National Emergencies: A Political History

What exactly constitutes a national emergency? Professor Feisal Mohamed (The Graduate Center, CUNY) says the invocation of emergency powers in republics goes back to ancient Rome. But the manipulation of that power “by over-reaching rulers” is also a “commonplace of history,” Mohamed wrote in an essay for The Yale Review.

In “times of crisis, the Roman senate would temporarily grant broad powers to a commissarial dictator.” Lucius Quinctius Cincinnatus, considered by some to be the “model dictator,” was chosen by the senate to put down a rebellion in 458 B.C. He then handed “power back to the senate and return[ed] to private life.”

But not every Roman was as civic-minded as Cincinnatus. In 81 B.C., Cornelius Sulla “used dictatorship to advance his own power,” permanently marring “the constitution of the Roman republic.”

Many U.S. presidents have used emergency powers. President Lincoln “launched a civil war by presidential proclamation … raising 75,000 troops without approval from Congress” after the attack on Fort Sumter. Presidents Wilson, Roosevelt, Truman, and Nixon all declared national emergencies. The 1976 National Emergencies Act “sought to limit this presidential power by subjecting national emergencies to Congressional review.”

Mohamed’s piece appeared before President Trump declared a national emergency on the U.S.-Mexico border as a way to procure funding for a wall. Mohamed also contributed a chapter in a similar vein to the 2018 book, Trump and Political Philosophy.

Asked to comment on political developments since the publication of these pieces, Mohamed said in an email: “I am not surprised in the least that Trump did in fact declare a national emergency, as this is entirely in keeping with a pattern of using the maximum capacity for unilateral action that his office allows. Before we think that he is uniquely despicable, however, we should contemplate precedents for such declarations, in the American tradition and beyond.”

He added: “We should be clear that he is not inventing new executive authority; he is stretching existing authority just a bit, and so is in stride with the post-9/11 tendencies of the executive branch. … The piece in The Yale Review seeks to show how the dictator has always been deemed necessary to preserving republics in moments of political unrest.”

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What is an Emergency?
The Yale Review, 2019

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