Presidential Power - The quasi-war and after



John Adams thought carefully about the powers of the evolving presidency. He believed in a strong executive because "the unity, the secrecy, the dispatch of one man has no equal." To prevent abuses in the office, he felt that "the executive power should be watched by all men." He described the president as the leader of "a monarchical republic" who exercised greater power than heads of government in various European countries. He perceived the American president's prerogatives as "so transcendent that they must naturally and necessarily excite in the nation all the jealousy, envy, fears, apprehensions, and opposition that are so constantly observed in England against the crown." While deploring limitations on the president's authority, as "in cases of war," he still acknowledged that "the legislative power in our constitution is greater than the executive."

In July 1797, after the French stepped up attacks on American commerce, Adams moved to resolve the crisis, much of which he had inherited. When French officials humiliated his emissaries, he asked his cabinet if he should recommend to Congress an immediate declaration of war. When the cabinet split, he decided against seeking a formalized war, sent copies of the envoys' dispatches to Congress substituting the letters W, X, Y, and Z for the French officials involved, and asked the legislators to authorize preparations for war. He also took steps to protect the lives of American citizens from French attacks and to convey publicly the image of a vigorous executive. When Congress, under Federalist pressure, published the XYZ documents, much of the public reacted with a demand for war that brought Adams a popularity he had always lacked. He gloried in the role of a warrior-leader, delivering numerous combative speeches while sporting a military uniform and a sword. He told approving crowds, "Let us have war." This bellicosity alarmed opposition Republicans. One of them, George Logan of Pennsylvania, warned that ambitious executives launched wars more for their own aggrandizement than for the protection of their country.

Despite such sentiment, Federalists in Congress voted for warlike measures. For the first time under the Constitution, in recognition of undeclared hostilities at sea, Congress empowered the president to deploy naval forces on a scale larger than a short-term police action. When extreme Federalists pressured Adams to expand this Quasi-War, as it later became known, Adams wavered. He did so not because of an unwillingness to use more force but because he questioned his power to do so without the consent of Congress. He believed, furthermore, that minority Republicans, with some moderate Federalists, would vote against a declaration of war.

Extreme Federalists then characterized Adams as lacking the virile qualities they presumed necessary in the strong executive. Feeling betrayed by many of his own party on this issue, Adams changed his perspective toward a full-scale war. Consequently, when the French offered a second round of peace negotiations, Adams welcomed the overture. He then a sent a second mission to France, and expansion of the Quasi-War became an issue in the presidential campaign of 1800. Republicans portrayed themselves as friends of peace and Federalists as partisans of war. On 1 October the American negotiators in France signed the Convention of Mortefontaine that ended the war. News of the peace arrived in the United States too late to benefit Adams in the election. Thomas Jefferson won. Nonetheless, Adams later regarded his decision for peace as the "most disinterested and meritorious action of my life." It set a noble example for posterity but his use of naval force set a less admirable precedent. Future presidents would invoke it, under the concept of an implied constitutional power, when they employed the military unilaterally in limited hostilities against weak foes.

Even though Jefferson took office as a believer in strict construction, meaning a narrow interpretation of the Constitution, he acted on the assumption of a magnified construction of presidential power in foreign policy in the pattern set by Washington. He claimed that only the president could carry on transactions with foreign governments. Within two weeks of his inauguration, Jefferson decided to send four warships to North Africa to protect American shipping against attack by alleged pirates along the Barbary Coast.

Shortly thereafter he asked his cabinet if he should seek a declaration of war from Congress. Treasury Secretary Albert Gallatin responded that the president "cannot put us in a state of war," but if other nations put us in that state the executive could on his own use military force. Without consulting Congress or receiving its sanction, he waged war, or what later would be called a police action, against the Barbary States. Later, Congress did authorize the president to employ the navy at his discretion.

Meanwhile, after Jefferson learned in May 1801 that France had reacquired Louisiana from Spain, his strict constructionist views clashed with his concept of a strong executive power in foreign affairs. He considered the possibility of war to block consummation of the transfer and to safeguard the American right of deposit at New Orleans. First, in January 1801, he sent a special emissary to France with a proposal to purchase New Orleans and territory at the mouth of the Mississippi River. When Napoleon Bonaparte offered to sell all of the Louisiana Territory, Jefferson hesitated to act on his own. Soon, though, he decided to act "beyond the Constitution" and not let "metaphysical subtleties" stand in the way of a great bargain that would benefit the nation. He thus added to the precedents for extending presidential authority in international matters beyond its original constitutional limits. Under the concept of enlarged authority, Jefferson claimed, on questionable ground, Spain's West Florida as part of the Louisiana Purchase. He threatened force if Spain did not acquiesce. Although most cognizant Americans approved of his bellicosity as proper presidential vigor, he backed off from hostilities mainly because of deteriorating relations with England and France. In a crisis with Britain in June 1807, when a British warship attacked the American naval frigate Chesapeake, Jefferson at first appeared eager for war, but when public sentiment for it dwindled he retreated. When he left office, he retained faith in the strong executive willing to use military force with the support of Congress and in some circumstances on his own.

When James Madison took over the White House, he had the experience of having helped create the presidency and, as Jefferson's secretary of state, of having administered foreign affairs for eight years. Still, he had less confidence in executive authority than did Jefferson. He had frequently expressed the view that the president, "being a single individual, with nothing to balance his faults and deficiencies, was as likely to go wrong as the average citizen." His views fluctuated over time, leading him later to believe "in the large construction of Executive authority," notably in the conduct of foreign affairs.

As president, Madison secretly backed American settlers who in July 1810 seized West Florida from its Spanish authorities. For a time he hesitated in annexing it to the United States, fearing such openly unilateral action would raise "serious questions as to the authority of the Executive." Within four months he overcame his qualms and took over the territory. Many Americans applauded what they saw as proper presidential power. One senator said that if the president had not taken West Florida, he would have been charged with imbecility.

For almost three years, Madison resisted pressure from hawks in his own party to take bold measures against Britain, action that would most likely precipitate war. Federalists, however, opposed hostilities. When on 1 June 1812 he requested a declaration of war, he used his power to persuade wavering legislators to support him. During the hostilities he could not, however, capitalize on that power without encountering considerable public defiance. The war went badly and became unpopular. Critics denounced him for lacking effective leadership. Some scholars would later characterize him as a failed executive and a weak war leader. Yet in annexing West Florida he had been high-handed and as tough as his predecessors.

James Monroe, too, acquired a reputation as a passive leader, but he contributed to the enlarging of presidential power in international affairs through the use of an executive agreement. In the Rush-Bagot Agreement in April 1817 with Britain that limited naval armaments on the Great Lakes, he bypassed the Senate's veto power over treaties. He thus set the precedent for unilateral action that technically operated only during the term of a president who negotiated an agreement. Nonetheless, executive agreements became an effective means for presidents to exercise power in foreign affairs without congressional consent.

Monroe faced the possibility of war with England and Spain when Andrew Jackson, at the head of a small army, in April 1818 raided East Florida and executed two English subjects. Although Monroe had not authorized the incursion, Secretary of State John Quincy Adams defended Jackson, stating that his actions involved "the Executive power to authorize war without a declaration of war by Congress." He believed that if the president disclaimed such power he would set "a dangerous example; and of evil consequences." Monroe quickly embraced this argument, calling Jackson's invasion of a neighbor's territory self-defense. Critics denounced the invasion as an act of war without the consent of Congress. "If it be not war…," one of them stated, "let it be called a man-killing expedition which the President has a right to direct whenever he pleases."

Several years later, when militants wanted Monroe to defend Spain's rebelling colonies against recon quest, he decided to act on his own but not with force. On 2 December 1823, he warned European powers not to intervene in the New World struggles. This concept, in what became known as the Monroe Doctrine and accepted by future presidents, demonstrated another aspect of executive power in foreign matters, the ability to influence with words.

Through deed as well as word, Andrew Jackson acquired the reputation of a vigorous no-nonsense president in both foreign and domestic affairs. His concept of an expansive authority surfaced in an incident in 1831 with Argentine authorities in the Falkland Islands (Islas Malvinas). On the basis of slim evidence, he accused them of endangering the lives of American seal hunters. He threatened force that critics said brought the nation to the brink of war, but he did not go much beyond words.

In another dispute, when marauders from the town of Kuala Batu, Sumatra, killed three American pepper traders, Jackson used force. On his orders, on 6 February 1832, an assault force of 262 heavily armed marines attacked the town, torched it, and slaughtered more than a hundred Sumatrans, some of them women. Political opponents wondered, "If the President can direct expeditions with fire and sword against the Malays…why may he not have the power to do the same in reference to any other people." In this manner, "a very important provision of the Constitution may in time become a mere nullity." Defenders, though, praised Jackson for his executive energy.

Jackson also secretly aided American rebels in Texas in their fight in 1836 to secede from Mexico. In addition, he occupied militarily Mexican territory, ostensibly to protect Louisiana from cross-border raiders. John Quincy Adams, who had now abandoned his earlier advocacy of a presidential war authority, condemned this "most extraordinary power" as illegal. When Congress approved Jackson's action, Adams commented, the startling "idea that the Executive Chief Magistrate has the power of involving the nation in war even without consulting Congress" had taken root. It had grown, he maintained, out of fifty years of presidents' de facto exercise of such power.

Contemporaries characterized John Tyler as a man with talents not above mediocrity while historians rate him a weak president. Yet, he came up with a tactic for placing more power in the hands of the executive at the expense of Congress that later presidents would adopt. He wanted to acquire Texas but could not obtain a two-thirds majority in the Senate for a treaty of annexation. So, he asked the whole Congress to approve annexation with joint resolution that required only a mere majority. It agreed. Opponents, who called this action an abuse of power that evaded constitutional restraint, urged impeachment. Tyler prevailed, he explained later, because in handling foreign affairs he had been "freer of the furies of factional politics than he had been in domestic affairs."



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