Democratic governments are often set up in such a way that no single person holds too much power, even the president/prime minister/etc.

In the US, you e.g. have the Congress. This means that if the president wants to do some crazy thing tomorrow, they can stop him.

But why then is the US president commander-in-chief? Surely the possibilities to do crazy things are much more vast when it comes to militant operations than when it comes to complicated legislature.

So what is the rationale behind using the congress to prevent the US president from causing unwanted harm, but then allow him full (or, near full*) control of the freaking army?

*The secretary of Defense has a lot of power as well (e.g., needs to cosign nuclear attacks), but .... this person is appointed by the president!....

  • 2
    (1) Technically Congress has to authorize any use of military force, usually through a declaration of war, so there is your separation of power. That being said, I think there is a large perception that the executive branch has largely pushed congress out of the way with regards to this (see AUMF and how it's used to justify TONS of of uses of force in conflicts which are dubiously under its purview). (2) The Sec of Defence doesn't actually need to cosign nuclear attacks. The power really lies solely in the presidency. Commented Aug 20, 2017 at 3:14
  • 3
    The Founders did not like the idea of a standing army; that only became SOP after WW2. Prior in order to fight a war, the US had to first raise and train an army. So the threat was much reduced.
    – Andy
    Commented Aug 20, 2017 at 23:18
  • Somebody has to be commander-in-chief. Better to use someone that was actually elected by everyone. Commented Jan 18, 2019 at 14:35

4 Answers 4


Article II, Section 2 of the United States Constitution states:

The President shall be Commander in Chief of the Army and Navy of the United States, and of the Militia of the several States, when called into the actual Service of the United States; he may require the Opinion, in writing, of the principal Officer in each of the executive Departments, upon any Subject relating to the Duties of their respective Offices, and he shall have Power to grant Reprieves and Pardons for Offenses against the United States, except in Cases of Impeachment.

(emphasis mine)

History.org has an article explaining the rationale of the framers of the Constitution. It's mainly a constitutional role, and the article goes into details on the history on how it came about.

The idea that a civilian should control the military was critical in the debates that created the Union.

[ ... ]

Earlier, on May 15, 1776, the Virginia Convention asserted in the Virginia Declaration of Rights the primacy of civilian control: "In all cases the military should be under strict subordination to, and governed by, the civil power." The federal president would be not a part of the military but an elected civilian with supreme power over it.

[ ... ]

Although Congress has the power under the Constitution to declare war, raise troops, and control military funding, presidents long ago began to assert their presumed right to commit troops to "defend and protect" the nation and its interests. Citing their constitutional role as commander in chief, presidents have used the armed forces more than two hundred times outside the United States.

(emphasis mine)

  • Didn't we just conclude a war having used (the same person as) a congressional appointment? Do we know why shifting the appointment from ad hoc to predetermined was thought to be needed?
    – user9389
    Commented Aug 19, 2017 at 14:43

To add to Panda's historical answer:

Anyway you design your constitution, there will be a commander in chief of the army, because when there is time pressure, you cannot wait for several people to discuss the situation and vote. That is why in almost every country in the world, the executive power is in the hands of one person: a king, a dictator, a president, a prime minister...

Even in the ancient Rome, under the Republic, when they hated so much to concentrate every power in the hands of one person that they had two consuls, there was a special law allowing them to give every power to someone in case of emergency.

The problem is, if you have no head of State which is also commander in chief, then in case of emergency there is a huge risk you forget about your constitution and you just give every power to anyone who seems able to save the country.

It may be argued that it is wiser to have someone with extended, but bounded, powers over the army that will not be increased at any time, than to have exceptionnal laws. Indeed, people are not used to exceptionnal laws, and do not know how to protect freedom in those circonstances.


Democratic governments are often set up in such a way that no single person holds too much power, even the president/prime minister/etc


So what is the rationale behind using the congress to prevent the US president from causing unwanted harm, but then allow him full (or, near full*) control of the freaking army?

Article I, Section 8 of the Constitution states that

The Congress shall have power to... declare war...

This was touched on by Panda's answer in passing. However, I believe this is the crucial section that answers your question. As already shown by the answers by Panda and Distic, it is very important that one person leads and controls the army. However, in the case of the U.S. Constitution, that one person is the elected executive of the government.

However, in keeping with the ideas of checks and balances, the President (according to the Constitution) is the commander-in-chief of the army, but Congress has the sole power to declare war. So while the President leads the military, the Congress authorizes the war. That is how the Constitution prevents unilateral actions by the military's commander-in-chief.

  • 2
    +1. Another important check is that Congress controls the budget, so should the President deploy troops without Congressional support they might run in to trouble. Commented Aug 20, 2017 at 1:15

Split roles

Let's think about what would happen if the president and commander-in-chief (CiC) roles were separate. What roles go with what?

  1. Defense. Pretty obviously the current Department of Defense would go to the CiC. Otherwise, what power does the CiC have?

  2. Taxes. This would seem obviously the president's. But if the president controls how much money the CiC gets, then the CiC is subject to the president? If the CiC has separate taxes, do they get a separate Internal Revenue Service (IRS) too?

  3. Research and development. If this gets split into military and civilian parts, both could. But then both could blame the other for insufficient spending on their pet projects. For example, NASA (National Aeronautics & Space Agency). The military has used it to launch satellites and work on missile rocket technology.

  4. State. If the president keeps this, then the two can blame each other for foreign policy failures. Why hasn't the military solved this pesky problem? Meanwhile, the CiC could say that this is a diplomatic problem. And of course other countries would have the opportunity to play upon those divisions. If the CiC takes this, then it exacerbates the previous problem.

  5. Foreign Aid. Obviously this goes with State, except where do they get the money? If the president keeps State, does the CiC have the ability to veto military and technological aid?

  6. NSA. The National Security Agency has a foreign focus that is meant to inform both diplomatic and military actions.

  7. Intelligence. Some intelligence gathering is to prepare for the possibility of military action. Some is to advance diplomatic concerns. Some is to detect domestic problems like terrorism.

  8. Homeland Security. This is for domestic protection. However, Homeland Security exists as a department because the FBI and CIA were deliberately separated. But terrorists don't have rules against coordinating between their foreign and domestic parts. Homeland Security has to operate partially in foreign areas. And it coordinates with Defense to target foreign terror cells that support domestic terrorism.

  9. Coast Guard. The Coast Guard operates close to domestic shores. But it is far more like a military agency.

  10. DEA. The Drug Enforcement Agency attempts to interdict drugs from entering the country. And it enforces laws domestically. And it coordinates with other agencies, like Homeland Security and the Coast Guard.

  11. Other law enforcement. Alcohol, Tobacco & Firearms, the Secret Service, and the Federal Bureau of Investigation also have to coordinate with each other and previous agencies.

  12. Presidential protection. Currently provided by the Secret Service and the military. Air Force One is a military plane. Marines protect the White House. OK, let's give all that to the president. Who protects the CiC? Is there a separate apparatus for that?

  13. Energy. Obviously domestic right? Except that the Department of Energy is responsible for providing nuclear materials for nuclear bombs. An obviously military responsibility.

  14. Commerce. Again, sounds domestic. But a significant portion is commerce with other nations, foreign affairs.

  15. Veterans Affairs. It matters more to the military, but it's a domestic responsibility.

There aren't natural splits for these roles that work in all situations. And this isn't all of them, but I'm tired of typing. If the president is the CiC, then the president can balance these roles. If they're two separate politicians, then they will joust politically between them for power.

Splitting the roles is a recipe for dysfunction.

Blurring the lines

Also look at what Barack Obama did to subvert the separation of powers. As a candidate, he decried use of executive orders to implement policy. As president, he created an entire bureaucratic regime in Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals (DACA) by executive action. Consider what a commander-in-chief could do:

  • Want to implement a basic income? Start a mandatory militia program with compensation but no responsibilities.

  • Want to implement single payer health care? Expand the Veterans' Affairs department to civilians. Or create mandatory military enrollment so that everyone is a veteran.

  • Want to implement free college? Again, turn everyone into a veteran so that the GI Bill applies.

Presidents have similar opportunities:

  • A president could expand armed groups on the domestic side. Perhaps the protection detail. Or the coast guard.

  • As seen in free trade agreements, domestic regulation affects international relations. However much is given to the CiC, a president will want that back. Increasingly, domestic and international issues are intertwined.


If you give one person all the military power and someone else all the domestic power, you increase the chance of a coup. As the military gets more and more frustrated with the split, they have the ability to take power for the CiC. Also, the separation of roles means that the CiCs are likely to be associated with the military. After all, who else is qualified?

Unified tickets

A lot of the focus here has been on what can go wrong if the president and CiC do not coordinate. But what if they do? We could have President Trump and CiC Michael Flynn now. And there goes separation of powers.

Separation of powers and the consequent checks-and-balances of the system work because there is a natural tension between the branches of the government. Most Supreme Court justices were appointed by previous presidents, so they don't feel beholden to the current president. Legislators represent smaller districts than the president's national district, so some of them will be against the president's party. But the CiC has the same district as the president. The same voters choose both. Nothing separates them.

To maximize their power, parties would make deliberate attempts to win both positions at once. And they would sometimes succeed. Even if the elections are staggered, note what happened in 2006 and 2008. The Democrats won in both, taking control of the presidency, Senate (with a 60-vote super majority), and the House of Representatives. There seems little reason to believe that they would have been satisfied with just one of president and CiC.


Historically, the main job of the president was related to foreign policy. For example, George Washington, Andrew Jackson, and Ulysses S Grant were all admirably qualified to become commander-in-chief. For that matter, presidents like the Adamses, Thomas Jefferson, and James Monroe had diplomatic experience before becoming president. James Madison and Martin Van Buren were two of the five Secretaries of State in the first eight presidents. Tenth president John Tyler was the first president with only domestic experience while eleventh president James K. Polk was the first elected president with only domestic experience.

The twentieth century shifted the presidency to a more domestic role, only Dwight Eisenhower came from a top military position. George H. W. Bush was the only president with ambassadorial experience since James Buchanan. But the United States system was designed with the idea that diplomacy and military were the natural responsibilities of the federal government while domestic authority was at smaller levels.

Source: Wikipedia

Even if we admit that modernly the roles could be separated (and I don't), it would not have made sense when the roles were being designed. Presidents were primarily commanders-in-chief then.

  • 1
    Your split roles section seems to assume that the president controls the budget, which is incorrect.
    – phoog
    Commented Sep 4, 2017 at 10:51

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