Civic Literacy Curriculum
Question 42: Who is the Commander-in-Chief of the military?
Q42: Who is the Commander-in-Chief of the military?
A. The FBI
B. The Supreme Court
C. The Vice President
D. The President of the United States
As Alexander Hamilton explains in Federalist 69, the office of the President of the United States is a strong but limited force, including in its control over the military.
After detailing how the president is answerable to both the people and to Congress, Hamilton observes that the president’s role as Commander-in-Chief still requires him or her to work with Congress, as only Congress has the enumerated power to declare war.
Indeed, Hamilton makes clear that unlike the far-reaching powers of a king, the president’s more limited role as Commander-in-Chief “would amount to nothing more than the supreme command and direction of the military and naval forces, as first General and admiral of the Confederacy; while that of the British king extends to the DECLARING of war and to the RAISING and REGULATING of fleets and armies, all which, by the Constitution under consideration, would appertain to the legislature.”
The U.S. Supreme Court likewise weighed in on the president’s powers in the 1863 Prize Cases. The justices divided on a technical question, but still of them agreed that 1:, even without a declaration of war by Congress, the president could use military force to defend against an ongoing attack—but that 2: the president could not initiate offensive war—that was the whole point of letting Congress declare war. Similarly, in the 1952 Youngstown Sheet and Tube v. Sawyer case, the Supreme Court held that the powers of commander-in-chief did not allow the president to seize manufacturing facilities to produce military equipment; Congress had control over production as part of its power to “raise and support armies.”
At no point does the Constitution state that the president should have military experience. In fact, to date, only a few presidents have had significant military experience. Traditionally, they rely on the experts -- those who have earned their military rank and bring significant experience to the table.
For this activity, the students will read excerpts from the Constitution and Federalist 69 to determine what interpretation of the military power of the president is or is not faithful to the Constitution.
- Provide each group with the Commander-in-Chief and Congress worksheet.
- Provide each group with a copy of The Constitution, Excerpts on Military Power (also includes excerpts from Federalist 69)
- Print a copy of the answer key for yourself.
The Teaching Materials for this exercise includes an answer key.
- Divide the class into groups of 3-4 based on the students’ individual levels. Group A is the group that needs some extra support. Group B is the core group that has the core knowledge to complete the activity. Group C is the enrichment group that has mastered the material. Group C students are prepared to extend their knowledge. Each group should have at least one student from Group A, one from Group B, and one from Group C.
- If students are in pairs rather than groups, divide them based on ability as well, pairing those who need support (Group A) with those who have core knowledge and/or have mastered the material (Groups B and C).
- Provide each group/pair with a copy of the reading and the worksheet.
- Use Version A for younger students or those less familiar with the Constitution, as it is edited and includes only those sections that directly apply to the assignment.
- Version B is better for older students and those familiar with the Constitution, as it contains Articles I and II in their entirety.
- Explain that they are to answer the question on the worksheet and use the reading to provide support for their argument.
- Circulate and talk briefly with each group to check for comprehension and answer any questions.
- At the end of the activity, facilitate a class discussion.
- To further challenge the students, you may wish to assign them to write an essay after they complete the worksheet.
Note: If the students have read works by the Founding Fathers (Hamilton, Madison, Franklin, Jefferson, etc.) and there is overlap with this lesson, consider expanding the assignment/discussion to include those sources as well.
Below are two discussion prompts that can be used by teachers in a classroom setting.
- The first discussion prompt will be one that is designed to support students that are not really understanding the content in a way that would help them to answer the test question.
- The second discussion prompt will be one that is designed to further student understanding of the content by making real-world connections, including connections to current events and historical events.
The Founding Fathers kept some of the British arrangements over foreign policy, but not all. As in the British Parliament, Congress has power over the budget, but the president (like the monarch) retains power as commander-in-chief. However, the power to “declare war” was explicitly relocated to Article I as a power of Congress, rather than a power of the executive.
“Commander-in-Chief” is the only military position that does not require actual military experience, as it is a title conferred upon the President of the United States upon inauguration. Who is our current Commander-in-Chief? Do you think that actual military experience matters? Why or why not?
Although it is clear from the Constitution that Congress declares war, the Constitution is more ambiguous on whether, when, or how the president may deploy forces defensively or in response to an attack. For example, after Pearl Harbor, President Franklin Roosevelt famously said, "Yesterday, December 7, 1941—a date which will live in infamy—the United States of America was suddenly and deliberately attacked by naval and air forces of the Empire of Japan. ... As commander in chief of the Army and Navy, I have directed that all measures be taken for our defense."
More recently, other administrations have claimed the authority to initiate small-scale combat not reaching the level of war, even without a congressional declaration. Should the president have the authority to wage armed combat without congressional approval? Does it matter whether it is offensive or defensive?