Leadership and Constitutionality In Times of War
In times of crisis, nations look to leaders who will protect them from the dangers they fear. The United States has seen multiple wars and lived them out under multiple leaders, each of which had varying policies for protecting the American citizens from enemies, both foreign and domestic. Today we find ourselves asking how our present leader will protect the American citizens from outside terrorists, and wondering how previous leaders would react to the current situation. Some of the greatest and most revered presidents found themselves in the same situation we find ourselves today: where to draw the line between constitutionality and the safety of the American public. A closer look at three past presidents offers three different experiences with wartime policy and the preservation of civil rights in times of national emergency.
The Father who Never Forgot: Madison’s Wartime Policy
It would be impossible to say that James Madison ever forgot his writings of 1787. The Constitution would be forever engraved on his mind, the reminder of a shared vision between leaders who held history in the palms of their hands and shaped it into a fair and just Republic. Madison, as author of the document defining that very vision, shaped his own life and political policy to constantly mirror that vision. Of all the
presidents of the United States, Madison was most likely the one who remained most loyal to the Constitution. Even in times of war, when other presidents would take further executive measures (as they were allowed,) Madison was reluctant to jeopardize his citizen’s civil rights. Madison’s wartime policy clearly reflects a leader dedicated to the Constitution and its preservation of American civil rights.
The most dramatic conflict during Madison’s presidency was the War of 1812. As Great Britain imposed more restrictions on sea trade and Napoleon announced a blockade of Great Britain, the United States found itself stuck between two European megaliths, each of which it was closely tied to. Although the United States tried to remain neutral through several acts (the Non-Importation Act and later the Non-Intercourse Act) it soon became apparent that America could not stay out of a war so central to our nation.1
Madison was not a proponent of war, for he believed that wartime policy infringed on a citizen’s guarantee of basic civil rights, especially those afforded by the First and Second Amendments of the Bill of Rights. Infringement on these rights detracted from the freedom that he and his co-founders had worked so hard to instill in the form of a Republic. Yet as little as Madison advocated war, he advocated English interference in America even less. Madison viewed this “second struggle for liberty” as the chance to sever ties with Great Britain once and for all. 2
Luckily for Madison, a group of aggressive and motivated young politicians was now setting Congress afire with...