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Outrage swept the nation after President John Adams released dispatches from Paris detailing French agents’ refusal to meet with American commissioners unless certain preliminary demands were met (the so-called XYZ Affair—I’ll post pictures of those dispatches later). George Washington received word that he was being considered to command American troops in case the French sent an expeditionary force across the Atlantic. He wrote Alexander Hamilton on May 27, 1798 that “if a crisis should arrive when a sense of duty, or a call from my Country, should become so imperious as to leave me no choice, I should prepare for the relinquishment [of personal freedom], and go with as much reluctance from my present peaceful abode, as I should do to the tombs of my Ancestors.”

In being prevailed upon to make Hamilton America’s top military figure, Adams detected “a nefarious plot to exalt a schemer who might well use the army as an instrument of self-aggrandizement and tyranny,” as James Flexner wrote. He instead nominated the aged Washington to be “Lieutenant General and Commander in Chief of all the Armies raised or to be raised in the United States”:

Washington hadn’t been directly consulted beforehand, and the nomination caught him off guard. Although grateful to Adams for this “new proof of public confidence, and the highly flattering manner in which you have been pleased to make the communication,” he also confessed his “earnest wish, that the choice had fallen on a man less declined in years, and better qualified to encounter the usual vicissitudes of war.”

In my zeal to sleuth out any constitutional issues these documents might raise, I couldn’t help but notice that Adams, who was to be “Commander in Chief of the Army and Navy of the United States” for the entirety of his presidential term, nominated another to be “Commander in Chief” of the nation’s “Armies.” Is Adams merely using familiar phraseology to describe the highest-ranking military position he’s entitled to fill, or does “Commander in Chief” have some constitutional significance here? Did Adams really intend to delegate the presidential commander-in-chief power to his predecessor? If this happened today, would anyone have standing to challenge the delegation’s constitutionality?

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