James K. Polk came to the presidency belittled as another mediocrity. He vowed to reverse this popular perception by asserting vigorous leadership. He defended the annexation of Texas, with its potential for war with Mexico, and quickly stoked a quarrel with Britain over title to the Oregon territory. Despite some saber rattling, in the spring of 1846 he resolved the Oregon dispute peacefully. All the while he took a tougher stance against Mexico, which refused to recognize its loss of Texas.
Polk ordered troops to occupy disputed territory between Texas and Mexico implicitly, if not explicitly, with the intent to provoke hostilities. This tactic led a critic to ask, "Why should we not compromise our difficulties with Mexico as well as with Great Britain?" The answer could be found in the classic policy of aggressive leaders—compromise with the strong but bash the weak. So, when Mexican forces killed several of the American soldiers occupying the no-man's land north of the Rio Grande, the president claimed the Mexicans had shed American blood on American soil, an assertion disputed by Abraham Lincoln and other Whigs. Nonetheless, on 13 May 1846, a majority in Congress ratified the president's action by resolving that a state of war existed.
Dissenters charged that "a secretive, evasive, and high-handed president himself had provoked Mexico into firing the first shots." John C. Calhoun of South Carolina denounced Polk's procedure as "monstrous" because "it stripped Congress of the power of making war." The war bill "sets the example," he warned, "which will enable all future presidents to bring about a state of things, in which Congress shall be forced, without deliberation, or reflection, to declare war, however opposed to its convictions of justice or expediency." John Quincy Adams stated, "It is now established as an irreversible precedent" that the president "has but to declare that War exists, with any Nation upon Earth…and the War is essentially declared." Critics called the Mexican War an "Executive War" or "Mr. Polk's War." The House of Representatives voted to censure Polk for "unnecessarily and unconstitutionally" bringing on war. Lincoln stated that by accepting Polk's rationale, Congress allowed the president "to make war at pleasure." Polk mustered support for his policies with a quasi-official newspaper he established in Washington, D.C., but garnered most of his popularity by winning the war at low cost and bringing vast territory into the Union. In subsequent years, his aggressive style earned him the enduring admiration of the strong-presidency cult. In all, Polk stretched the president's power as commander in chief more than had his predecessors.
Polk's immediate successors readily accepted a narrow constitutional interpretation of their powers, sometimes called the Whig conception, and faced no foreign crises that tested that view. Although as a Whig congressman Abraham Lincoln had condemned Polk's amplification of executive power, as president he exercised that power boldly in both domestic and foreign affairs. In waging war against the Confederacy, Lincoln enlarged the army and navy by decree, paid out funds from the Treasury without congressional appropriation, suspended the writ of habeas corpus, and closed the mails to reasonable correspondence. He proclaimed, with questionable legality, a naval blockade of Confederate ports that embroiled the Union in unnecessary foreign quarrels. In the Trent affair, his government claimed exaggerated powers but backed down when confronted with the possibility of hostilities with Britain.
In September 1864, when Western powers organized an international naval force to retaliate against the Japanese for assaults on their shipping in the Strait of Shimonoseki, Lincoln cooperated with Britain and other nations. Thus, for the first time a president authorized a U.S. vessel to join a foreign armada in a police action to punish a foreign people for harming American nationals and others. American sailors remained engaged in this kind of policing, solely on presidential initiative, for a decade.
More importantly, during the Civil War critics denounced Lincoln's exercise of presidential authority as despotic. He justified his use of military force as within the executive's power to suppress rebellion, as within the scope of his authority as commander in chief, and as necessary for enabling him to take any necessary measure to subdue the enemy. His tough measures, he told Congress, "whether strictly legal or not," were forced upon him. He prevailed because he won both popular and legislative support. Numerous contemporaries and scores of scholars since his time have defended his arbitrary rule as necessary to preserve the Union and to emancipate four million slaves. These were noble causes and hence validate his actions as proper. Lincoln gave substance to the concept that, in a crisis, the president, in the name of the people, should dominate the government. Congress and the courts should defer to him. He enhanced the power of commander in chief beyond what the framers of the Constitution had envisioned or what previous executives had done. Aggressive successors would exploit this precedent, primarily in the conduct of foreign affairs.
Unlike most presidents, Benjamin Harrison came to office reputedly without the drive to amass power. Biographers indicate that this attitude changed after a dispute principally with Germany over Samoa. After tasting executive power in a foreign confrontation, it entranced him. He used this authority harshly in a dispute in 1891 with Italy over a lynching of Italian subjects in New Orleans and in humiliating Chile in the same year in a quarrel that grew out of a barroom brawl in Valparaiso, where a mob killed two American sailors. He demanded an apology and reparations. When the Chilean government hesitated, he threatened force. Analysts maintain he trumped Congress's war power as decisively as if he had unilaterally committed troops to battle. The constitutional niceties involved did not concern most Americans, who in large numbers applauded his toughness. Harrison intervened also in a revolution in Hawaii. He denied personal involvement but backed the revolutionaries and sought to annex the islands. In later years, he again shifted his perspective on foreign policy. He told a journalist, "We have no commission from God to police the world."
Grover Cleveland also had an ambivalent attitude toward presidential power. He came to office believing in a cautious interpretation of the Constitution's clauses on executive functions. He also regarded the presidency as superior to any executive position in the world, implying it had divine sanction. In office, he bridled at legislative restraints. During his first term, Cleveland intervened with surprising toughness in a domestic uprising in Nueva Granada (later Colombia), when he exaggerated a threat to America's right of transit across the Isthmus of Panama. Unilaterally, he dispatched more than twelve hundred marines backed with artillery to help crush rebels defying the central government. Jingoes applauded his vigor but people in the region regarded him as an imperialist bully. When Germany threatened to take over Samoa, in a kind of police action, he sent three warships to the islands to preserve their independence. No hostilities ensued but the big power confrontation continued.
In his second term, Cleveland acted with unnecessary bellicosity toward Britain in a dispute over the boundary separating British Guiana and Venezuela. Through an inflation of the Monroe Doctrine, he claimed unwarranted authority over the Western Hemisphere. Members of Congress and much of the public cheered the president's stance as a proper defense of national honor. Historians and others perceived his saber rattling, with its risk of war over a quarrel posing no threat to the United States, as a dangerous exploitation of presidential power.
In a rebellion in Cuba, Cleveland resisted pressure from Congress, journalists, and much of the concerned public to lead the country into war to force Spain to relinquish its colony. He told legislators, "There will be no war with Spain over Cuba while I am president." When one of them reminded him that Congress could on its own declare war, he responded that the Constitution also made him commander in chief. As such, he said, "I will not mobilize the army." Cleveland's perception of presidential power produced a standoff with Congress that lasted until he left office. Views vary on William McKinley's exercise of power in foreign affairs. Historians depict him as both dominant and passive. He entered the presidency with respect for congressional authority and with a circumscribed view of its powers. Instead of asking Congress for a declaration of war against Spain, he requested discretionary authority to use the armed forces. It led a senator to ask why legislators should "give the President power to intervene and make war, if he sees fit, without declaring war at all?" Congress granted McKinley the power he desired. He served an ultimatum on Spain, blockaded Cuban ports, and thus initiated hostilities. On 24 April 1898, Spain declared war, and the following day Congress voted that a state of war had existed since the date of the blockade. After that, the story goes, McKinley shed his passivity and became an aggressive, virile leader. He willingly took on the responsibility of war and, after victory, of policing another country's possession. Also at this time, when he could not round up enough votes in the Senate to annex Hawaii by treaty, he did so with a joint resolution of Congress, following the precedent set by Tyler. McKinley then governed the islands with a presidential commission.
When Filipinos demanded the right to rule themselves, McKinley refused, and they fought the American occupiers. He then deployed large forces in an undeclared war he justified as a police action. Critics asked, "How can a president of the great republic be blind to the truth that freedom is the same, that liberty is as dear and that self-government is as much a right in the Philippines as in the United States?"
McKinley exerted his will in another military venture. As commander in chief, he sent five thousand troops to China to join an international expeditionary force to suppress Boxer rebels. Analysts point out that he intervened for political purposes, or to demonstrate hard-hitting leadership in foreign affairs in an election year. Publicly, though, he justified his "international police duty" with the now established principle of protecting American lives and property. The Philadelphia Times, however, termed the intervention "an absolute declaration of war by the executive without the authority or knowledge of Congress, and it is without excuse because it is not necessary." Neither constitutional restraints nor the critics mattered much because both Congress and the public approved of McKinley's conduct. Partisan biographers and analysts have viewed him as a courageous executive who maneuvered both Congress and the public into accepting presidential primacy in foreign relations. They praise him also for asserting executive power in external affairs in an era of purported congressional ascendancy.