It is sometimes contended that in order for the US to legally use armed force against an adversary, a declaration of war is required. The weakness in this argument is that the Constitution does not set forth what constitutes a declaration of war. Throughout US history Congress has felt free to authorize the use of force without using the language contained in Congressional declarations of war. The first Congressional authorization for the use of force was at the outset of the Quasi War with France. The text of the Congressional authorization of force was as follows:
An Act further to protect the commerce of the United States
SECTION 1. Be it enacted by the Senate and House of Representatives of the United States of America in Congress assembled, That the President of the United States shall be, and he is hereby authorized to instruct the commanders of the public armed vessels which are, or which shall be employed in the service of the United States, to subdue, seize and take any armed French vessel, which shall be found within the jurisdictional limits of the United States, or elsewhere, on the high seas, and such captured vessel, with her apparel, guns and appurtenances, and the goods or effects which shall be found on board the same, being French property, shall be brought within some port of the United States, and shall be duly proceeded against and condemned as forfeited; and shall accrue and be distributed, as by law is or shall be provided respecting the captures which shall be made by the public armed vessels of the United States.
SEC. 2. And be it further enacted, That the President of the United States shall be, and he is hereby authorized to grant to the owners of private armed ships and vessels of the United States, who shall make application therefor, special commissions in the form which he shall direct and under the seal of the United States; and such private armed vessels, when duly commissioned, as aforesaid, shad have the same license and authority for the subduing, seizing and capturing any armed French vessel, and for the recapture of the vessels, goods and effects of the people of the United States, as the public armed vessels of the United States may by law have; and shall be, in like manner, subject to such instructions as shall be ordered by the President of the United States, for the regulation of their conduct. And the commissions which shall be granted, as aforesaid, shall be revocable at the pleasure of the President of the United States.
SEC. 3. Provided, and be it further enacted, That every person intending to set forth and employ an armed vessel, and applying for a commission, as aforesaid, shall produce in writing the name, and a suitable description of the tonnage and force of the vessel, and the name and place of residence of each owner concerned therein, the number of the crew and the name of the commander, and the two officers next in rank, appointed for such vessel; which writing shall be signed by the person or persons making such application, and filed with the Secretary of State, or shall be delivered to any other officer or person who shall be employed to deliver out such commissions, to be by him transmitted to the Secretary of State.
SEC. 4. And provided, and be it further enacted, That before any commission, as aforesaid, shall be issued, the owner or owners of the ship or vessel for which the same shall be requested, and the commander thereof, for the time being, shall give bond to the United States, with at least two responsible sureties, not interested in such vessel in the penal sum of seven thousand dollars; or if such vessel be provided with more than one hundred and fifty men, then in the penal sum of fourteen thousand dollars; with condition that the owners, and officers, and crews who shall be employed on board of such commissioned vessel, shall and will observe the treaties and laws of the United States, and the instructions which shall be given them for the regulation of their conduct: And will satisfy all damages and injuries which shall be done or committed contrary to the tenor thereof, by such vessel, during her commission, and to deliver up the same when revoked by the President of the United States.
SEC. 5. And be it further enacted, That all armed French vessels, together with their apparel, guns and appurtenances, and any goods or effects which shall be found on board the same, being French property, and which shall be captured by any private armed vessel or vessels of the United States, duly commissioned, as aforesaid, shall be forfeited, and shall accrue to the owners thereof, and the officers and crews by whom such captures shall be made; and on due condemnation had, shall be distributed according to any agreement which shall be between them; or in failure of such agreement, then by the discretion of the court before whom such condemnation shall be.
SEC. 6. And be it further enacted, That all vessels, goods and effects, the property of any citizen of the United States or person resident therein, which shall be recaptured, as aforesaid, shall be restored to the lawful owners, upon payment by them, respectively, of a just and reasonable salvage, to be determined by the mutual agreement of the parties concerned, or by the decree of any court of the United States having maritime jurisdiction according to the nature of each case: Provided, that such allowance shall not be less than one eighth, or exceeding one half of the full value of such recapture, without any deduction. And such salvage shall be distributed to and among the owners, officers and crews of the private armed vessel or vessels entitled thereto, according to any agreement which shall be between them; or in case of no agreement, then by the decree of the court who shall determine upon such salvage.
SEC. 7. And be it further enacted, That before breaking bulk of any vessel which shall be captured, as aforesaid, or other disposal or conversion thereof, or of any articles which shall be found on board the same, such capture shall be brought into some port of the United States, and shall be libelled and proceeded against before the district court of the same district; and if after a due course of proceedings, such capture shall be decreed as forfeited in the district court, or in the circuit court of the same district, in the case of any appeal duly allowed, the same shall be delivered to the owners and captors concerned therein, or shall be publicly sold by the marshal of the same court, as shall be finally decreed and ordered by the court. And the same court, who shall have final jurisdiction of any libel or complaint of any capture, as aforesaid shall and may decree restitution, in whole or in part, when the capture and restraint shall have been made without just cause, as aforesaid and if made without probable cause, or otherwise unreasonably, may order and decree damages and costs to the party injured, and for which the owners, officers, and crews of the private armed vessel or vessels by which such unjust capture shall have been made, and also such vessel or vessels shall be answerable and liable.
SEC. 8. And be it further enacted, That all French persons and others, who shall be found acting on board any French armed vessel, which shall be captured, or on board of any vessel of the United States, which shall be recaptured, as aforesaid, shall be reported to the collector of the port in which they shall first arrive, and shall be delivered to the custody of the marshal, or of some civil or military officer of the United States, or of any state in or near such port; who shall take charge for their safe keeping and support, at the expense of the United States.
The House passed the authorization on July 3, 1798, the Senate on July 6, and President Adams signed it into law on July 9. Two observations: 1. It is striking the amount of micromanagement of the conflict that Congress placed in this authorization and 2. that Congress assumed that American privateers would be a [part of the conflict. In regard to privateers Congress was certainly correct. Of course American privateers would play a central role in all American naval conflicts, up to and including the Civil War in which Confederate privateers wreaked such long lasting damage on the merchant fleet of the United States.