The U.S. Military, the Founders, and Original Intent

war weary
It’s too easy to speak of war in the abstract … the Founders knew better

W.J. Astore

In America, you sometimes hear talk of “original intent” (or strict constructionism) from conservatives, usually applied to the courts and especially to the Supreme Court.  The idea is to neuter “activist” judges by pressuring them to stick to the letter of the U.S. Constitution as written in the 1780s (as if that document has never required amendment), thereby upholding the original intent of the Founders (as if those men were gods who never got anything wrong).

Why is it, though, that original intent is never applied to America’s vast military establishment?  Because when you read the Founders, you learn they were strongly against large standing armies and vehemently criticized the anti-democratic nature and sheer wastefulness of wars.

James Madison was especially eloquent speaking against war.  In 1793, he wrote that: “In no part of the constitution is more wisdom found than in the clause which confines the question of war or peace to the legislature, and not to the executive department. War is in fact the true nurse of executive aggrandizement.”

Madison knew presidents could readily enlarge their powers by waging constant wars, just as Britain’s kings had.  So he and his fellow Founders did their best to subjugate the army to Congress through various laws, such as funding it for only two years while also having each member of the House stand for reelection every two years.  An unpopular and wasteful war, Madison figured, wouldn’t be funded after two years, forcing a president to put an end to it.  Voters, meanwhile, would act to get rid of Members of Congress who foolishly or selfishly supported such a war.

Madison, of course, lived in a time when America’s vast and powerful military-industrial complex didn’t exist.  That Complex is now a fourth branch of government that the Founders didn’t anticipate.  But what if the Complex either didn’t exist or could be reined in, and what if “original intent” could be applied to America’s Department of Defense?  We’d see a few things change:

1. No large standing army, thereby reducing American foolhardiness in places like Iraq, Afghanistan, and elsewhere.
2. Only defensive wars.  An end to the Iraq and Afghan wars would be a start.
3. Gun ownership would be contingent on the willingness and ability to serve in the militia (National Guard or Reserves).
4. No wars, no “overseas contingency operations,” without a formal Congressional declaration.
5. Firm Congressional oversight of all military operations.  An end to secrecy — the military must be accountable to the people.

The president, of course, serves as commander-in-chief.  But here the intent of the Founders was to firmly subordinate the military to civilian control.  It was not to empower the president as a quasi-generalissimo.  So the days of presidents making near-unilateral decisions to commit American troops abroad must end, as it is totally contrary to the original intent of the U.S. Constitution.

Of course, I’m not arguing that we slavishly follow the Founders — in that case, we’d still have slavery, and in more ways than one.  The point is that if we’re going to look to the Founders and celebrate their wisdom, let’s not do that merely for narrow partisan political gain.  Let’s do it in a way that truly nourishes and enlivens democracy.  Ending our permanent state of debilitating and destructive militarism and warfare would be a fine start.  Madison, I think, would approve.

Note: to read more on this subject, see Greg Foster’s “Why the Founding Fathers Would Object to Today’s Military” (2013) at  As Foster notes, the Founders were not anti-military; they were anti-militarism.  And, having experienced the pains of war, they took pains to prevent future ones.  Let’s emulate them here.

7 thoughts on “The U.S. Military, the Founders, and Original Intent

  1. My “lockdown” reading has included two books I think you’d appreciate:-    The Cost of Loyalty by Tim Bakken-    Losing Military Supremacy by Andrei Martyanov Peace!Nicolas Davies


  2. I have commented numerous times (surprising myself!) on the Founding Fathers. So I’ll strain to be brief here: 1.) the GOP, of course, now has a policy of installing their own “activist judges” to try to counter what they perceive as an excessively “liberal” judiciary. This is one of the major problems we face in this country at present; 2.) as I understand it, per the Constitution, POTUS only transforms into C-in-C when Congress officially declares war! Thus, we haven’t had a “proper” C-in-C in decades! Just poseurs with bad intentions!; 3.) at least one of the Founders (name has escaped me, but I read it in “The Federalist Papers”) wrote that he’d be fine with the US becoming an empire; 4.) the problem with Congress’s war power is that they can still be (conveniently?) duped into declaring war based on fake “intel” briefings or a false flag attack on US property; 5.) since SCOTUS–as presently constituted and going forward as far as we can imagine–holds the original Second Amendment sacrosanct, there is no court ruling to properly define “a well regulated militia.” If we take the NG and Reserves as their modern equivalent, then firearms ownership by private citizens should be restricted to those pledging to only use them for hunting or defense of their own lives against “bandits.” Being a member of a Nazi “militia” pledged to restore “White Power” would not qualify for acquisition of semi-automatic assault rifles!…Well, I guess I strained in vain for brevity, but I believe these are very important points.

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  3. War profiteering assures that wars will be endless. At this point, even taking the money out of politics—were that a possibility—wouldn’t stop the MIC. The U.S. doesn’t have a population engaged enough to rise up and stop the insanity on any front.


    1. Indeed, you have hit the nail of our sad reality on the head. The US population is so spoiled rotten by residing in the world’s only Superpower, where our least-privileged poor can still look down their noses at the residents of the world’s very-poorest societies, and where our infrastructure has not known the ravages of war for so long, that the very idea of rebellion is viewed as something as alien as a coronavirus. There’s a vast difference, after all, between an employee’s feeling that “My boss is a real jerk!”–keeping things on the very narrow, personal level–and an understanding of just how we’re exploited and fu*ked over growing to a level of actually doing something to change the status quo. This comment likely makes me appear a “defeatist.” I prefer to consider myself a hard realist.


      1. When defeated, to accept reality IS to be a defeatist. Fortunately, nothing lasts forever, and plagues have this tendency to kill off people who ignore reality, thus opening people’s eyes and bringing change about. Maybe I seem a bit too optimistic, but perhaps that’s because I’m a resourceful little bastard who knows how to survive tough times. Then again, I will admit that I look down MY nose at people who live in gilded bubbles they call cities, especially at a time like this.


  4. Reminds me of a speech by US Marine General Smedley Butler given in 1933: here’s a portion- “War is just a racket. A racket is best described, I believe, as something that is not what it seems to the majority of people. Only a small inside group knows what it is about. It is conducted for the benefit of the very few at the expense of the masses.

    I believe in adequate defense at the coastline and nothing else. If a nation comes over here to fight, then we’ll fight. The trouble with America is that when the dollar only earns 6 percent over here, then it gets restless and goes overseas to get 100 percent. Then the flag follows the dollar and the soldiers follow the flag.

    I wouldn’t go to war again as I have done to protect some lousy investment of the bankers. There are only two things we should fight for. One is the defense of our homes and the other is the Bill of Rights. War for any other reason is simply a racket.

    There isn’t a trick in the racketeering bag that the military gang is blind to. It has its “finger men” to point out enemies, its “muscle men” to destroy enemies, its “brain men” to plan war preparations, and a “Big Boss” Super-Nationalistic-Capitalism.

    It may seem odd for me, a military man to adopt such a comparison. Truthfulness compels me to. I spent thirty-three years and four months in active military service as a member of this country’s most agile military force, the Marine Corps. I served in all commissioned ranks from Second Lieutenant to Major-General. And during that period, I spent most of my time being a high class muscle- man for Big Business, for Wall Street and for the Bankers. In short, I was a racketeer, a gangster for capitalism.

    I suspected I was just part of a racket at the time. Now I am sure of it. Like all the members of the military profession, I never had a thought of my own until I left the service. My mental faculties remained in suspended animation while I obeyed the orders of higher-ups. This is typical with everyone in the military service.

    I helped make Mexico, especially Tampico, safe for American oil interests in 1914. I helped make Haiti and Cuba a decent place for the National City Bank boys to collect revenues in. I helped in the raping of half a dozen Central American republics for the benefits of Wall Street. The record of racketeering is long. I helped purify Nicaragua for the international banking house of Brown Brothers in 1909-1912 (where have I heard that name before?). I brought light to the Dominican Republic for American sugar interests in 1916. In China I helped to see to it that Standard Oil went its way unmolested.

    During those years, I had, as the boys in the back room would say, a swell racket. Looking back on it, I feel that I could have given Al Capone a few hints. The best he could do was to operate his racket in three districts. I operated on three continents.”

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