I have recently finished up a great book about Cicero – a Roman politician who lived through the dying days of the old Republic. I had long imagined a system somewhat similar to our own, and to a certain extent the Romans did have a system like ours, but the differences were critical. Here I am going to focus on some of the military differences.
In the Roman Republic the highest office anyone could hold was that of consul. The consul was almost a king with the ability to pass laws, and carry out war. The office of consul was limited by the fact that there were 2 consuls, each of whom could cancel out the actions of the other. Also, the consuls were expected to heed the advice of the Senate (advise and consent). Near the end of the Republic there were a series of Consuls who rose to power through military force. This included Julius Caesar, Pompey, Marc Antony, and several others. This was partly due to the requirement that Consuls have experience leading military forces. It would be like requiring Presidents to have served as a General (well, at least Colonel level). A series of civil wars affected Rome, Italy, and the Empire. Near the end it was unclear who the last dictator left standing would be. It appeared like the Republic might end at the hands of Julius Caesar, Pompey, Crasus, Sulla, Marc Antony, but eventually the Republic ultimately ended at the hands of Augustus.
Why would I bring this up? Yes, our founding fathers wanted to avoid a situation like that they were leaving (unjust constitutional monarchy), but they also wanted to avoid the fate of Rome. They clearly took some of Cicero’s ideas about an ideal government formed by balancing powers, but worked to prevent the Roman fate by stripping the executive position of its exclusive authority over the military. In Rome the Consuls could raise an army, fund the army, appoint military leaders, and execute the war plans. Also, consuls were elected by popular vote of Roman citizens. The veterans would frequently vote in large numbers for their preferred generals.
In the Constitution the military is separated into Army and Navy, and separated into war time and peace time operation. In this paragraph let’s discuss the Constitutions’ provision for a peacetime army. There is no provision for a peacetime army. The Congress has the authority to raise and support armies, but no appropriation is to be for more than two years. This is in contrast to the Navy which has no such limitation on appropriation. Why the difference? The army was intended to be temporary while the Navy was permanent. The alternative was “a well regulated militia.” The idea was that local men would be part of a militia, and that militia would be under the authority of the state (Delaware, New York , etc.). The state would appoint officers and train the militia. However, the regulations for training would be set by Congress. The militia was a volunteer group and not a standing army, no state was allowed to maintain troops without the consent of Congress.
During time of war the Congress could call the militia into service of the United States, provide for arms, training, disciplining, and organizing the army. [The interesting thing about the language is that army is used for the Federal use of troops while militia is the more general term. It reads as if the militia is and ever ready and ever present force that can from time to time be called into a Federal Army.] However, that provision can last no more than two years, and the Congress has no authority to appoint officers (that remains the state’s prerogative) or to lead the forces – that duty is handed to the President. The President can appoint Officers of the United States, but this ends up being fairly limited since the Army is only available when Congress has called it. This is more important for the Navy. The overall system spreads military authority between states (officer selection and training), Congress (sole authority to raise and fund armies), and the President (commander in chief). Also, any military leader would be endeared to his own state, and would not have widespread appeal.
The Navy operates a little differently, but Navies do not invade territories, and by nature have fewer members. The Navy could be funded continually, is overseen by Congress, but acts in times of war under the Commander in Chief. The President appoints Officers of the United States, which would include the officers in the Navy.
So what, right? What this does is prevent military despots from rising to power. The idea is that there would be no standing army (the militia belonged to the states, but they explicitly could not maintain a standing army), and so no generals with an army at their back running for office. Also, there is the electoral college. Remember that the founders imagined this as a group of representatives selecting a qualified leader, not a state based popular vote. This would prevent anyone who had successfully led a large army to win the Presidency through the vote of his soldiers.
This is very close to the system we had through 1945. However, in 1946 we decided to maintain a substantial Army always prepared for war. We now have a system where soldiers serve for their career in the military, and Generals can maintain military leadership during periods of peace. Generals have authority that is no longer bound by state lines. The President can commit troops without express consent of Congress, and without individual states committing troops. This allows a state that the founding fathers worked to prevent. This allows for a President to commit a large number of troops to an operation, and a General in charge of that operation to build fame among his troops. These troops can then come home and vote directly for their General to continue to be in charge of the Army. Notice that the Constitution never envisions the United States fighting foreign wars. It assumes military action will be limited to executing the laws of the Union, suppressing insurrections, and repelling invasions.
I am not going to suggest that a system like that envisioned by the founders would be a more effective fighting force, it wouldn’t. However, that was part of the point. The founders did not want an Army capable of defeating two world class powers on different Continents simultaneously. They wanted a militia capable of suppressing insurrections and repelling invasions. Such a military would look massively different than our forces today. Perhaps what we need is different than what we needed in 1787, but we take a risk. In order to stabilize the world we have moved toward a system that removes the most critical checks and balances put in place to prevent a military despot from rising to power. Instead we rely on Congressional oversight, limited terms at the highest military ranks, and dispersing authority among various military leaders. These are the same processes the Romans relied on to protect their Republic.