What Would William Howard Taft Do About Syria and Mexico?


President Trump this morning tweeted that Russia should "Get ready" to shoot down American missiles fired at Syria "because they will be coming, nice and new and 'smart'!" And in response to his request, the Republican governors of Texas, Arizona and New Mexico have sent 1,600 National Guard members to the Mexican border, to combat what Trump has called a "crisis of our southern border."

Does the President have the constitutional authority to send troops over the Mexican border without Congressional approval? Trump's most constitutionally minded predecessor, William Howard Taft, believed he did not. In Taft's time, as in ours, some Republicans were demanding that the president provoke a military confront with Mexico over border security. In March 1911, Taft sent 20,000 American troops up to the Mexican border, to protect American citizens and capital in Mexico in the face of up uprising against the Mexican president, Porfirio Diaz. (Taft, like Trump, did not consult his cabinet.)

But although President Diaz expected an invasion, Taft carefully instructed his commanders not to cross the Mexican border, believing that the President lacked the constitutional authority to declare war without Congressional approval. In the end, Congress refused to authorize an invasion and Taft kept the troops waiting at the border as a deterrent, resisting populist cries for war.

In acting with constitutional restraint at the Mexican border, Taft was putting the national interest above his partisan interests. When he read that four Americans had been killed in Mexico, his wife asked if there would be war. Taft replied, "I only know that I am going to do everything in my power to prevent one. Already there is a movement in the Grand Old Party"—he intoned the words sarcastically—"to utilize this trouble for party ends…. I am afraid I am a constant disappointment to my party. The fact of the matter is, the longer I am President the less of a party man I seem to become…. [I]t seems to me to be impossible to be a strict party man and serve the whole country impartially."

Taft's legalistic precision at the border evoked our greatest constitutionally minded president, Abraham Lincoln. In 1846, President James K. Polk sent troops to the Mexican border, in response to what he claimed was a Mexican invasion. Lincoln—elected later year as a young Whig Congressman—would introduce his famous "spot resolutions," demanding that Polk identify the precise spot where blood had been shed, to establish it was on U.S. soil. (This earned him the nickname "Spotty Lincoln.")

Taft and Lincoln, in other words, insisted that the president has no power to send American troops across the Mexican border without Congressional approval. What about a strike on Syria? President Trump, like President Obama, has insisted on his power to launch unilateral strikes in the war against terror. The constitutional arguments for and against these assertions of presidential unilateralism are well debated on these We the People podcasts hosted by the National Constitution Center, including John Yoo v. Ilya Somin on Obama and Deborah Perlstein v. Sai Prakash on Trump.

But William Howard Taft's position was clear. "It seems my duty as Commander in Chief to place troops in sufficient number where, if Congress shall direct that they enter Mexico to save American lives and property, an effective movement may be promptly made," he declared in an address to Congress in March, 1911. But Taft emphasized that he would never authorize unilateral military action. "The assumption by the press that I contemplate intervention on Mexican soil to protect American lives or property is of course gratuitous, because I seriously doubt whether I have such authority under any circumstances, and if I had I would not exercise it without express congressional approval."

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  1. The crux of this dispute, it seems to me, is the legality of the 2001 AUMF, which purports to delegate to the President the right to declare war on any country he considers to be the source of a terrorist attack on US soil. Several of the VC members seem to take it for granted (in other posts) that that was a valid delegation of one of Congress’s powers. I don’t think it is.

    1. The power of the President to use military force is different from the power to declare war.

      1. The way I see it

        If the fight is against a sovereign power it’s war. Also, if the fight is against a fighting force with the control of a civilian population, by civilian consent, that is also a sovereign power, and hence war.

        Otherwise, if it’s a fighting force trying to establish civilian control without popular support, it might not be a sovereign, and might not be war.

  2. Is there talk of sending National Guard troops over the Mexican border?

    That would be insanity, and surely clear grounds for impeachment.

    1. There is no talk, at all, about sending troops into Mexico. At least not by the President.

      1. Glad to hear it.

      2. Even brief visits to the Conspiracy seem to provoke TDS. I have no idea whence came the suggestion that Trump might use the National Guard (!) to invade Mexico, but it didn’t come from Trump.

    2. Nope, just “to” the border.

      OTOH, Mexican troops seem to get confused about exactly where it is from time to time, can’t blame the National Guard if they find its exact location a bit vague.

    3. *chuckle*

      Since when has a use of military force by a president without Congressional authorization, ever, for practical purposes, led to an impeachment?

      1. “Since when has a use of military force by a president without Congressional authorization, ever, for practical purposes, led to an impeachment?”

        There’s always a first time. (I’m an optimist.)

  3. “our greatest constitutionally minded president, Abraham Lincoln.”

    From historian James Randall: “No president has carried the power of presidential edict and executive order (independently of Congress) so far as [Lincoln] did…. It would not be easy to state what Lincoln conceived to be the limit of his powers.”

    Then there’s that habeas corpus thingy.

    1. Yeah, Lincoln was many things, overly concerned with constitutional niceties was not one of them.

    2. Amazing the halo that gets people to write silly things like this in the OP about him

    3. That is because the South dared not pull their stunt with Jackson. The luckiest thing about America is that neither Washington nor Jackson had biological children.

  4. Does invasion of airspace constitute crossing the border? Likewise, does boots on the ground ? who are shooting over the border ? constitute crossing the border, generally speaking?

  5. Seems to me those who apparently think the word “declare” now and as used by the framers means start ought to cite a source .

    Cambridge English Dictionary:

    “Declare . . . to announce something clearly, firmly, publicly, or officially”

    “Start . . . to begin to do something or go somewhere, or to begin or happen”

  6. Speaking of the border, there’s this testimony yesterday that the 16 yo was throwing rocks, posing an existential threat to the brave men and women protecting our border.

    How could our court system be so anti American to not invoke quality immunity?

      1. Stoning is an old mode of execution, you know. It’s hardly a trivial matter. Though I’d count anybody shot while throwing rocks at armed men a Darwin award winner, myself.

        1. I’d count anyone who can safely move out of range of the stones, and feels compelled to kill the throwers, an idiot and a murderer.

          Execution? The throwers were 70-90 feet away, and were throwing over a 22-foot fence.

          Read the article.

          1. I did read the article.

            I would call this an appropriate application of “stand your ground”; US law enforcement are not required to retreat in the face of an attack by people trying to stop them from doing their job.

            How would that work, if police had to retreat rather than shoot any time criminals picked up a rock?

            “Execution? The throwers were 70-90 feet away, and were throwing over a 22-foot fence.”

            That’s brilliant. If somebody threw a stone at you from 10 feet away, it might have just been gently tossed. But if it hits you from 90 feet away after clearing a 22 foot fence, there’s no chance at all it isn’t going to be moving fast enough to injure you.

        2. Yup, the only way to stop a bad kid with a rock is a good guy with a gun.

    1. “quality immunity” is a civil concept, dealing with ability to be sued for violating constitutional standards, not applicable to criminal proceedings

      1. There needs to be some type of immunity. How about American exceptionalism immunity?

    2. I had a relative who took a smaller than palm sized flat water skipping stone to the head as a kid. Thrown. It killed him.

      1. So that justifies this? Are you serious?

        Read the article MM links to.

        1. I admittedly didn’t read the linked article, and circumstances vary in every use of force situation. The linked one, well…if it was from that far away and over a fence, I wouldn’t shoot back. My heart does not bleed for the rock throwers though. Mouse could have put a little more detail in his comment.

          I suppose I reflexively stepped up when I hear these “why didn’t he just shoot him in the leg” or “he only had a brick, why did he shoot him” type of arguments from people.

        2. Yes. Throwing rocks is a deadly force assault, which should be stopped by the application of deadly force.

          1. Thanks for illustrating the value of the right to bear arms at playgrounds. It’s all about the kids.

          2. I little more abstract, the price for thowing stones is death?

          3. Full disclosure, at 5 or 6, I wanted to take my turn tossing pea-sized playground pebbles up a slide, that no one was on, just to watch them tumble down, and was put in time out. Yes, it was a valuable lesson, but, if you can’t tell, am still be a bit bitter about how it went down.

  7. Taft’s failures as president led to Wilson being elected. Wilson had no such scruples about using force against Mexico.

    1. I don’t think Taft’s failure to send troops into Mexico caused Wilson to win. Wilson won because TR’s Bull Moose Party split the GOP.

      That said, certainly Wilson’s position on Mexico was dramatically different than Taft’s. And Wilson’s sending the U.S. Army to chase Pancho Villa and other Mexicans in Mexico created a such a strain in our relations with our southern neighbor that the Germans seriously believed they could woo Mexico into an alliance during WW1 that on the basis of a promise that Mexico would recover Texas, New Mexico, Arizona, and California — lands lost to Mexico in the Mexican-American War of 1845 — via the Zimmerman telegram, which eventually became, along with Germany’s resumption of unrestricted submarine warfare, the casus belli that prompted the U.S. entry into WW1 on the side of the Allies.

      1. “I don’t think Taft’s failure to send troops into Mexico caused Wilson to win. ”

        Did not mean to imply it. I am referring to his overall failures, especially his abandonment of TR’s policies which led to the split.

        As a President, Taft was an excellent Chief Justice.

        1. Agreed. While I like Taft, he’s not Silent Cal, who could sit on his hands. The OP needs to contrast him timeless principles, like Alexander Hamilton’s idea of “energy in the Executive” explained in Federalist 70, rather than with Trump, who is the politician de jure:

          “Energy in the Executive is a leading character in the definition of good government. It is essential to the protection of the community against foreign attacks; it is not less essential to the steady administration of the laws; to the protection of property against those irregular and high-handed combinations which sometimes interrupt the ordinary course of justice; to the security of liberty against the enterprises and assaults of ambition, of faction, and of anarchy………

          There can be no need, however, to multiply arguments or examples on this head. A feeble Executive implies a feeble execution of the government. A feeble execution is but another phrase for a bad execution; and a government ill executed, whatever it may be in theory, must be, in practice, a bad government.”

  8. We spend trillions defending borders, building infrastructure all around the world . . . except our own border.

    Future historians may write of America’s idiocy.

  9. “The same pols who say that America can’t afford Trump’s proposed wall have spent lavishly on the protection of borders outside the country. Every year they give billions of dollars to governments across Asia, Africa, Europe, the Middle East, and Latin America. That American largesse, combined with the astronomical costs of U.S. military protection, allow those countries to seal off their borders. Meanwhile, America’s southern border remains largely unprotected and pols pretend they lack the funds to address the crisis. As President Trump put it in his inaugural address, “We’ve defended other nations’ borders while refusing to defend our own.””

    The American Spectator 4.11.18

    1. We can afford it, it’s just a dumb idea and a waste of money.

      Besides, Trump said Mexico would pay for it, so let him go there and get the money. It’s easy, right? Just like his supporters sai.

      1. Yeah, it would be easy enough to make Mexico pay for it, but it would require Congress to pass a tax on remittances, and I don’t think Trump quite realized at the time he said that, just how useless a Republican Congress could be.

        1. Right, Brett. Easy.

          Has Trump tried?

          I don’t think Trump quite realized at the time he said that, just how useless a Republican Congress could be.

          Useless? Because they don’t pass your insane remittance tax?

  10. The border between the Republic of Texas (prior to US annexation) and Mexico was not settled when Lincoln made that statement. There was continued border conflict for the entire ten years of the Republic of Texas’ existence, to include one badly run Texas invasion of Sante Fe and repeated haphazard Mexican invasions of Texas. You see, Mexico never recognized the right of Texas to exist, but there was nothing General Santa Anna could do about it.

    One of the primary reasons why the Whigs didn’t want to annex Texas, aside from slavery, was the fear that it would provoke a war with Mexico. However, when President Polk sent troops down to the new US state of Texas, the fact he put them in disputed territory (to Lincoln’s point) is not less important than the fact that Mexico had REFUSED to negotiate a border for over a decade.

  11. Taft’s high principles about troops on the border with Mexico were not even a speed bump on the world’s rush to war in 1911. It wasn’t even much of a hiccup on our intervening in Mexico militarily. Woodrow Wilson had famously high minded principles, which kept us out of WWI for five years and out of WWII for 23 years, but did nothing to contain the savagery and the destruction of the inevitable.

  12. Tweeting is easily the worst thing Trump does perhaps. If his Twitter account got shut down that one step could transform his Presidency from a mediocre to a decent or maybe even good one imo. (assuming he didn’t find an alternative outlet for giving people the perception rightly or wrongly how reckless he is)

    1. Nah, the tweeting is what got him elected, and it allows him to take his message directly to the people. You might as well say FDR should have stopped those damn fireside chats of his and put out press releases instead.

      1. For once I’d like to see some evidence that Trump was actually helped by his tweeting rather than succeeding in spite of it. Everything so far seems to be hypothetical, I just hope they can continue to put in enough work behind the scenes that it won’t matter.

        1. His most rabid fan base of hard core supporters love it. Head over to The_Donald on Reddit and you’ll see what I mean. These folks form the backbone of his 50% approval rating.

          Still, since we only have one reality, you have to perform a thought experiment. Imagine, if you will, a world where Donald Trump relied only on the media to get his message out. Can you honestly say, that after thinking about that for a minute, that he’d be as effective, because the media gives him 90% negative coverage.

  13. For the record Lincoln was an awful congressman that pretty much rejected all of his earlier beliefs as president. Lincoln was wrong about the Jacksonians and in fact slavery was abolished because of the new states admitted through Manifest Destiny. By the time Lincoln was president he was essentially a Jacksonian and all of the prominent Jacksonians rejected the CSA and remained with the Union.

  14. Mexico complained that, while Taft claimed he was solely within American territory, his stomach leaned over into Mexican territory.

  15. “…believing that the President lacked the constitutional authority to declare war without Congressional approval.”

    A president who can read the Constitution. What a novel thought!

  16. Good point. Taft didn’t invade. But Teddy would have.

  17. The context of Lincoln’s “Spot Resolution” is misstated. Polk sent U.S. troops to the north bank of the Rio Grande, which Texas (and the U.S., after annexing Texas) claimed as the border with Mexico. Mexico (with some justification) claimed the border was at the Nueces River, about 200 km to the north.

    So Polk sent those troops into a disputed area, where they clashed with Mexican troops. When Polk stated that in that clash, the Mexicans had “shed American blood on American soil”, he was implicitly asserting U.S. ownership of the area. Lincoln’s “Spot Resolution” was intended to force Polk to make that assertion explicit, and thereby expose the aggressive and provocative quality of Polk’s policy.

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