Affecting Presidential Power

Affecting Presidential Power

A Chapter by Debbie Barry

An essay on the history of American presidential powers. Written for HIS 303: The American Constitution.


Affecting Presidential Power



The first three presidents of the United States, George Washington, John Adams, and Thomas Jefferson, affected the powers of the presidency, first, by creating the presidency in the first place.  Before George Washington became the first President of the United States, no government system like the U.S. presidency existed.  Before Washington became President, though, Jefferson set the stage by writing the Declaration of Independence, with contributions from Adams and from Benjamin Franklin, thus ending the official power of the British monarchy in the new United States.

Of the first three presidents, Washington made the most impact on the power of the presidency while serving.  Adams was actually considered to be a weak president with "poor leadership skills" (O'Connor and Sabato, 2008, 13.4.1, para. 3), and Jefferson's greatest impact on the power of the presidency was before he became President.

George Washington, as the first President, had no precedents on which to base his actions, so each act and decision of his presidency became the original precedent for future American presidents.  Washington "established precedents that would last for generations and did more to flesh out the skeleton of the presidential office than anyone could have expected or predicted" (Impact and Legacy, n.d., para. 3).  Among these precedents, the most famous is that he "set the standard for two presidential terms" (Impact and Legacy, n.d., para. 4).  Among his other precedents, Washington "took every opportunity to establish the primacy of the national government" (O'Connor and Sabato, 2008, 13.4.1, para. 2); he set precedents for "including the cabinet as part of the President's office ... [and] allow[ing] the President to choose his or her own cabinet" (Impact and Legacy, n.d., para. 4).  He extended the power of the President in regard to the judicial branch by setting a precedent that would allow "future Presidents to draw from a diverse pool of talent beyond the [Supreme] Court's aging incumbents" (Impact and Legacy, n.d., para. 4) when appointing the chief justice.  In addition, Washington set a precedent "for presidents to claim the right to determine foreign policy unilaterally" (DeConde, 2010, para. 12).  After the French Revolution in 1792, Washington established precedent for "prompt de facto recognition of a government when it demonstrated effective control of a nation" (DeConde, 2010, para. 11), when he acknowledged the new government of France.

John Adams, the second President of the United States, was not considered to be a strong leader, and did not make a truly great impact on the power of the presidency while he was President.  Adams' greatest contribution in that regard was the success of his effort to get Thomas Jefferson to draft the Declaration of Independence, which set the stage for the creation of the presidency.  Adams made two other significant contributions to the presidency when he signed the Alien and Sedition Acts.  According to John S. Cooper (2004), "[t]he Alien Act gave the President the power to deport dangerous aliens ... without a trial ... [and] [t]he Sedition Act made it illegal to criticize or ridicule the President or Congress" (paras. 3-4).  In accordance with the law, "on the evening of November 1, 1800, John Adams moved into the White House" (Cooper, 2004, para. 11).  Although this last did not directly affect the powers of the presidency, it did establish the permanent residence of the President of the United States.

As I have stated earlier, Thomas Jefferson, the third President of the United States, made his greatest contribution to the power of the presidency long before he became President.  O'Connor and Sabato (2008) tell us that, during his presidency, "Jefferson took critical steps to expand the role of the president in the legislative process" (13.4.1, para. 3).  Jefferson was an expansionist president, making the Louisiana Purchase "without consent of congress" (Stroupe, n.d., para. 67), which set a precedent for presidents to bypass the Congress as they see fit.  In addition, "Jefferson determined that the United States also had a claim over west Florida" (Stroupe, n.d., para. 67), and arranged the now-famous expedition of Meriwether Lewis and William Clark "to explore the country between the Mississippi River and the Pacific Ocean" (Stroupe, n.d., para. 63).



Cooper, J.S.  (2004, November 28).  John Adams: Administration and Events (Part II).        Retrieved March 1, 2010, from 

DeConde, A.  (2010).  "Presidential Power."  Encyclopedia of the New American Nation.     Retrieved March 1, 2010, from          W/Presidential-Power.html

"Impact and Legacy." (n.d.).  American President: George Washington.  Retrieved March   1, 2010, from 

O'Connor, K. and Sabato, L.J.  (2008).  American government: Continuity and change,    [Electronic version].  New York: Pearson-Longman.

Stroupe, F. (n.d.).  Jefferson, Thomas.  Retrieved March 1, 2010, from

© 2017 Debbie Barry

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Debbie Barry
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Added on November 10, 2017
Last Updated on November 10, 2017
Tags: essay, American history, Constitution, president, presidency, presidential power, executive branch

A Journey through My College Papers


Debbie Barry
Debbie Barry

Clarkston, MI

I live with my husband in southeastern Michigan with our two cats, Mister and Goblin. We enjoy exploring history through French and Indian War re-enactment and through medieval re-enactment in the So.. more..