ERIC Identifier: ED447064
Publication Date: 2000-10-00
Author: Drake, Sarah E. - Vontz, Thomas S.
Clearinghouse for Social Studies/Social Science Education Bloomington IN.
Teaching about the U.S. Presidency. ERIC Digest.
Many consider the U.S. presidency to be the most powerful office in the
world. What are its constitutional foundations? How has the role of the chief
executive changed through the years? What World Wide Web resources are available
for teaching about the U.S. presidency?
CONSTITUTIONAL FOUNDATIONS OF THE PRESIDENCY.
to the 1787 Philadelphia Convention, who framed the U.S. Constitution, brought
with them various conceptions of executive power. Three questions dominated the
framers' consideration of the role the executive would play in the new
government. First, the delegates discussed whether the executive should be a
single individual or whether multiple persons should share the office. Second,
they considered at length the amount of power the executive should wield. And
third, they debated the best means by which to elect the executive. Generally,
deliberations on these questions involved the balance of power in the new
The framers feared that a powerful executive could usurp legislative
authority and engage in tyrannical actions. The weak executives created by the
state constitutions, however, proved unable to prevent state legislatures from
trampling on the people's rights. The founding fathers sought to create a
government in which, as James Madison explained in FEDERALIST 51, "Ambition must
be made to counteract ambition." Madison deemed a balance of power necessary,
and he called for a governmental arrangement in which it would be in the best
interest of all citizens to resist executive encroachment.
Although they recognized the importance of strong leadership, Americans
feared executive tyranny. To guard against the creation of an authoritarian
monarchy, many delegates called for a plural executive. Advocates of a plural
executive believed that vesting presidential power in more than one man would
lessen the danger that leaders would abuse power. When the Pennsylvania delegate
James Wilson moved on June 1, 1787 that the executive should consist of one
person, a lengthy silence ensued. The framers eventually decided upon a single
executive. They decided this on the basis that conflicts would be more easily
avoided if there were only one executive. Also, they believed that Congress
could more carefully watch and check a single executive.
The length of the president's term and the method of election were also
contested issues. The delegates initially agreed that the president would serve
a seven-year term and would be ineligible for reelection. After much debate,
they decided a bicameral Congress would elect the executive. On July 26, the
Convention presented its decisions to the Committee of Detail, which was charged
with the task of organizing the resolutions into a constitutional draft. Of the
five members of the Committee of Detail, only Nathaniel Gorham advocated
executive authority. As a result, the Committee's draft of the description of
the executive provided the office with scant power (McDonald 1994, 171).
In late August, as the Committee of the Whole reconvened to examine the
Committee of Detail's draft, the proposed presidency consisted of the following:
there would be a single president elected for a seven-year term by a joint
session of Congress. The president would be ineligible for reelection, would
have no power of appointment or removal, and could be impeached by the House and
convicted by the Supreme Court. The president would be commander-in-chief, would
possess a conditional veto over Congressional legislation, and could grant
pardons and reprieves.
In the final days of the Convention, several adjustments were made in these
provisions and the executive office evolved into its current form. The
president's enumerated powers as listed in Article II of the Constitution
included commander-in-chief of the armed forces, the authority to grant pardons
and reprieves, the ability to veto legislation, the power to make treaties with
other nations, and the power to appoint judges, executive department heads, and
ambassadors. To ensure a balance of power, the legislative and executive
branches had the ability to check presidential actions. For example, only
Congress could declare war, two-thirds of both Congressional houses could
override a presidential veto, the Senate must confirm all treaties made by the
president, and the Senate must approve presidential appointments. The House
could impeach the president with the Senate serving as judge or court. The
framers hoped this system of checks and balances would prevent the reign of a
tyrannical executive. In addition to finalizing the executive's power, the
framers discussed methods of selecting the president.
Lacking trust in the people's ability to elect the president directly and
hesitating to allow existing legislative bodies to select the president, they
designed the electoral college. (For a discussion of the electoral college, see
the ERIC Digest "Teaching about Presidential Elections," August 2000, by Thomas
S. Vontz and William A. Nixon.)
THE CHANGING ROLE OF THE CHIEF EXECUTIVE.
The role of the
executive in the United States government has changed as office holders shaped
the presidency and interpreted their powers in various ways. All members of the
Constitutional Convention considered George Washington to embody the image of
the American president. His leadership and commitment to the United States
brought legitimacy to the newly formed government. Two of Washington's cabinet
members, Alexander Hamilton and Thomas Jefferson, differed in their views of the
role of the government, and their clashing political philosophies have
characterized leadership styles adopted by subsequent presidents.
Hamilton called for an active government, and strong leadership exhibited by
such presidents as Abraham Lincoln, Theodore Roosevelt, Woodrow Wilson, Franklin
Roosevelt, Harry Truman, and Lyndon Johnson hearkens back to the Hamiltonian
view of government. The charismatic personality of Franklin Roosevelt (FDR)
undoubtedly enabled him to lead the United States during the Depression and
World War II. FDR demonstrated strong leadership by expanding the role of the
federal government through the New Deal. FDR's successor, Harry Truman, also
exhibited strong leadership. Truman made tough foreign policy decisions that FDR
postponed, and policy makers in the Truman administration outlined strategies of
containment that defined and shaped the outcomes of the Cold War.
By contrast, the Jeffersonian style of leadership was associated with a less
active government. Thomas Jefferson, Andrew Jackson, Calvin Coolidge, Herbert
Hoover, Dwight Eisenhower, and Ronald Reagan demonstrated Jeffersonian
tendencies during their presidencies. Hoover, for example, initially refused to
offer federal aid during the Depression because he believed the government
should limit its interference in people's lives. Reagan's leadership style has
been interpreted as a reaction to an excessively active government, as he sought
to curtail federal programs and return power to the states.
In reaction to expanding presidential power and as a result of actions taken
during the Vietnam War, Congress has attempted to limit executive authority. The
1973 War Powers Resolution assigned to the president and Congress the war-making
authority supposedly intended by the Constitution. In limiting the president's
authority, Congress implied that powers not possessed by the executive belonged
to the legislature. Many members of Congress feared that the presidency had
become too powerful in the balanced government established in the Constitution.
Today, the American president is undoubtedly a powerful figure in the United
States government structure. The executive, legislative, and judicial branches
act independently and interdependently to protect citizens' rights and, as
Madison stated in FEDERALIST 51, "enable the government to control the governed
and in the next place oblige it to control itself."
WORLD WIDE WEB RESOURCES FOR TEACHING ABOUT THE
The following World Wide Web sites are recommended as valuable
resources for teachers and students.
* USA Presidents - This site has a biography of every American President.
* American Presidents Blog - This blog features a different site dealing with the American Presidents every day.
* The American Experience: The Presidents.
This interactive PBS site features eight presidents and emphasizes their
early careers, presidential politics, domestic policy, foreign affairs,
legacies, and "days of decision." The site provides content information and
enables students to "vote" on critical issues that dominated the respective
presidential administrations. A teacher's guide and links to further resources
are included as well.
* IPL POTUS: President of the United States.
This site provides background information, election results, notable events,
and lists of cabinet members for each presidential administration. In addition
to serving as a source of quick statistical information, this site includes
historical documents from each presidency, and links to Internet biographies and
* Character in Time: The U.S. Presidents.
The History Project, Inc. is in the process of developing a series of one-act
plays that seek to capture each of the American presidents as a person in his
time and place. This site contains information on the plays currently available
for use and those in production. A description of the playwrights and
subscription information are also included.
* The American Presidency -- Selected Resources: an Informal Reference Guide.
This site serves as a host to provide connections to numerous sites relating
to the presidency. It offers links for both "fun facts," primary sources, and
current debates regarding the presidency. It also features links to specific
information on each of the presidents.
REFERENCES AND ERIC RESOURCES.
The following list of
resources includes references used to prepare this Digest. The items followed by
an ED number are available in microfiche and/or paper copies from the ERIC
Document Reproduction Services (EDRS). For information about prices, contact
EDRS, 7420 Fullerton Road, Suite 110, Springfield, Virginia 22153-2852;
telephone numbers are (703) 440-1400 and (800) 443-3742. Entries followed by an
EJ number, annotated monthly in CURRENT INDEX TO JOURNALS IN EDUCATION (CIJE),
are not available through EDRS. However, they can be located in the journal
section of most larger libraries by using the bibliographic information
provided, requested through Interlibrary Loan, or ordered from commercial
Broyles, David. "Fundamentals of Intelligence: Prudential Reason and the
Founders' Executive." TEACHING POLITICAL SCIENCE 16 (Spring 1989): 99-105. EJ
Haas, Mary, et al. "Teaching About the President and the Presidential
Election." SOCIAL STUDIES AND THE YOUNG LEARNER 5 (September/October 1992): 1-4.
EJ 460 398.
Hamilton, Alexander, James Madison, and John Jay. THE FEDERALIST PAPERS.
Introduction by Clinton Rossiter. New York: Penguin Books, 1961.
Hargrove, Erwin C., and Roy Hoopes. THE PRESIDENCY: A QUESTION OF POWER.
Boston: Little, Brown and Company, 1975. ED 111 744.
Ketcham, Ralph, ed. THE ANTI-FEDERALIST PAPERS AND THE CONSTITUTIONAL
CONVENTION DEBATES. New York: Penguin Books, 1986.
McDonald, Forrest. THE AMERICAN PRESIDENCY: AN INTELLECTUAL HISTORY.
Lawrence, KS: University Press of Kansas, 1994.
Pious, Richard M. THE YOUNG OXFORD COMPANION TO THE PRESIDENCY OF THE UNITED
STATES. New York: Oxford University Press, 1994. ED 384 545.