The US President as King of the World: James Madison’s Worst Nightmare

James Madison, an architect of the United States of America’s Constitution and the Federalist papers, believed fervidly in “rule by the people.” As such, he structured the American government in a way that would supposedly prevent the consolidation of power by the President over the coming decades and centuries. Both Federalist Papers 10 and 51, part of Alexander Hamilton’s series of essays, discuss how to properly structure the government with the view of creating a system of “checks and balances” that would prevent the elected leader of the US from garnering too much power and potentially abusing that power. This was solved by giving each branch of government the ability to block another branch from exercising its own self-interest.

Federalist 51 directly states that, “ambition must be made to counteract ambition” which first articulates Madison’s question about the idea of “faction,” or “groups that pursue their self-interest at the expense of others,” as presented in Federalist 10, but secondly, how the Constitution should be built to counteract the pursuit of self-interests by governing officials who seek to abuse the power granted to them as political elites. Thus, “ambition must counteract ambition” or self-interest must counteract self-interest to prevent one branch from consolidating too much power and to ensure the rule by the people to prevent another dictatorship from occurring.

After increased concern over national security due to the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor in 1941, the President of the US has increasingly garnered more power and ultimately evaded the system of “checks and balances” enshrined within the Constitution. By 1964, under President Lyndon B. Johnson, Congress authorized the Gulf of Tonkin Resolution that essentially wrote the President a “blank cheque” that allowed him to “take all necessary measures to repel any armed attack against the forces of the United States […].” In essence, the resolution paved the way for the War Powers Resolution (1973), which authorized an increase in Congress’s involvement in declaring wars. This Act attempted to reimplement Article 1 Section 8 of the Constitution, which gave Congress the power to “declare war” but only allowed the President to command the army and navy, which in recent years has been largely ignored.

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To declare war, Congress needs to approve the President’s request for military action within 60 days of troops being deployed, which acts as another “check” on the President’s use of the US military. War Powers helps Congress promote its own “ambition,” which can then counter the President’s “ambition,” preventing the accumulation of power in the White House and thereby, diminishing the President’s overall influence in foreign policy. This system seeks to bring power back to the people and their elected officials.

What Madison did not anticipate when he wrote the Federalist papers and helped design the Constitution was the difficulty involved in debating foreign policy with all 535 members of Congress as it has become, as James A. Morone and Rogan Kersh write in By the People, “divided, slow to act, uneasy about taking risks, focused on domestic issues, and [is] always running for reelection.” Congress, as a result, has effectively lost all control over foreign policy. One could essentially replace the idea of Congress losing control with its willingness to relinquish its authority over US foreign policy, and instead, willingly placing it in the hands of a single political elite.

Although Madison would have been elated with the adoption of War Powers, as it helps limit the President’s accumulation of power and poses a “check” upon him, the recent increase in concern over national security has led many Presidents to authorize the use of the US military in wars that have not been declared by Congress. Such is the case with US-led invasion of Afghanistan. Despite being involved in a wide range of conflict and war, the US has seldom made declarations of war. Since Congress’ approval of a resolution declaring war against the Empire of Japan on December 8, 1941, the US has issued only five other war declarations (Germany and Italy on December 11, 1941, and Bulgaria, Hungary, and Romania on June 4, 1942). Congress has issued, however, several other declarations of war, including declarations in the War of 1812 (the first time the US ever declared war on another nation), the Mexican-American War, the Spanish-American War, and the First World War.

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Though Madison clearly understood the nature of political elites and their potential for abusing their power, he would have been unable to foresee some of the means by which US Presidents could sidestep the checks and balances in place to constrain their power. The rise of asymmetric threats, innovative technology, and new national security imperatives and security rhetoric, coalescing with American political interests in the domestic arena, have brought to light the dangers in American political elites exploiting alternative means. In America’s role as the global policeman, Americans find their country in a perpetual state of conflict with actors of all types around the globe. Though comparably intolerant of traditional state-on-state warfare exacting tremendous human costs, the American populace has shown an acceptance or at the very least, a vexed tolerance, for discreet military operations (DMOs) or light footprint operations through the use of weaponized drones, special operations forces, and cyber operatives. Such mechanisms, including the financing of war with Uncle Sam’s credit card and America’s use of foreign government support have fundamentally altered the character of wars waged by the United States as well as how the American populace sees those wars and subsequently “accepts” them as either necessity of an instantiation of routine politics of the American elite.

If America does not issue many declarations of war on other parties, it equally avoids paying its wars. This reality is a major contributing factor not only in America’s continuous war-making practices-turned-culture but also in its leaders’ search for ways to fight its wars as an intricate piece in American foreign policy without drawing much accountability. As discreet as its military ventures and operations are or strive to be, America’s war financing is equally circumspect. The US commonly fights its wars on credit, thereby disassociating the American public and tax payer from its military ventures oversees while simultaneously extending its capacity to continue fighting. Afghanistan, Iraq, Libya, Syria, and its drone wars in and over remote locales, America and its elites wage conflict and war through deficit spending.

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Thus, although the War Powers Resolution was implemented to follow through with Madison’s vision of “ambition must be made to counteract ambition,” it has only slowed, but not prevented, the President’s consolidation of power and has not fulfilled Madison’s hope of politicians being incapable of acting within their own self-interest at the expense of the American people and society.


*This op-ed was co-authored with Sarah J. Clifford. She is the primary author.

Sarah J. Clifford is a graduate student at the University of Copenhagen (Denmark), studying Political Science with a focus on international relations and gender. Her research explores the intersections of American militarized masculinities, identity politics, and education policies through a post-structuralist lens.  




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