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.
The Source of Presidential Power
Article II of the U.S. Constitution outlines the presidency and the office’s responsibility to enforce the law. Compared to the Constitution’s detailed description of congressional authority, Article II grants the president very few explicit powers. Over time, presidents have expanded this limited list of powers—acting upon what they believe the Constitution’s structure allows them to do.
Presidents can veto, or reject, any bill passed by Congress that they do not wish to sign into law. A veto stands unless Congress—at least two-thirds of each house—votes against it. This rarely happens since it is difficult to muster the necessary supermajorities. Initially, presidents were uncertain on what grounds they could base their veto, but the scope of this power has been defined by their actions over time.
Veto of the Rechartering of the Second National Bank (1832) by Andrew JacksonOriginal Source: The Library Company of Philadelphia
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.
Veto of the Third Reconstruction Act (1867) by Andrew JohnsonOriginal Source: U.S. National Archives
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.
Veto of a Public-Works Program (1932) by Herbert HooverOriginal Source: Herbert Hoover Presidential Library and Museum
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.
Veto of the Civil Rights Restoration Act, pages 1 and 5 (1988) by Ronald ReaganOriginal Source: U.S. National Archives
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.
Along with leading the executive branch, the president oversees national defense and foreign affairs. Presidents exercise their commander-in-chief powers in many ways, from asking Congress to declare war to taking unilateral military action during a crisis. While also serving as chief diplomat, the president can also negotiate treaties (with the Senate’s support) and receive foreign ambassadors.
George Washington (1797) by Gilbert StuartThe White House
Look closely, for this is more than a portrait of George Washington. Embedded with symbolism, this painting captures the emerging role of the American presidency. It also places Washington among the ranks of classical leaders who were admired by the Founders.
Books and a quill pen resting on the table hint at Washington’s role in founding and establishing our government.
With a classical column behind him, Washington stands with his arm outstretched—a commanding pose often seen in depictions of ancient Roman leaders.
Patriotic symbols from the Great Seal of the United States include the oval medallion at the top of the chair...
... and the eagles on the legs of the table.
The table leg is shaped like the fasces (a bundle of sticks), which was a symbol of executive power in ancient Rome.
Proclamation Declaring a State of War between the U.S. & Mexico (1846) by James K. PolkOriginal Source: U.S. National Archives
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.
Proclamation for Law & Order in the Territory of Kansas, pages 2 and 3 (1856) by Franklin PierceOriginal Source: U.S. National Archives
President Pierce issued this warning in response to unrest in Kansas, where an erratic civil war had broken out between proslavery and free-labor individuals. In what became known as “Bleeding Kansas,” the president stood ready to dispatch the local militia and federal forces to stop the violence.
Order to Desegregate the Armed Forces (1948) by Harry S. TrumanOriginal Source: U.S. National Archives
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.
Framework for a Settlement in Sinai (1978) by Jimmy CarterOriginal Source: Jimmy Carter Presidential Library and Museum
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.
A pardon is an act of forgiveness from the president that restores lost civil or legal rights. Presidents can also grant reprieves—complete or partial reductions of a fine or a sentence. While presidential pardons are not subject to congressional or judicial review, there are restrictions. Pardons can only be granted for federal, not state, offenses and cannot be applied to impeachment cases.
Offering a Full Pardon to Mormon Rebels in the Utah Territory, pages 1 and 15 (1858) by James BuchananOriginal Source: U.S. National Archives
During a Mormon revolt against the U.S. government, James Buchanan offered a full pardon to all who would submit themselves to federal law. The “Utah War”—a conflict over who would govern the territory—ended with a full pardon for the Mormons and the appointment of a non-Mormon governor.
Pardon of Richard Nixon (1974) by Gerald FordOriginal Source: Gerald R. Ford Presidential Library & Museum
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.
Letter to President Gerald Ford (1974) by Anthony FerreiraOriginal Source: Gerald R. Ford Presidential Library and Museum
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.
Pardon of Vietnam-Era Draft Dodgers (1977) by Jimmy CarterOriginal Source: Jimmy Carter Presidential Library and Museum
While the wounds from the Vietnam War were still fresh, Jimmy Carter issued this controversial pardon of Vietnam-era draft dodgers in one of his first acts as president. He granted clemency to certain individuals who had resisted the draft and refused to enlist during the long, contentious war.
Tests of Power
Every president who serves long enough tests the limits of presidential authority, so how do we ensure their power remains in check? With judicial review, the courts decide whether presidents have overstepped their powers. Additionally, the House can impeach presidents and the Senate puts them on trial for removal. But ultimately, “We the People” can vote to remove presidents during reelection or apply pressure to second-term presidents who are concerned about their legacies.
Suspending the Writ of Habeas Corpus (1862) by Abraham LincolnOriginal Source: U.S. National Archives
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.
Relocating the Japanese to Internment Camps, pages 1 and 3 (1942) by Franklin D. RooseveltOriginal Source: U.S. National Archives
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.
Taking Control of the Nation’s Steel Mills, pages 1 and 4 (1952) by Harry S. TrumanOriginal Source: U.S. National Archives
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.
Johnson Impeachment Trial Ticket (1868)Original Source: North Carolina Museum of History
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.
Clinton Impeachment Trial Ticket (1999)National Constitution Center
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.
One of the president’s most potent powers is the authority to appoint a federal officer. Presidents can nominate—with the Senate’s advice and consent—certain high-ranking officials, including cabinet heads and Supreme Court justices. All presidents get to select their own executive officers, but judicial appointments only occur when a position is vacant. With these appointments, presidents can extend their influence and shape the government even after leaving office.
Nomination of William Howard Taft as Chief Justice (1921) by Warren G. HardingOriginal Source: U.S. National Archives
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.
Nomination of Earl Warren as Chief Justice (1954) by Dwight D. EisenhowerOriginal Source: U.S. National Archives
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.
Nomination of Sandra Day O’Connor as Supreme Court Justice (1981) by Ronald ReaganOriginal Source: U.S. National Archives
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.
Statement on Rejected Cabinet Nomination (1989) by George H. W. BushOriginal Source: George Bush Presidential Library and Museum
In this press release, George H. W. Bush declared his disappointment over the rejection of his nominee, John Tower, for secretary of defense. Even though the president can nominate qualified individuals like Senator Tower, they still must be appointed with the advice and consent of the Senate.
The Constitution is silent on the president’s authority to dismiss executive officials. For a long time, senators contested this presidential power; they wanted a say in removing anyone appointed with their consent. In 1926, the Supreme Court finally settled the dispute, ruling that presidents have the inherent authority to dismiss appointed executive officials. Still, presidents are held politically accountable and must have their next nominee approved by the Senate.
Letter to Interim Secretary of State Charles Lee (1800) by John AdamsOriginal Source: U.S. National Archives
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.
Letter Removing Edwin Stanton as Secretary of War (1868) by Andrew JohnsonOriginal Source: Library of Congress
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.
Memo to Jimmy Carter (1979) by Hamilton JordanOriginal Source: Jimmy Carter Presidential Library and Museum
President Carter received this memo from Hamilton Jordan, his chief of staff, advising him to fire his entire cabinet in order to counteract his negative public image. In the wake of economic and energy crises, Carter decided to follow this advice.
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.
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
Mount Vernon Ladies' Association
North Carolina Museum of History
Library of Congress