The Magazine

Washington’s Monument

The roots of presidential war-making power are deep.

Nov 18, 2013, Vol. 19, No. 10 • By ILAN WURMAN
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This history is useful as far as it goes, and it helps us understand the role of the commander in chief. At least equally important, however, is the fact that the Framers gave Congress the power to “make Rules concerning Captures on Land and Water.” This history is not enough to make sweeping claims about whether Washington’s practice could be repeated—though, careful as always, Beirne avoids overreaching in his argument.

George Washington was seen as the paragon of a virtuous and good commander in chief. One Dutch businessman, upon glimpsing Washington, wrote that he had seen “the greatest man who has ever appeared on the surface of the earth.” There can be no denying that his leadership served as a model for future commanders in chief, but we must be careful in drawing this conclusion. Washington may well have been the greatest and most virtuous man of his era; but would future presidents be as virtuous? No one doubted Washington’s virtue, but the presidency had to be crafted for all future occupants of the office. The Framers were aware of this necessity, and created an executive of limited duration, giving to Congress some traditional executive powers. They drafted the Constitution with a view to a future after George Washington.

Ilan Wurman is clerk to Judge Jerry E. Smith of the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Fifth Circuit.