegal. Both Article I of the Constitution and the War Powers Act of 1973 heavily restricts the President's ability to engage in military conflict, and it's a shame that another President is disregarding both sets of law.

This issue is one that the American Founders were very concerned about, and it was the subject of a great deal of debate before, during, and after the Constitutional Convention. All throughout early American history, these great minds gave a multitude of reasons to put legal restrictions on the executive's power to wage war; because of the fight for independence, they held valuable experience and insight that we would be wise to consider.

These are just a few short passages about our country's Founders' thoughts on war. I don't think that any of them would say that the President's strike against Syria was legal or wise, especially not George Washington.

". . . The power to declare war, including the power of judging the causes of war, is fully and exclusively vested in the legislature . . . the executive has no right, in any case, to decide the question, whether there is or is not cause for declaring war." - James Madison, 1793.

"This system will not hurry us into war; it is calculated to guard against it. It will not be in the power of a single man, or a single body of men, to involve us in such distress; for the important power of declaring war is vested in the legislature at large. . . ." - James Wilson, 1787.

"I abhor war and view it as the greatest scourge of mankind." - Thomas Jefferson, 1797

"Over grown military establishments are under any form of government inauspicious to liberty, and are to be regarded as particularly hostile to republican liberty." - George Washington

"The Constitution vests the power of declaring War with Congress, therefore no offensive expedition of importance can be undertaken until after they shall have deliberated upon the subject, and authorised such a measure." - George Washington, 1793

"My first wish is to see this plague of mankind, war, banished from the earth." - George Washington, 1785

"Great is the guilt of an unnecessary war." - John Adams, 1794

And finally, this is what I think is one of the power powerful indictments against war.

"Of all the enemies to public liberty, war is, perhaps, the most to be dreaded, because it comprises and develops the germ of every other. War is the parent of armies; from these proceed debts and taxes; and armies, and debts, and taxes are the known instruments for bringing the many under the domination of the few. In war, too, the discretionary power of the Executive is extended; its influence in dealing out offices, honors, and emoluments is multiplied; and all the means of seducing the minds are added to those of subduing the force of the people. The same malignant aspect in republicanism may be traced in the inequality of fortunes and the opportunities of fraud growing out of a state of war, and in the degeneracy of manners and of morals engendered by both. No nation could reserve its freedom in the midst of continual warfare." - James Madison, 1795

As a young male in his 20s, I take a particular interest in this subject. If more military conflict is created, it will quite possibly draw in bigger powers against us in violent clashes, possibly even Russia. If that happens, I fear a re-institution of the draft, where I would be conscripted to fight in a war that we had no business fighting in the first place.

We have enough problems to solve here in the United States. If we cannot keep our own house in order, how can we possibly expect to solve anyone else's problems? I think these are legitimate questions for us to consider during this time.

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