From George Washington to Abraham Lincoln, Franklin D. Roosevelt to Richard Nixon, presidents have been defining and redefining the presidency while testing the boundaries of their power. This exhibit examines some of the ways presidents have used and tested their constitutional authority, from exercising the veto to appointing federal officials. As you explore, think about these powers—and their limits—and how future presidents may continue to shape our nation’s highest office.
With this bold veto, President Jackson blocked a bill that would extend the life of the Second National Bank, which he distrusted as a source of centralized power. As the first to use the veto to block bills that he deemed unconstitutional—or simply unwise—Jackson set a precedent that future presidents would follow.
After the American Civil War, Andrew Johnson vetoed the Third Reconstruction Act, which separated the South into military districts and granted black men the right to vote. In a rare occurrence, Congress overrode the veto. The passage of this act marked the beginning of what became known as Radical Reconstruction.
During the Great Depression, President Hoover issued this statement to the House of Representatives against their proposed public-works program. He rejected the bill and used his veto power to gain the upper hand in the lawmaking process. Since then, many presidents have used the veto in a similar way.
President Reagan vetoed the Civil Rights Restoration Act of 1987, believing that the bill failed to achieve its objectives. Congress ultimately overrode his veto. This was the first civil rights bill to be vetoed since Andrew Johnson disapproved of the Civil Rights Act of 1866—the first federal law to affirm equal rights for all citizens.
With this proclamation, President Polk announced that Congress had declared war with the Republic of Mexico. Seeking to acquire California, the president had sent an emissary to negotiate with Mexico, but the negotiations failed. Fighting soon broke out along the disputed border with Texas, so Polk asked Congress to declare war.
In this landmark executive decision, Harry S. Truman abolished segregation in the military. Truman issued the order to ensure equal opportunity and treatment for armed service members since Congress had rejected all of his civil rights proposals. When congressional support does not materialize, some presidents have acted independently.
While working on an historic peace treaty between Egypt and Israel, President Carter produced many drafts. The fate of the agreement rested on the removal of Israeli troops from Sinai, an Egyptian peninsula, and Carter knew that no detail was too small. As chief diplomat, the president represents the nation on the world stage.
To this day, the pardon of Richard Nixon remains one of the most controversial. By officially forgiving Nixon for his involvement in the Watergate scandal, Gerald Ford sought to help the nation move forward after Nixon’s resignation. Ford signed multiple ceremonial copies of the pardon and presented them as souvenirs.
Three days after Gerald Ford pardoned Richard Nixon, third-grader Anthony Ferreira sent this letter to the president, declaring: “I think you are half right and half wrong.” Many people, like young Ferreira, believed that Ford had made a mistake. Traditionally, most pardons go unnoticed, but the more controversial ones can draw strong public criticism.
During the American Civil War, Abraham Lincoln suspended the writ of habeas corpus, or the right to not be imprisoned without cause. He did so without congressional approval, but Congress later decided to support it. Lincoln hoped that history would vindicate his use of wartime power, yet scholars still question the legality of his actions.
Driven by widespread hysteria during World War II, Franklin D. Roosevelt signed this order, sending approximately 120,000 American citizens and legal aliens of Japanese descent to internment camps. The Supreme Court upheld the order in a 6-3 vote. In 1988, the government granted repatriations to victims and apologized for violating their constitutional rights.
With this executive order, Harry S. Truman seized control of the nation’s steel mills. Labor strikes had threatened to halt steel production, which would jeopardize weapons manufacturing and national defense efforts during the Korean War. Ultimately, the Supreme Court overturned Truman’s order, ruling it an abuse of his power as commander in chief.
This ticket granted access to the impeachment trial of Andrew Johnson, where he was accused of firing his secretary of war, Edwin Stanton, without the Senate’s approval. The House impeached him for violating the Tenure of Office Act—a bill that Congress had adopted over Johnson’s veto. Ultimately, the Senate came within one vote of removing him from office.
This ticket allowed access to the impeachment trial of President Bill Clinton. Investigations began after sexual misconduct charges were brought against the president. In 1998, Clinton was accused of lying under oath, and the House voted to impeach him for perjury and obstruction of justice. The Senate acquitted him the following year.
In 1921, Warren G. Harding selected former president William Howard Taft to fill the vacancy for chief justice. Under Taft’s leadership, the Supreme Court made an historic ruling that affirmed the president’s inherent authority to remove officials from the executive branch—a power that is not expressly listed in the Constitution.
After the sudden death of Chief Justice Fred M. Vinson, President Dwight D. Eisenhower temporarily appointed Earl Warren to the Supreme Court. Since this occurred while the Senate was in recess, Eisenhower submitted his formal nomination three months later. Other presidents have used recess appointments to fill vacancies when the confirmation process stalls in the Senate.
During his first year as president, Ronald Reagan submitted this nomination of the first woman, Sandra Day O’Connor, to the Supreme Court. With this groundbreaking nomination, he fulfilled a pledge that he had made during his 1980 campaign. Reagan made four Supreme Court appointments while in office.
In this early example of the removal power, John Adams wrote about his decision to dismiss Jacob Mayer from his duty as American consul at Cape Français (in Haiti). Mayer was originally appointed to the position by George Washington but was removed after making slanderous statements against President Adams and his cabinet.
Andrew Johnson sent this letter to Edwin Stanton, informing him that he was being fired as secretary of war. A year earlier, Congress had adopted an act requiring the president to seek the Senate’s approval before removing certain officeholders. Johnson believed this was an unconstitutional restriction on his power and did not seek their approval.
Exhibition Development and Design:
National Constitution Center
Most of the documents in this exhibit are from the National Archives and its presidential libraries. The National Archives and Records Administration is an independent federal agency that serves American democracy by safeguarding and preserving the records of our government, so people can discover, use, and learn from this documentary heritage. The agency supports democracy, promotes civic education, and facilitates historical understanding of our national experience. The National Archives carries out its mission through a nationwide network of archives, records centers, and presidential libraries, and online at www.archives.gov.
The National Constitution Center would also like to thank the following institutions that contributed to this exhibit: the Gilder Lehrman Institute of American History, the Library Company of Philadelphia, the Mount Vernon Ladies' Association, the North Carolina Museum of History, and the Library of Congress.