Paul Jacob

Peter Parker’s wise old Uncle Ben told him that “with great power comes great responsibility.” It was a plea to the budding Spiderman — and all those who wield power — to act responsibly, since throughout all of human history, folks with power have regularly done precisely the opposite.

America’s Founders didn’t know beans about comic book characters or movies or all kinds of cool stuff we have fun with today, but they did understand the judgment of history against undiluted, unchecked power.

The ability to take a nation to war is the ultimate political power.

In the U.S. Constitution, the inhabitants of late 18th century America granted to the federal Congress, rather than the president, the awesome power “To declare War, grant Letters of Marque and Reprisal, and make Rules concerning Captures on Land and Water.” Certainly, a large portion of our revolutionary ancestors, having just battled and broken with the British monarch — and, moreover, with the very idea of monarchy — feared a chief executive allotted too much power might become a new sort of king.

Our government was not designed with the idea that we could trust those in power to behave like responsible adults. Jefferson and Sam Adams and Patrick Henry may have been the first people to say, “Been there, done that.” They sought to break up power, which is why Congress has (or had?) such an important role to play.

Today, however, Uncle Sam knows better than those silly old Founders. We’re no longer bound by their ancient republican view of history — just like we’re not bound by the laws of economics, or biology or . . . well, let’s not digress.

In 1973, after two major wars (in Korea and Vietnam) went undeclared, waged unilaterally by a president, who committed troops and left it to Congress to take on the duty of paying the bills for the conflicts, while that same flagship institution of American democracy abandoned any policy making or executive-checking role, Congress finally struck back. Sorta. By a veto proof margin, Congress passed the War Powers Resolution.

Paul Jacob

Paul Jacob is President of Citizens in Charge Foundation and Citizens in Charge. His daily Common Sense commentary appears on the Web and via e-mail.