Enlightenment Ideas are found throughout the Constitution. In particular, the Founders were concerned with restricting Federal power to eliminate the possibility of tyranny; an example of this is the reservation to Congress of the power of declaring war, a power that has been essentially ignored since 1945. Yet to the Founders, rendering the military subservient to the civil power (the legislature) was seen as a safeguard against a potentially tyrannical executive. Only one delegate to the Constitutional Convention, Pierce Butler of South Carolina, advocated giving the president the power to declare war. George Mason responded that “he was for clogging, rather than facilitating, war; but for facilitating peace.” An executive with full control over the ability of a government to go to war was dangerous to the liberty of the people. All agreed that a president could repel “sudden attacks,” but a prolonged struggle required legislative approval.

Enlightenment Ideas in the Constitution


Constitutional limitations on war worked fairly well for the United States under the Founding generation. Both the French and the British presented problems for American sovereignty and neutrality in this period. The British constantly harassed American shipping and impressed American sailors, and the French often confiscated American cargo and captured American vessels. When French ministers demanded the United States bribe them for diplomatic correspondence in 1798, American calls for war reached a fever pitch. President Adams followed a cautious course, as did his predecessor Washington, and prepared to defend the United States against French hostility. Congress, however, authorized the navy to attack French shipping. While not a declared war, the purely naval Quasi-War of 1798 to 1800 showcased presidential restraint and congressional aggression.

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