Is the King Commander-in-Chief?

A few Canadian government twitter accounts have stated that King Charles III is Commander-in-Chief of the Canadian Armed Forces. Is this correct? It depends what we mean.

What are the arguments for the idea that the Sovereign is the Commander-in-Chief?

All command authority in Canada flows from the Crown, which indicates that the King is at the apex of the military command structure. Section 15 of the Constitution Act 1867 holds that the “Command-in-Chief” of the military in and of Canada continues to the vested in the Sovereign. Commissions flow from the Crown’s authority, too, and the Crown’s powers continue to authorize various military deployments and movements. Although the Crown acts on the advice of ministers when exercising these authorities, as per the conventions of responsible government, all this suggests that the Sovereign’s formal position is analogous to that of the American and French presidents when it comes to the armed forces. We can therefore say that the King is Commander-in-Chief insofar as all commands formally flow from the Crown’s supreme military command authority.

What are the arguments against?

Commander-in-Chief is a rank and title came into English usage around the seventeenth century (to the best of my knowledge.) Following the restoration of 1660, this rank/title identified the officer who had overall command of the Crown’s forces. In the late 19th Century, this rank/title also served to preserve the Crown’s direct connection to the armed forces, acting as a bulwark against complete Cabinet control of the military. When the British Cabinet finally established full control over the armed forces in 1904, the rank/title disappeared within the United Kingdom. In the case of the British Army, command was delegated to the Army Council and the highest ranking Army officer became the Chief of the General Staff.

This episode tells us a few things. First, it helps explain why the Letters Patent 1905 bestowed the rank/title of Command-in-Chief on the Governor General. The rank/title remained useful for colonial purposes, ie establishing the Crown’s overarching authority over Canada’s armed forces after the rank/title ceased to be operative in the United Kingdom. Colonial relations also explains the origins of section 15 of the Constitution Act 1867. This section ensured that the armed forces of Canada remained under the overarching command authority of the Imperial Crown and its officers. Today, the Governor General retains the rank/title of Commander-in-Chief, making the vice-regal representative the highest ranking officer of the Canadian Armed Forces, formally speaking.

Viewed from an historical perspective, then, Commander-in-Chief appears to be a rank/title that the Sovereign bestows, not one that the King holds himself. The King has supreme military command authority, and the Sovereign exercises that authority to bestow the rank/title of Commander-in-Chief on the Governor General.

So is the King the Commander-in-Chief or not?

To answer that question, it’s useful to go ever further back in history. Kingship was originally as much a military idea as a governing one. Kings had imperium over their subjects and domains, a concept inherited from Rome which implied the authority to command in both the military and governmental senses as we use the term today. Asking whether the King was head of the armed forces would have been self-evident at the time. This was a function of kingship and imperium. There was no need to identify this authority with another title, such as Commander-in-Chief, since that was one of the primordial powers and functions of the monarch. There’s a case to be made that this remains the case in Canada today. Command of the armed forces is a remnant or legacy of the Crown’s imperium. So, the King has supreme military command authority as a function of being the Sovereign.

To put it in a more contemporary Canadian way, supreme military command authority is a power and function of the office of the King, which is how we should interpret section 15 of the Constitution Act 1867 now. The King exercised that supreme authority to bestow the rank/title of Commander-in-Chief on the Governor General in the 1905 and 1947 Letters Patent. Strictly speaking, then, the Governor General holds the honorific rank/title of Commander-in-Chief and the King holds supreme military command authority. The rank/title of Commander-in-Chief held by the Governor General emanates from the King’s imperium.

The American concept of Commander-in-Chief, however, weighs heavily on our thinking. When the constitution of the United States was being devised, the founders went about breaking apart the monarch’s powers among their branches of government. When it came to military matters, Congress was given the power to declare war and was vested with a significant role in overseeing the appointment of military leaders. The President, in turn, was made Commander-in-Chief, meaning that the chief executive would have the command and control of the armed forces that Congress raised and funded. Over time, however, the President’s role as Commander-in-Chief has acquired a hallowed quality and was redefined to include exceptional powers and prerogatives, as seen during the American Civil War and in the decades since the end of the Second World War. A similar thing happened with the French President after the founding of the Fifth Republic.

Originally, the idea of making the President Commander-in-Chief resembled the English practice of naming an officer to command the forces of the state. But it’s now better understood as a form of imperium. When we say Commander-in-Chief today, we are often alluding to supreme military command authority as a facet of imperium. It’s in that sense that we can say that the King is Commander-in-Chief. If the term is used to mean the King’s imperium in military matters, then it works.

In sum, the King does not hold the rank/title of Commander-in-Chief in Canada, the Governor General does. But the King possesses the imperium that belongs to the office of Commander-in-Chief in contemporary presidential republics. When we use Commander-in-Chief as a contemporary way of expressing imperium in military matters, then we can say that it belongs to the office of the King.

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