“Helvidius” Number 2
[31 August 1793]
The doctrine which has been examined, is pregnant with inferences and consequences against which no ramparts in the constitution could defend the public liberty, or scarcely the forms of Republican government. Were it once established that the powers of war and treaty are in their nature executive; that so far as they are not by strict construction transferred to the legislature, they actually belong to the executive; that of course all powers not less executive in their nature than those powers, if not granted to the legislature may be claimed by the executive: if granted, are to be taken strictly, with a residuary right in the executive; or, as will hereafter appear, perhaps claimed as a concurrent right by the executive; and no citizen could any longer guess at the character of the government under which he lives; the most penetrating jurist would be unable to scan the extent of constructive prerogative.
Leaving however to the leisure of the reader deductions which the author having omitted might not chuse to own, I proceed to the examination of one, with which that liberty cannot be taken.
“However true it may be (says he) that the right of the legislature to declare war includes the right of judging whether the legislature be under obligations to make war or not, it will not follow that the executive is in any case excluded from a similar right of judging in the execution of its own functions.”1
A material error of the writer in this application of his doctrine lies in his shrinking from its regular consequences. Had he stuck to his principle in its full extent, and reasoned from it without restraint, he would only have had to defend himself against his opponents. By yielding the great point, that the right to declare war, tho’ to be taken strictly, includes the right to judge whether the nation be under obligation to make war or not, he is compelled to defend his argument not only against others but against himself also. Observe how he struggles in his own toils.
He had before admitted that the right to declare war is vested in the legislature. He here admits that the right to declare war includes the right to judge whether the United States be obliged to declare war or not. Can the inference be avoided, that the executive instead of having a similar right to judge, is as much excluded from the right to judge as from the right to declare?
If the right to declare war be an exception out of the general grant to the executive power; every thing included in the right must be included in the exception; and being included in the exception, is excluded from the grant.
He cannot disentangle himself by considering the right of the executive to judge as concurrent with that of the legislature. For if the executive have a concurrent right to judge, and the right to judge be included in (it is in fact the very essence of) the right to declare, he must go on and say that the executive has a concurrent right also to declare. And then what will he do with his other admission, that the power to declare is an exception out of the executive power.
Perhaps an attempt may be made to creep out of the difficulty through the words “in the execution of its functions.” Here again he must equally fail.
Whatever difficulties may arise in defining the executive authority in particular cases, there can be none in deciding on an authority clearly placed by the constitution in another department. In this case the constitution has decided what shall not be deemed an executive authority; tho’ it may not have clearly decided in every case what shall be so deemed. The declaring of war is expressly made a legislative function. The judging of the obligations to make war, is admitted to be included as a legislative function. Whenever then a question occurs whether war shall be declared, or whether public stipulations require it, the question necessarily belongs to the department to which these functions belong—And no other department can be in the execution of its proper functions, if it should undertake to decide such a question.
There can be no refuge against this conclusion, but in the pretext of a concurrent right in both departments to judge of the obligations to declare war, and this must be intended by the writer when he says, “it will not follow that the executive is excluded in any case from a similar right of judging &c.”
As this is the ground on which the ultimate defence is to be made, and which must either be maintained, or the works erected on it, demolished; it will be proper to give its strength a fair trial.
It has been seen that the idea of a concurrent right is at variance with other ideas advanced or admitted by the writer. Laying aside for the present that consideration, it seems impossible to avoid concluding that if the executive2 has a concurrent right with the legislature to judge of obligations to declare war, and the right to judge be essentially included in the right to declare, it must have the same3 right to declare as it has to judge; & by another analogy, the same right to judge of other causes of war, as of the particular cause found in a public stipulation. So that whenever the executive in the course of its functions shall meet with these cases, it must either infer an equal authority in all, or acknowledge its want of authority in any.
If any doubt can remain, or rather if any doubt could ever have arisen, which side of the alternative ought to be embraced, it can be with those only who overlook or reject some of the most obvious and essential truths in political science.
The power to judge of the causes of war as involved in the power to declare war, is expressly vested where all other legislative powers are vested, that is, in the Congress of the United States. It is consequently determined by the constitution to be a Legislative power. Now omitting the enquiry here in what respects a compound power may be partly legislative, and partly executive, and accordingly vested partly in the one, and partly in the other department, or jointly in both; a remark used on another occasion is equally conclusive on this, that the same power, cannot belong in the whole, to both departments, or be properly so vested as to operate separately in each. Still more evident is it, that the same specific function or act, cannot possibly belong to the two departments and be separately exerciseable by each.
Legislative power may be concurrently vested in different legislative bodies. Executive powers may be concurrently vested in different executive magistrates. In legislative acts the executive may have a participation, as in the qualified negative on the laws. In executive acts, the legislature, or at least a branch of it, may participate, as in the appointment to offices. Arrangements of this sort are familiar in theory, as well as in practice. But an independent exercise of an executive act, by the legislature alone, or of a legislative act by the executive alone, one or other of which must happen in every case where the same act is exerciseable by each, and the latter of which would happen in the case urged by the writer, is contrary to one of the first and best maxims of a well organized government, and ought never to be founded in a forced construction, much less in opposition to a fair one. Instances, it is true, may be discovered among ourselves where this maxim, has not been faithfully pursued; but being generally acknowledged to be errors, they confirm, rather than impeach the truth and value of the maxim.
It may happen also that different independent departments, the legislative and executive, for example, may in the exercise of their functions, interpret the constitution differently, and thence lay claim each to the same power. This difference of opinion is an inconvenience not entirely to be avoided. It results from what may be called, if it be thought fit, a concurrent right to expound the constitution. But this species of concurrence is obviously and radically different from that in question. The former supposes the constitution to have given the power to one department only; and the doubt to be to which it has been given. The latter supposes it to belong to both; and that it may be exercised by either or both, according to the course of exigencies.
A concurrent authority in two independent departments to perform the same function with respect to the same thing, would be as awkward in practice, as it is unnatural in theory.
If the legislature and executive have both a right to judge of the obligations to make war or not, it must sometimes happen, though not at present, that they will judge differently. The executive may proceed to consider the question to-day, may determine that the United States are not bound to take part in a war, and in the execution of its functions proclaim that determination to all the world. To-morrow, the legislature may follow in the consideration of the same subject, may determine that the obligations impose war on the United States, and in the execution of its functions, enter into a constitutional declaration, expressly contradicting the constitutional proclamation.
In what light does this present the constitution to the people who established it? In what light would it present to the world, a nation, thus speaking, thro’ two different organs, equally constitutional and authentic, two opposite languages, on the same subject and under the same existing circumstances?
But it is not with the legislative rights alone that this doctrine interferes. The rights of the judiciary may be equally invaded. For it is clear that if a right declared by the constitution to be legislative, and actually vested by it in the legislature, leaves, notwithstanding, a similar right in the executive whenever a case for exercising it occurs, in the course of its functions: a right declared to be judiciary and vested in that department may, on the same principle, be assumed and exercised by the executive in the course of its functions: and it is evident that occasions and pretexts for the latter interference may be as frequent as for the former. So again the judiciary department may find equal occasions in the execution of its functions, for usurping the authorities of the executive: and the legislature for stepping into the jurisdiction of both. And thus all the powers of government, of which a partition is so carefully made among the several branches, would be thrown into absolute hotchpot, and exposed to a general scramble.
It is time however for the writer himself to be heard, in defence of his text. His comment is in the words following:
“If the legislature have a right to make war on the one hand, it is on the other the duty of the executive to preserve peace, till war is declared; and in fulfilling that duty, it must necessarily possess a right of judging what is the nature of the obligations which the treaties of the country impose on the government; and when in pursuance of this right it has concluded that there is nothing inconsistent with a state of neutrality, it becomes both its province and its duty to enforce the laws incident to that state of the nation. The executive is charged with the execution of all laws, the laws of nations, as well as the municipal law which recognizes, and adopts those laws. It is consequently bound, by faithfully executing the laws of neutrality, when that is the state of the nation, to avoid giving a cause of war to foreign powers.”
To do full justice to this master piece of logic, the reader must have the patience to follow it step by step.
If the legislature have a right to make war on the one hand, it is on the other, the duty of the executive to preserve peace till war is declared.
It will be observed that here is an explicit and peremptory assertion, that it is the duty of the executive to preserve peace, till war is declared.
And in fulfilling that duty it must necessarily possess a right of judging what is the nature of the obligations which the treaties of the country impose on the government: That is to say, in fulfilling the duty to preserve peace, it must necessarily possess the right to judge whether peace ought to be preserved; in other words whether its duty should be performed. Can words express a flatter contradiction? It is self evident that the duty in this case is so far from necessarily implying the right, that it necessarily excludes it.
And when in pursuance of this right it has concluded that there is nothing in them (obligations) inconsistent with a state of neutrality, it becomes both its province and its duty to enforce the laws incident to that state of the nation.
And what if it should conclude that there is something inconsistent? Is it or is it not the province and duty of the executive to enforce the same laws? Say it is, you destroy the right to judge. Say it is not, you cancel the duty to4 obey.
Take this sentence in connection with the preceeding and the contradictions are multiplied. Take it by itself, and it makes the right to judge and conclude whether war be obligatory, absolute, and operative; and the duty to preserve peace, subordinate and conditional.
It will have been remarked by the attentive reader that the term peace in the first clause has been silently exchanged in the present one, for the term neutrality. Nothing however is gained by shifting the terms. Neutrality means peace; with an allusion to the circumstance of other nations being at war. The term has no reference to the existence or non-existence of treaties or alliances between the nation at peace and the nations at war. The laws incident to a state of neutrality, are the laws incident to a state of peace, with such circumstantial modifications only as are required by the new relation of the nations at war: Until war therefore be duly authorised by the United States they are as actually neutral when other nations are at war, as they are at peace, (if such a distinction in the terms is to be kept up) when other nations are not at war. The existence of eventual engagements which can only take effect on the declaration of the legislature, cannot, without that declaration, change the actual state of the country, any more in the eye of the executive than in the eye of the judiciary department. The laws to be the guide of both, remain the same to each, and the same to both.
Nor would more be gained by allowing the writer to define than to shift the term neutrality. For suppose, if you please, the existence of obligations to join in war to be inconsistent with neutrality, the question returns upon him, what laws are to be inforced by the executive until effect shall be given to those obligations by the declaration of the legislature? Are they to be the laws incident to those obligations, that is incident to war? However strongly the doctrines or deductions of the writer may tend to this point, it will not be avowed. Are the laws to be enforced by the executive, then, in such a state of things, to be the same as if no such obligations existed? Admit this, which you must admit if you reject the other alternative, and the argument lands precisely where it embarked—in the position, that it is the absolute duty of the executive in all cases to preserve peace till war is declared, not that it is “to become the province and duty of the executive” after it has concluded that there is nothing in those obligations inconsistent with a state of peace and neutrality. The right to judge and conclude therefore so solemnly maintained in the text is lost in the comment.
We shall see whether it can be reinstated by what follows—
The executive is charged with the execution of all laws, the laws of nations as well as the municipal law which recognizes and adopts those laws. It is consequently bound, by faithfully executing the laws of neutrality when that is the state of the nation, to avoid giving cause of war to foreign powers.
The first sentence is a truth, but nothing to the point in question. The last is partly true in its proper meaning, but totally untrue in the meaning of the writer. That the executive is bound faithfully to execute the laws of neutrality, whilst those laws continue unaltered by the competent authority, is true; but not for the reason here given, to wit, to avoid giving cause of war to foreign powers. It is bound to the faithful execution of these as of all other laws internal and external, by the nature of its trust and the sanction of its oath, even if turbulent citizens should consider its so doing as a cause of war at home, or unfriendly nations should consider its so doing, as a cause of war abroad. The duty of the executive to preserve external peace, can no more suspend the force of external laws, than its duty to preserve internal peace can suspend the force of municipal laws.
It is certain that a faithful execution of the laws of neutrality may tend as much in some cases, to incur war from one quarter, as in others to avoid war from other quarters. The executive must nevertheless execute the laws of neutrality whilst in force, and leave it to the legislature to decide whether they ought to be altered or not. The executive has no other discretion than to convene and give information to the legislature on occasions that may demand it; and whilst this discretion is duly exercised the trust of the executive is satisfied, and that department is not responsible for the consequences. It could not be made responsible for them without vesting it with the legislative as well as with the executive trust.
These remarks are obvious and conclusive, on the supposition that the expression “laws of neutrality” means simply what the words import, and what alone they can mean, to give force or colour to the inference of the writer from his own premises. As the inference itself however in its proper meaning, does not approach towards his avowed object, which is to work out a prerogative for the executive to judge, in common with the legislature, whether there be cause of war or not in a public obligation, it is to be presumed that “in faithfully executing the laws of neutrality” an exercise of that prerogative was meant to be included. On this supposition the inference, as will have been seen, does not result from his own premises, and has been already so amply discussed, and, it is conceived, so clearly disproved, that not a word more can be necessary on this branch of his argument.
Printed copy (Philadelphia Gazette of the U.S., 31 Aug. 1793). Reprinted in [Madison], Letters of Helvidius, pp. 14–22. For JM’s later revisions, see nn. 2–4.
1. This argument in “Pacificus” No. 1 and other quotations from that essay used by JM in “Helvidius” No. 2 are found in Syrett and Cooke, Papers of Hamilton description begins Harold C. Syrett and Jacob E. Cooke, eds., The Papers of Alexander Hamilton (26 vols.; New York, 1961–79). description ends , 15:40.
2. In retirement, JM corrected the “Helvidius” essays for a new edition, published by Jacob Gideon, Jr., in which is here added “as such” (The Federalist, on the New Constitution, Written in the Year 1788, by Mr. Hamilton, Mr. Madison, and Mr. Jay; with an Appendix, Containing the Letters of Pacificus and Helvidius, on the Proclamation of Neutrality of 1793; … A New Edition. The Numbers Written by Mr. Madison Corrected by Himself [Washington, 1818], p. 606). JM noted that “I have limited the corrections to errors of the press and of the transcriber, and a few cases in which the addition of a word or two seemed to render the meaning more explicit” (JM to Richard Cutts, 14 Mar. 1818, Madison, Letters [Cong. ed.] description begins [William C. Rives and Philip R. Fendall, eds.], Letters and Other Writings of James Madison (published by order of Congress; 4 vols.; Philadelphia, 1865). description ends , 3:60).
3. In later edition, “concurrent” is here added (The Federalist with Helvidius [1818 ed.], p. 606).
4. In later edition, this sentence concludes “preserve peace, till war is declared” (ibid., p. 610).