Deciphering the Commander-in-Chief Clause

98 Pages Posted: 23 Nov 2023

See all articles by Saikrishna Prakash

Saikrishna Prakash

University of Virginia School of Law

Date Written: November 21, 2023


The conventional wisdom is that the Commander-in-Chief Clause arms the President with a panoply of martial powers. By some lights, the Clause not only equips the President with exclusive control over military operations, but also conveys the powers to start wars, create military courts, direct and remove officers, and wield emergency wartime powers. Under such readings, the meaning of “commander in chief” is as obvious as it is unequivocal—it confers some measure of absolute and unchallengeable authority upon the President. Yet, seemingly paradoxically, proponents of this stance cannot say where the Commander in Chief’s power begins and ends. In particular, establishing the Clause’s limits is an acute and persistent problem.

Using eighteenth-century understandings as a yardstick, this Article topples the orthodox reading of the Clause and demarcates the Clause’s elusive frontiers. In contrast to modern assumptions, the Article reveals that eighteenth-century commanders in chief enjoyed neither sole nor supreme authority over the military. Throughout the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries, there were, at any one time, a multitude of British and American commanders in chief, and both assemblies and other military officials consistently directed these commanders, often in quite intrusive ways. By borrowing a familiar expression, the Constitution incorporated the modest, contemporary conception. Rather than being a sui generis military potentate, the President is nothing more than a chief commander, or what Alexander Hamilton called the “first General and Admiral.” The Commander in Chief of the Army and Navy lacks a vast arsenal of military authority but instead possesses only the constrained powers of a general and admiral. Crucially, the Clause does not grant any exclusive authority over peacetime operations or even the conduct of war. Nothing about the term “commander in chief” would have suggested such autonomy because previous chief commanders had lacked such independence. Indeed, early Presidents never objected to congressional bills that sought to regulate military operations pervasively, including wars. Rather, they signed the proposals into law and, thereafter, sought to faithfully execute them.

To be sure, the President is more than a mere general and admiral. Due to the rest of Article II and the Presentment Clause, the President wields considerable authority and influence over the military, far more than a generic commander in chief would. These other sources of power convey authority over the appointment, direction, and removal of military officers and substantial influence on which military bills will become law. In the grand scheme of things, the Commander-in-Chief Clause is far less significant than these other clauses.

How we read the Commander-in-Chief Clause matters. Without a sense of the Clause’s alpha and omega, Presidents will continue to cite it to evade, minimize, and commandeer congressional powers. If this Article’s assertions are correct, however, Presidents will no longer be able to insist that the Founders established a chief commander that can start wars or one that enjoys exclusive authority over operations. By decrypting the Clause, this Article highlights the extent to which Presidents have amassed power untethered from constitutional moorings and also may help fend off further executive overreach. Although some puzzles remain, this Article takes some initial strides in the long march towards deciphering the Commander-in-Chief Clause.

Keywords: Commander in Chief, President, Congress, military, civilian, Constitution, separation of powers, and tactical control

Suggested Citation

Prakash, Saikrishna, Deciphering the Commander-in-Chief Clause (November 21, 2023). Yale Law Journal, Vol. 133, No. 1, 2023, Virginia Public Law and Legal Theory Research Paper No. 2023-74, Available at SSRN:

Saikrishna Prakash (Contact Author)

University of Virginia School of Law ( email )

580 Massie Road
Charlottesville, VA 22903
United States

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