Bravely, Benjamin Franklin, Thomas Jefferson and some folks back home gave the world a new and remarkable form of government: A constitutional democratic republic. The constitution replaced the King, and all that was required was a revolution and that the people of the United States honor their word.
Actually, this constitution took a lot of defending from threats on many levels. There was the war of 1812, and the crash and panic 1792 and the collapse of the first United States Bank that Hamilton championed. The panic of 1819 and the collapse of the second United States Bank. The panic of 1857 and the civil war that followed within the decade, not to speak of political upheavals like the whisky rebellion and disenfranchisement of various political parties, parties you never learned about in your civics courses, now long forgotten. All these actions were to save us from the torture and executions that a King could order at will. Kings of old would initiate wars or seize an enemies property, or execute a citizen on his own authority. A constitution protected the people of the United States against such acts of whimsy. At least till now.
Some say the Magna Carta saved English subjects from such whimsy. Tell that to Henry the VIII. Tell that to Chief Justice John Roberts; who orchestrated the People’s United decision that says money is speech and corporations are persons.
To note the watershed, the difference between kings ordering by fiat, and free men (and women) living under their own law, the framers inserted the king clause into the constitution which reads (Only)” Congress shall have the power…. to declare war, grant letters of marque and reprisal, or make rules concerning captures on land and water.”
The King Clause of the constitution has three parts: authorizing war, authorizing private contractors to kill and seize, and controlling rules of military capture.
This clear language makes a significant break with the previous royal form of government. The Congress (whose etymology means ‘stands upright’) not an individual, has the power to engage the country in a war. The president is not a king, in fact the title is derived from the verb: “preside” meaning guidance and literally meaning to sit in front, sedere: sit; pre, in front. It was understood that war was not an informal thing, but needed a reason, and a demand….. thus it could be drawn to conclusion when the demand was met. The founders had watched such inanities as the 30 years war, and the hundred years war because of such a lack of focus. The United States has seen the same with its decadal wars in Viet Nam and Afghanistan…. where no reason was given, and no demand proffered that the People of the United States stood behind. With no goal, it is impossible to find the victory of achieving it.
This was the reason for the first part, the declaration of war has two functions a) to announce a clear set of demands, and b) to see that the American people are behind those demands. It must be noted that whenever these conditions have been met, the United States has been victorious; and these conditions have not transpired in the last 65 years.
Actually war is still not an informal thing… people do not say to themselves: “Dang, I wonder who is dropping bombs on us today?” As accustomed as we are to having murder brought into our living rooms nightly by the TV, and we are all conditioned to accept it a normal… the question “Who is shooting at me?” is not of the same emotional caliber as in watching a whodunit.
The second part of the King Clause makes Congress responsible for “granting letters of Marque and Reprisal,” or what was considered at the time of writing: A pirate’s license. A pirate was someone sailing a private vessel who seized property of a foreign vessel and likely killed people in so doing. Once granted a letter of Marque and Reprisal, the captain in possession of such could attack, seize and in the process, kill persons of the country or counties listed in the letter. (Such a letter would not allow the killing of an American citizen.) In short, such a letter was grant of limited power to violate the sovereignty of the nation listed within it.
The third portion of the King Clause, makes it clear that it is the American people that will subjugate any foreign people, and will themselves determine the conditions of that. This was seen as a power so grave as not to be allowed to be deferred to a mere administrator.
It is worth pointing out that of the founders who created this ‘new’ form of government, many were familiar with the classics, and more than a few read Greek. While the Greeks did have slaves, they brought their slaves to the theater, and indeed treated them well. For the Greeks lived in a city-state environment, where there were periodic wars and border skirmishes, and while your city may have won this year, the city next door may win the next, and who won took slaves. Thus it was wise to treat the slaves with some respect, for there was a live possibility that the next slave holder would be the very slave you had held, and you in turn would be in captivity. This trained the populous in the evenhandedness that is such a requirement for democracy to flourish. A point profoundly forgotten in today’s ‘winner take all’ politics.
Thus the King Clause was made part of the constitution to prohibit a King from whimsically taking rule, and killing whatever opposition arose. It is the Law.
If only people could honor their own oath; their word.