The Power of the American Presidency: 1789-2000

The Power of the American Presidency: 1789-2000

The Power of the American Presidency: 1789-2000

The Power of the American Presidency: 1789-2000


In its more than 200-year history, the office of the President of the United States has undergone a variety of dramatic changes. Because our founding fathers left the privileges and responsibilities of the job constitutionally vague and ill-defined, each occupant of the office-from George Washington to Bill Clinton-has tried to set the limits of presidential power as he has seen fit based on the domestic and international circumstances of the day as well as on his own ambition and abilities. In The Power of the American Presidency, Michael A. Genovese, one of the best known and respected scholars on the presidency, takes students on a journey through the personalities and politics of some of the most fascinating and at times powerful men in American history. Organized chronologically, the text offers an overview of the evolution and elasticity of presidential power by providing case studies of each president's personal characteristics and the defining historical events of each administration. From Abraham Lincoln, who stretched the boundaries of presidential power during the Civil War, to nearly forgotten presidents like Van Buren, Garfield, and Fillmore, who led weak administrations with limited power, Genovese presents the history of our country's highest office with insight, balanced judgment, and humor. The Power of the American Presidency will be widely used in undergraduate courses on the American Presidency as well as in courses on American history, American studies, and political science. It will also be of interest to anyone who wishes to gain a keener insight into the workings of the presidency.


Whenever presidency scholars congregate in groups larger than two and shop-talk drifts to the trials and tribulations of teaching a course on the American presidency, one of, if not the first, complaints heard is “students today are a-historical; they know virtually nothing about any president who came before George Bush!”

It's not completely our students' fault. We live in a society that is a-historical, our popular culture celebrates the here-and-now, and precious little attention is devoted to the past (the “past” is what happened, “history” is what we say happened). “Live for today” is the motto: “what could we possibly learn from the past?” is our question.

What can we learn from the past? Plenty. This is especially true when we examine the American presidency. For rooted in the historical antecedents are lessons in both the limits and possibilities of presidential performance. We can see that while there are differences between the presidencies of George Washington and Bill Clinton, there are also some striking similarities, chords that run throughout American history which suggest that in certain areas of presidential politics, the more things change, the more they stay the same. Clarence Darrow once said, “History repeats itself. That's one of the things wrong with history.”

This is the story of the history of presidential power, of the rise and fall, rise, fall, and rise and fall of presidential power. It begins with the first, and arguably greatest president, George Washington, and ends as America faces a new millennium. It is the story of ambitious men, vain men, insecure men, troubled men; some kind, some corrupt; some highly skilled, others quite inept; some who achieved greatness, others who are deemed failures.

This is also the story of an institutional tug-of-war between the presidency and Congress. The Constitution is, in scholar Edward S. Corwin's words, “an invitation to struggle” for control of power. Over the course of U.S. history, strong presidents and demanding times led to strong presidencies; at other times the Congress asserted its constitutional authority and chained in the executive.

When evaluating presidential power, four variables (remember, a variable is something that “varies”) are of special concern: The individual, the institution, the system, and the times. The president is one man, but the presidency is an institution, an institution situated in a system. That system, a “separation of powers,” inhibits presidential power and forces the president . . .

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