Presidential Machismo: Executive Authority, Military Intervention, and Foreign Relations

Presidential Machismo: Executive Authority, Military Intervention, and Foreign Relations

by Alexander Deconde

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The U.S. presidency is the most powerful office in the world, claiming a prerogative to exercise force in foreign affairs that, according to Harry S. Truman, would have made Caesar or Genghis Khan envious. This book offers a historical account of how presidents from George Washington to Bill Clinton have asserted their privilege as commander in chief, examining

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The U.S. presidency is the most powerful office in the world, claiming a prerogative to exercise force in foreign affairs that, according to Harry S. Truman, would have made Caesar or Genghis Khan envious. This book offers a historical account of how presidents from George Washington to Bill Clinton have asserted their privilege as commander in chief, examining their penchant for using military might unilaterally and their reasons for doing so. It asks why a democracy allows presidents to exercise such immense power virtually as a personal right.

Taking in a wide range of sources in diplomatic history and presidential studies, Alexander DeConde shows how the expansion of executive authority began long before the United States became a world power. He explains how it has evolved that U.S. presidents exercise a greater authority and control over foreign affairs and military matters than is granted to most other heads of republican governments.

DeConde attributes much of this pugnacious behavior to "machismo"-the display of virility-on the part of men already attracted to power, concluding that even weak presidents act differently when flexing their military muscle. He reveals how presidential machismo has thrived as modern media and the American people celebrate executive accomplishments in foreign affairs, elevating those who wage successful wars to the status of heroes.

Presidential Machismo approaches this issue with an overdue irreverence that questions the bold use of executive authority and serves as a corrective to the cult of veneration.

Editorial Reviews

Library Journal
DeConde (emeritus, history, Univ. of California, Santa Barbara) looks at the presidential use of force, suggesting that often our Chief Executives resort to military action not for national security reasons but to prove themselves as men. This presidential machismo is not inborn but "socially constructed." Examining the use of force from Washington to Clinton, DeConde sees only two presidents who avoided the drive for machismo: John Adams and Herbert Hoover. Well researched and clearly written, this convincing account of how presidents have aggrandized war powers--sometimes for legitimate, often for less legitimate, more personal reasons--reinforces the wisdom of the Framers in giving Congress the power to declare war for fear that that power might corrupt an executive. DeConde powerfully argues for a return to the constitutional restraints on the president. An important contribution to the literature on war powers; recommended for public and academic libraries.--Michael A. Genovese, Loyola Marymount Univ., Los Angeles Copyright 1999 Cahners Business Information.
DeConde (history, University of California, Santa Barbara) offers a historical account of how presidents from Washington to Clinton have asserted their privilege as commander in chief, examining their penchant for using military might unilaterally and their reasons for doing so. He explains how executive authority has evolved so that US presidents exercise greater control over foreign affairs and military matters than most other heads of republican governments, and reveals how presidential machismo has thrived as modern media and the American people celebrate executive accomplishments in foreign affairs. Annotation c. Book News, Inc., Portland, OR (

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Northeastern University Press
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Presidential Machismo

Executive Authority, Military Intervention, and Foreign Relations
By Alexander DeConde

Northeastern University Press

Copyright © 1999 Alexander DeConde
All right reserved.

ISBN: 1555534031

Chapter One

Origins Of Activism

War is in fact the true nurse of executive aggrandizement. In war, a physical force is to be created; and it is the executive will which is to direct it.... In war the honors and emoluments of office are to be multiplied; and it is executive patronage under which they are to be enjoyed. Hence it has grown into an axiom that the executive is the department of power most distinguished by its propensity to war: hence it is the practice of all states, in proportion as they are free, to disarm this propensity of its influence.... It is in war, finally, that laurels are to be gathered, and it is the executive brow they are to encircle.

James Madison, "Helvidius" No. 4, Sept. 14, 1793

Two Constitutions

Scholars debate the precise causes of the American Revolution but one prominent theory holds that "the dominance, through corruption, of the executive branch over the legislative branch" in the English government precipitated it. Most rebel leaders, liketheir English forebears, however, distrusted executive authority more than that of the legislature. They blamed the Crown for the troubles that produced the revolt. This perspective influenced members of the rebel Congress and America's first constitution makers.

    On July 12, 1776, ten days after the Second Continental Congress had voted for independence, a committee headed by John Dickinson of Pennsylvania presented a draft of America's first constitution, the Articles of Confederation and Perpetual Union, to the members for their consideration. For more than a year the delegates debated the powers they wished to entrust to a central government, until November 15 of the next year, when they formally adopted the articles and sent them to the states for ratification. Finally, on March 1, 1781, after all thirteen states had approved, the articles went into effect. In the words of Chevalier de la Luzerne, the French minister to the United States, they were "by everyone's consent an incomplete and irregular System of government."

    This criticism stemmed from the new government's lack of an executive office. Those who drafted the articles had omitted such a post deliberately because of the former colonists' experience with government under British rule, which had left them with a deep distrust of power concentrated in the hands of any one individual. Regarding the executive magistracy as the natural enemy of liberty, they associated executive authority with military tyranny as well as with the denial of individual rights. All of the state constitutions they framed, except that of New York, reduced the executive to a position of decided subordination to the legislature.

    Reflecting this mistrust, the Articles of Confederation provided for a single legislature that would choose one of its members to preside over its sessions. This constitution also stipulated that no one could serve as president of the Congress for more than one year in any three-year congressional term. Furthermore, this floating executive had no special policymaking authority over foreign affairs, over their conduct, or over the waging of war. Only Congress could exercise those powers--but under constraint. It could not enter treaties and alliances or make war except with the consent of at least nine states.

    In creating departments of foreign affairs and of war with secretaries who reported to Congress, the confederation government at least possessed the basis for a form of ministerial responsibility that might have developed into a parliamentary democracy. That government never had a chance to evolve in that direction. Critics abroad and elsewhere continued to exaggerate its weaknesses "as so many Anarchies, of which the people themselves are weary."

    The confederation appeared especially frail in dealing with foreign crises, as with the Barbary states--Morocco, Algiers, Tunis, and Tripoli--strung along the North African coast. Immediately following the new nation's independence, corsairs from these petty states preyed on its commerce and enslaved its seamen. In July 1785, encouraged by the British who wanted to frighten American traders out of the Mediterranean, Algiers even declared war on the United States.

    John Jay, the secretary for foreign affairs and a former president of Congress, viewed the declaration as "made solely with Design to acquire Plunder" and hence favored responding with vigorous measures. As an astute observer noted, he had "acquired a particular ascendancy over the members of Congress." He handled the nation's important business, acting as a kind of de facto executive. His personal desire to make war with Algiers, therefore, carried considerable weight with Congress. "War alone can bring together the various States, and give a new importance to Congress," he asserted. "War, and war alone, will give us Citizens, patriotism, and soldiers" and "would serve as a bond to the confederation." Despite his influence, Jay failed to persuade the necessary two-thirds of the Congress to accept his proposal.

    Shortly thereafter, the disappointed Jay and other prominent political figures such as George Washington, Alexander Hamilton, and James Madison decided to do something about the perceived inadequacies of the articles, especially regarding the conduct of foreign relations. Hamilton maintained that "Congress is, properly, a deliberative corps, and it forgets itself when it attempts to play the executive." In the same vein, Madison contended "Our Executive is the worst part of a bad Constitution." He also averred that all members of Congress agreed "that the Federal government, in its existing shape, was inefficient and could not last long."

    Fearing disunion without a constitutional alteration, these leaders agitated for amendments to the articles that would establish a more powerful central government. In September 1786, a few of them tried to effect change through a convention held in Annapolis, Maryland, but failed. Nonetheless, they lobbied Congress to call for a second convention, which it did on February 21, 1787. Deputies appointed by the states were to meet for the sole purpose of revising the Articles of Confederation. That task began on May 25 in Philadelphia when delegates from seven states, sufficient to form a quorum, arrived. In the course of the proceedings, the members decided to dump the articles and frame a new constitution.

    Unlike the earlier constitution makers, many of these delegates did not view an executive office as abhorrent. Realizing that other nations' legislatures did not conduct foreign policy, most of them regarded an energetic executive as necessary for a government that would involve itself in international affairs. Accordingly, they abandoned the old commitment to a supreme legislature. Even so, these founders recognized that regardless of what prevailed elsewhere, they had to take into account a still potent popular distrust of centralized authority. A Delaware Whig expressed this fear succinctly. "The executive power," he wrote, "is ever restless, ambitious and ever grasping at encrease of power."

    Others who opposed setting up a permanent presidential office contended that history, particularly of Europe, demonstrated the lust of rulers for wealth and other forms of power that brought about wars. The aged Benjamin Franklin, who favored plural leadership, warned that a single executive could be too ambitious and fond of war. Other delegates of this persuasion repeatedly denounced those in the convention who advocated a strong executive as adherents of monarchy. Elbridge Gerry, of Massachusetts pointed out, for instance, that even if the convention were to recommend an executive in the form of a limited monarchy it might not work because "the genius of the people were decidedly averse to it." Charles Pinckney of South Carolina wanted "a vigorous Executive" but feared its powers "might extend to peace & war & which would render the Executive a Monarchy of the worst kind, to wit an elective one."

    As constitutional scholars point out, this discussion over the nature of the presidency consumed more of the convention's time than any other major problem. Throughout the course of the deliberations, the proexecutive framers attempted to create a head of nation who would possess authority without having overarching powers, notably in matters involving military action. How to attain this objective perplexed them more than anything else on their agenda. After spending twenty-one days debating the issue, the founders resolved the question by creating a presidential office that would operate under specified controls. They separated it from the legislative and judicial branches of government with a system of checks and balances that in theory would prevent the president from becoming a tyrant.

    In keeping with this objective while fixing the extent of the executive authority, the framers placed more curbs on the president's power in domestic affairs than in matters of foreign policy. They also denied him the most vital of monarchical powers as practiced in eighteenth-century England and the paramount foreign-policy power, that of initiating war. They vested that authority in Congress. This restraint on the executive reflected the prevailing view that individual leaders had always been more prone to use the war power than had legislators or the people. In theory, the legislature's power to declare war--its "nearly complete authority over the commencement of war"--would check presidents' impulsive use of military force.

    As James Wilson of Pennsylvania, an accomplished legal scholar who favored strength in the executive, explained to his constituents, "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." Once hostilities commenced, though, Wilson and the other framers placed the president in the restricted role of conducting the war as the civilian commander in chief of the armed forces. This assignment accorded with the practice of most other established countries where the executive commanded armies and navies.

    The framers did not view the title of commander in chief as conferring control over the power to declare or instigate war. They perceived it as amounting to "nothing more than the supreme command and direction of the military and naval forces" so as to maintain civil authority over them. In later years, presidents, students of the office, and others would follow a far more expansive interpretation that would, in their judgment, make the Commander in Chief Clause "one of the most important in the Constitution." Even so, most constitutional scholars hold to the original view. It states essentially that the clause "vested in the president only the authority to repel sudden attacks on the United States and to direct war, 'when authorized or begun.'"

    Influenced by eighteenth-century political theory, the framers did leave an opening for possible discord by dividing authority, over foreign relations between the executive and legislative branches. Constitutional experts point out, however, that the founders "did not intend the President to be an independent and dominating force, let alone the domineering one, in the making of foreign policy." When he might have need to use military force in carrying out policy, they envisaged him as the "agent of Congress." Under virtually all circumstances, the founders wished the legislature to control the armed forces and the "making and conduct of war."

    Even though the Constitution framers laid out the executive's role in this scheme with impressive clarity, future promoters of the strong president idea would question the limited authority allotted him. They would claim the founders had diluted their intent by allowing the executive a leeway in the use of military force that overlapped Congress's war power. Presidents, politicians, scholars, and others grasped this alleged blurring of responsibility to depict the executive power as indefinable or, at least, ambiguous.

    Years later, a foremost constitutional analyst expanded this characterization by calling, in exaggerated rhetoric, the shared authority between legislature and executive "an invitation to struggle for the privilege of directing American foreign policy." Devotees of the executive cult went further. They argued that the founders endowed the presidency with a considerable, even awesome, power in conducting foreign affairs and with the potential for acquiring more.

    With noteworthy insight, critics of the presidency in the founding generation warned against such empowerment. Most of them argued the Constitution granted the president too much power, a vesting "dangerous to a free people." Another dissenter predicted that once a man acquired the office "his greatest object will be to keep it ... he will spare no artifice, no address, and no exertions to increase the powers and importance of it; the servile supporters of his wishes will be placed in all offices," constantly advance his views, and sound his praises. In later years presidents, their political supporters, and their sycophants would act in this manner. Their lawyers and others would exploit constitutional ambiguities, whether real or imagined, to inflate executive authority.

    For example, these counselors would latch on to philosopher John Locke's conception of inherent power, or what he called the executive prerogative. In England, he said, "that Prerogative was always largest in the hands of our wisest and best Princes." Being "satisfied with these princes, whenever they acted without or contrary to the Letter of the Law," the people acquiesced, letting "them inlarge their Prerogative as they pleased." From this thinking sprang the idea that the executive "must be granted great independence in the sphere of foreign relations" and over the related matters of war and peace.

    Analysts have shown, however, that the political thinkers of the founding generation seldom cited Locke. Indeed, investigators have found no evidence of intent by the framers to incorporate the godlike Lockean prerogative in the Constitution. Nor have they uncovered data that explains how the inherent-power idea leaped from their minds into the Constitution. In brief, the men at Philadelphia recognized no right to act against the basic written law. Later, though, upholders of the strong presidency would use Locke's doctrine of a natural executive power to justify presidential behavior whether or not for the public good, whether or not sanctioned by statute, and whether or not employed in defiance of the Constitution.

    When the strong-executive advocates would seek to bolster their position with perspective from the founders, as in the employment of military. force without a declaration of war, they would often take the framers' words out of context and bend their intended meaning. For further specific support, these believers in expansive presidential power often turned to Hamilton, a foremost defender of such authority. Writing for newspapers to persuade his fellow citizens to accept the Constitution, he attacked the prevailing wisdom "that a vigorous executive is inconsistent with the genius of republican government." He maintained, instead, that "energy in the executive is a leading character in the definition of good government."

    In the end, the framers and then the electorate agreed to what many of them had feared and had tried to prevent--an office that in some aspects, as in foreign affairs, through the reinventing of its powers had the potential to become a kind of elective kingship. The office moved in this direction because the force of presidents' personalities and their individual drives for power became more important than original intent.

George Washington

Initially in the new government, the monarchical potential seemed to pose no real problem because the framers knew that Washington, who presided over the convention and already had become something of an icon, would be the first holder of the presidential office. They assumed he would not even attempt to abuse its authority. As John Paul Jones put it, "General Washington might be safely trusted with such tempting power as the Chief Command of the Fleet and Army," but in other hands it would endanger liberty. Jones and others who worried about the war power believed "the President should be only the first Civil Magistrate, let him command the Military with the Pen, but deprive him of the power to draw his sword."


Excerpted from Presidential Machismo by Alexander DeConde Copyright © 1999 by Alexander DeConde. Excerpted by permission.
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