The Constitution for Dummies: War Powers and the Militia

four soldiers carrying rifles near helicopter under blue sky
Photo by Somchai Kongkamsri on

It’s about time we start digging a bit deeper into the powers listed in Article 1, Section 8. I don’t necessarily mean digging into the case law and precedent of each enumerated power (which we can get to eventually) but rather digging into the thoughts and intentions of the framers when they wrote these enumerated powers.

I’m going to start with the war powers clause because it’s the clause that I needed most help with in my own studies, so I figure I’ll share with you what I’ve discovered.

The Clause

“To declare War, grant Letters of Marque and Reprisal, and make Rules concerning captures on Land and Water;

To raise and support Armies, but no Appropriation of Money to that Use shall be for a longer Term than two Years;

To provide and maintain a Navy;

To make Rules for the Government and Regulation of the land and naval Forces;

To provide for calling forth the Militia to execute the Laws of the Union, suppress Insurrections and repel Invasions;

black and white no war text

To provide for organizing, arming, and disciplining, the Militia, and for governing such Part of them as may be employed in the Service of the United States, reserving to the States respectively, the Appointment of the Officers, and the Authority of training the Militia according to the discipline prescribed by Congress;”

There’s a lot to this section of Article 1, Section 8 and there’s more in the Constitution to deal with war powers, but I’m only going to focus on Article 1, Section 8 today. Since war powers, and the militia are such inherently critical powers, we must, as government’s employers understand what the powers entail and what they mean.

My initial confusion with the war powers clause centered around the militia clause. What is a militia in contrast to an army and navy? The militia is obviously something that has stayed relevant since the Second Amendment refers to an armed militia being protected.

However, I discovered that there was much more nuance to the declaration of war as well as creation of the army and navy than I’d originally thought.

The Debate and a Standing Army

One of the greatest debates of the Constitutional Convention centered around the war powers of the new federal government. Who’s to declare war? What does “declare” mean? (It was changed from “make” to “declare”). Who funds the war? Should there be a standing army and navy to protect the country from foreign invasion or should the federal government rely on state militias and state funding much like they did in the War for Independence?

These, along with many other questions, plagued our founders while writing the Constitution.

Ultimately, the framers decided that they would be the first to make the unprecedented decision to give Congress the sole and exclusive responsibility of taking the country from a state of peace to a state of war. This was unprecedented because almost all European countries gave this power exclusively to the executive. However, the founders, particularly Madison, were very wary of so much power in the hands of one individual and wanted to prevent any irrational, emotional moves by the executive to quickly take the nation into war.

Basically, give the power to declare war to the slowest, most cumbersome branch in order to prevent any unhealthy or irrational moves of war making. They didn’t want the country to become engaged in military or personal conquests nor to have a proclivity to war (Waxman) Further, the framers believed that wars tended towards the centralization of power, therefore, wars should not be entered into often or quickly. The slowest branch, as well as the branch most directly connected to the people, was therefore bequeathed with the power to take the country from peace into war. (Of course, there’s much that I could unpack about what “war” is…what is full-fledged war vs. strategic military moves?).

action active activity adult

Since Congress was given the power to take the country into war, it was also given the exclusive power of funding and creating the military needed to wage war. This was also hotly contested because many of the founders had a bitter taste in their mouths from their experience with the British standing army. Being well read, the framers were also aware of the historical examples of other countries whose standing armies were used for oppression and conquest. They associated standing armies with tyranny and a proclivity toward war (Waxman).

This was something they were heavily wary of and were therefore particularly careful when drafting this power. However, Washington, Hamilton and those who had experienced fighting in the War for Independence, felt that there needed to be some kind of provision allowing for a standing army. Liberty is also in danger if the country cannot defend itself.

If you notice, the enumerated power given to Congress regarding armies says that Congress can make law to raise (by law, create) and support (by law, fund) standing armies but that the appropriations of funds for this standing army expires after two years. This was a very intentional caveat to the power of the standing army. On one hand, the army is able to exist in times of peace. So, the enumerated power does not specify that Congress must only create and support an army if there is a war to be fought. The army can exist regardless of whether or not the country is engaged in waging war.

However, because the framers were particularly wary of armies and the government’s proclivity to use standing armies to repress their own citizens, the founders worked in a “kill switch” for the standing army. Congress is constitutionally required to revisit the funding of the standing army every two years and can simply stop the flow of funds if they believe such an action to be necessary… crippling the standing army in such a case. Such a caveat is not part of the navy clause because the founders were less concerned about the use of the navy to repress citizens and were also aware that building a strong navy would take a substantial amount of time.

The framers thought through, argued over and theoretically justified every little aspect of our government’s job description.

The Militia?

This brings us to the militia clause. Historically speaking, militias pre-dated the Constitution and the government. Every “colony, turned state” had their own militia and these militias were to be Constitutionally guaranteed. In fact, Dr. Matthew Waxman of Columbia Law School, argues that he believes the Constitution would not have been ratified without for this militia clause. This is how fervently the states held to their militias.

cemetery of fallen soldiers and veterans

In other words, Waxman argues that while militias are constitutionally protected and guaranteed, a standing military is not. A standing army is a discretionary power, one that Congress can choose to use or not use. Not so with state militias. Prior to the new government, almost every able bodied man within each state was given some sort of military training. This means that, in a time of war, every able bodied man was both armed and trained to fight in the war, though war-making was not his primary vocation.

Also notice that the clauses related to the power of Congress to call forth the militia are very specific. The militia can only be called forth to “execute the Laws of the Union, suppress Insurrections and repel Invasions;

In short, the militia can be used if there is a domestic need. However, the training and appointment of these state militia officers is reserved to the States, so while Congress can call upon them in a dire need, much of the power over them still resides in the states. Congress cannot call upon the state militias to fight foreign wars but can call upon them if there is a specific domestic need such as an insurrection or an invasion on the mainland.

I’ll address the arguments surrounding what a militia is today in a subsequent article but I believe I’ve given you enough to chew on for now.


I’ve laid out the framers original understanding and intent regarding the war powers cited in Article 1, Section 8. What I have not done is explore just how grossly perverted these powers have become over time. But before we can see the perversion from the original we must understand and know the original.

This is our job as Americans. This is our job as government’s employer, a job we’ve neglected far too long.

The Liberty Belle

5 thoughts on “The Constitution for Dummies: War Powers and the Militia”

  1. Funny you should mention Washington and Hamilton in regard to the military and how these powers were perverted. I just finished reading “Jefferson and Hamilton” by John Ferling (Pg. 299-301)

    In the late 1790’s John Adams was president, England and France were at each other’s throats and as you are aware Jefferson and Hamilton were partial to different sides. Jefferson was Vice President and Hamilton was…………unemployed. As you mention above “standing armies” were not popular due to the fact to many people remember the British occupation of America. However the Federalist were out of power and building the country into a frenzy over being invaded so Hamilton wanted to build a “New Army”. Well through conniving with holdover members of Washingtons cabinet currently in Adams cabinet he got his wish expanding it from 4,173 to 14,421 officers and men. He was a top aide to Gen. Washington during the war but the one thing that still evaded him was achieving glory through rising in the military. He hungered for a leading position in the new army. Adams first appealed to Washington to assume command but he equivocated. After further conferring with Adams Washington said he would command the Army but he didn’t want to leave Mount Vernon unless a French invasion was probable. Because he wouldn’t be present the Inspector General would be second in command and would hold the reins of power. Hamiltons influence from his days (and some lobbying) as Washingtons aide helped Washington recommended Hamilton be appointed to this post. Adams wanted to respect the seniority among the Revolutionary War veterans and appoint Henry Knox but Washington said he wouldn’t serve unless Hamilton was appointed beneath him. Adams buckled and in an instant Colonel Hamilton became Major General Hamiliton. Contrary to the Constitution there was no mention of the president (Adams) being in command of these forces nor Congress declaring war. Washington dictated policy to the current President of the United States (which never would have been tolerated while he was in office) based solely to party wishes even though this NEW standing ARMY wasn’t needed and was soon disbanded back to the original size.

  2. Sometimes there is mass confusion , Both of your statements are excellent , thanks Chris for keeping conversations on the constitution going. The calling forth act of 1792 , when the president had to first order an insurgency to disband before calling up the ilitia , this was the procedure Washington used in the Whiskey Rebellion in 1794 , , an issue long over due even if by hours last 1-6-21 . [ personal opinion ] For most of our founders the local militias had been thought that the citizenry is the best force to enforce the laws of the land , and the transfers of powers have brought some of the founders very fears , as state militias [ guards ?] sat in D C garages getting sick from all over the country they were ordered to D C.Basically take a state’s miltia send it across the union , for unknown or extended time with no support left in it’s own state. Martin V Mott 1827 . Sorry Chris getting into case law a little . Thanks again to both Chris and Bob , if there is ever a constitutional convention you two need be present for sure. RON

    1. Ron:

      As you stated above there were fears concerning the transfer of power not only by the founders but on January 6th. You mention the conditions the troops experienced afterwards being billeted in garages. The immediate fear was that President Trump would politicize the military by invoking the Insurrection Act and declaring Martial Law in order to hold power DURING the insurrection. The article below explains it in more detail.,managerial%20weaknesses%20in%20the%20military%E2%80%99s%20procedures%20that%20day.

      1. Federalist 23 through 29 address some military issues in 28 address ” from time to time there will be insurrections in society ” , federalist and anti-federalist ideals , the appropriations to fund an army and navy also addressed , very good reading.

  3. Pingback: War Powers and the Militia – The Liberty Belle –

Leave a Reply

Scroll to Top