Presidents, Vice-Presidents, and First Ladies

  • Grades: 6–8

The Growth Of The Presidency

The men who wrote the Constitution of the United States were opposed to the idea of an all-powerful head of state. America's Founding Fathers thought of the presidency as an office of great honor and dignity, but one with little real power. The American colonists in general favored the parliamentary system of government but did not believe that all governmental powers should rest within any one body. So, in framing the Constitution, they provided for three separate branches—legislative, executive, and judicial.

Article I of the Constitution deals with the functions of the House of Representatives and the Senate. Not until Article II is any mention made of the president. This article states that the president shall be the head of the executive branch of the government. But to limit and restrict the office, the Constitution provides Congress with checks against any president who may try to assume too much authority.

The framers of the Constitution believed that in the presidency they had created an office of prestige but little power. They would be astounded if they knew the changes that have occurred. The powers and responsibilities of the president have grown enormously. The president has become the leader of his country in fact as well as in name. His words and deeds affect the course of history not only in the United States but in every country throughout the world.

The men who were presidents early in the history of the republic were able to carry on the duties of their office with little assistance. When George Washington served as first president of the United States, his staff consisted of a secretary, one or two clerks, and household servants who acted as messengers. But with the enormous growth in presidential power and responsibilities, the office of the presidency now must be run by a large staff. Today the president of the United States requires the assistance of over 1,500 people.

The employees assigned to jobs directly relating to the office of the presidency are staff members of the Executive Office of the President. The Executive Office was created by Congress, but it can be reorganized by the president through executive orders.

Presidential Leadership

The rise of presidential power did not come about all at once. Nor did the growth of leadership follow a fixed and steady course. Some presidents have strongly exercised the power of leadership. Others have been relatively weak leaders.

Since the time of George Washington many presidents have contributed to changing the powers of the office. People often have different views as to whether a president has acted wisely and exercised his power for the general good of the entire nation. Leadership takes many forms, and all leaders cannot appeal to all people. The leadership qualities of a few presidents, however, will serve to show how some have used the power of their office.

Thomas Jefferson was the nation's third president. Even though he served so early in the history of the office, he understood that in order to gain the results he desired, he would have to exercise a great deal of political power. Jefferson skillfully organized his sympathizers in Congress into a strong political group. These men worked together so well that they often were able to defeat their opponents in many important matters. This plan of Jefferson's was the start of the system of political parties as we know it today.

Andrew Jackson, seventh president of the United States, was another strong leader. Jackson was the first man of the people to be elected to the presidency. Many of the men in the government were not friendly to the new president or to his views. But Jackson was determined to overcome his opponents. In critical issues he relied on the support of the people and removed cabinet members who disagreed with his policies. By the skillful use of his leadership qualities, he was able to carry out many of his programs.

The strongest desire of President Abraham Lincoln was to preserve the Union. At the outbreak of the Civil War, Lincoln did not have the power to call up troops or to take certain other actions. But he knew that in order to protect the Union he would have to assume wartime powers. Many people disapproved of his actions. But Lincoln seized the power he felt he must have. By exercising leadership in a time of crisis, he succeeded in preserving the Union.

Woodrow Wilson, during whose term the bitter battles of World War I were fought, had one great dream. The dream was for the creation of a League of Nations that would help to prevent future wars. The League of Nations finally was established at the close of the war. But in spite of Wilson's strength, his own country refused to join. Wilson died a disappointed man. But under his leadership the office of the presidency outgrew the bounds of the United States and became an office with international responsibilities.

In another period of serious trouble for the United States, Franklin D. Roosevelt served as president. During the Depression of the 1930's Roosevelt sought tremendous powers. He recommended to Congress legislation that would create jobs for those who could find no work, in order to get the country back on its feet. He even attempted to change the structure of the Supreme Court by increasing the number of justices. During World War II he extended United States influence in the field of international relations.

Even though the president of the United States is today one of the most important individuals in the world, he is not all-powerful. There is an authority that is higher than that of the president. It is the will of the people of the United States, who have reserved to themselves the final authority that is called sovereignty.

Gerald W. Johnson
Author, The Presidency

Reviewed by David C. Whitney
Author, The American Presidents

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Vice Presidency of the United States

The vice presidency of the United States is the office occupied by the person who is next in line for the presidency. If the president should die, resign, or be convicted of impeachment charges, the vice president would take over the office of president. If the president should be disabled, the vice president would take over the president's duties only as "acting president."

The government of the United States continued to function without faltering after the assassination of President John F. Kennedy on November 22, 1963. Vice President Lyndon Baines Johnson, who served as vice president from 1961 to 1963, took the oath of office as president of the United States within a few hours after the assassination had taken place.

There have been eight occasions of death in the United States presidency, four of them assassinations. In every case orderly government has continued because the writers of the Constitution of the United States instituted the office of vice president for just such occasions. They knew that within the U.S. system of government, with its carefully balanced distribution of power, it would always be important to have a chief executive. The first vice president to succeed to the presidency was John Tyler in 1841. He became president upon the death in office of William Henry Harrison.

The Vice President's Duties Increase

The prestige of the vice presidency has been increasing since World War I. President Franklin D. Roosevelt (served 1933-45) upgraded the vice presidency in many ways. He began the practice of including the vice president in legislative conferences with the party's leaders in Congress. In 1949, Congress decided that the vice president should be a member of the National Security Council. Since 1933, vice presidents have regularly attended meetings of the president's cabinet. President Eisenhower directed that Nixon should preside at cabinet meetings in his absence. This gives the vice president contact with the heads of all the executive departments of the government.

The vice president also is a member of the Board of Regents of the Smithsonian Institution. In these ways the vice president shares in the making of administrative policy.

In addition, vice presidents often are used on special diplomatic assignments or goodwill trips abroad. They then act as the eyes and ears of the president. Furthermore, vice presidents may stand in for the president at many ceremonial and social functions at home. They may also informally use their influence with senators and representatives to help the president put across the administration's legislative program.

In recent years, vice presidents have been given many executive administrative functions. They have headed councils and committees on equal opportunity, antipoverty programs, physical fitness, space exploration, the environment, and the Peace Corps, among other concerns. Vice presidents have led programs promoting tourism in the United States and have served as links between the White House and the mayors of the nation's cities. Since 1974, vice presidents have been provided with an official residence in Washington, D.C. It is located on the grounds of the U.S. Naval Observatory.

The vice presidency has come to be recognized as the important office that the founders of the United States felt it should be. The people of the country now view a presidential administration as a team. Its unquestioned leader is the president. But the president's chief lieutenant is the vice president of the United States.

Irving G. Williams
Author, The Rise of the Vice-Presidency

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First Ladies

"First Lady" is a title used to address the wife of an elected political leader, such as a president or governor, in all democratic countries. This article examines the lives of the wives of United States presidents as well as the lives of other women who have served as hostesses in the White House.

It all began with Martha Washington, the wife of the first president of the United States. When she took up residence in the President's House in New York City in 1789, the American people had a new interest—their first lady. Since Martha Washington's time the interest of the American people in the wife of their president has grown stronger and more affectionate.

From the moment her husband becomes president, a first lady's life is changed. She becomes a public figure—a celebrity, whose face is seen in every magazine and newspaper and on every television screen. She becomes the country's official hostess, the person who welcomes the rulers of many nations to the United States in the name of the American people. Her personal life has to take second place to her responsibilities as first lady.

One of the biggest jobs any first lady has is running the president's official house, the White House. There are 132 rooms in the White House and a large staff of household employees. It is the first lady's job to see that the White House staff does its work well. Since the White House is the only American house many important visitors see, the first lady must make sure that it is well run and a pleasant place to visit.

The duties of the first lady have grown more and more demanding as the importance of the United States has grown among the nations of the world. Today the first lady is expected to take part in her husband's election campaign if she is able.

Since the United States became a leading world power in the early 1900's, Washington has become a world capital as well as the national capital. The first lady is now expected to be hostess to the world, as well as to the nation. She must entertain people whose customs and language are completely different from those of the United States. And millions of people—some tourists, some famous diplomats—pass through the White House each year.

The family that lives in the White House has always been the subject of newspaper and magazine stories. Everything the president's family does becomes national and even worldwide news. Therefore, there is little privacy. Many first ladies have disliked this part of their official lives. It has been especially difficult for first ladies who have tried to raise children in the busy White House.

But many first ladies, despite all of their household duties, have played important roles in their husbands'careers and in the life of the nation. Their reward has been the lasting affection of the American people.

Reviewed by Margaret B. Klapthor
Smithsonian Institution

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