KC Johnson

History 7446 (fall 2014): The American Presidency

This course will explore the history of the American presidency from George Washington until the present day.


  • Research Paper: 50%
  • Participation: 30%
  • Study Questions/Supplementary Reading: 20%

Books: (all available through amazon.com, at the course website)

My Contact Information:

  • email: kcjohnson9@gmail.com
  • cell: 207-329-8456
  • office hours: Tues./Thurs., 12.30-1.30, Boylan 1127a


September 2: Introduction

  • Forrest MacDonald, The American Presidency

September 9: The Constitutional Era

  • Joseph Ellis, His Excellency [study questions: Roderick Wells]

supplementary readings:

  • Lynn Parsons, The Birth of Modern Politics [Lawrence]

study questions:

  • Character is an essential element to Joseph Ellis in regards to the success of George Washington in his political and private life. The same attribute is considered essential by Forrest MacDonald. Ellis extracts a line from a list that Washington copied concerning the rules for behavior in public re “every action done in company ought to be done with some sign of respect to those who are present” (Ellis 9.) Though he later dismisses this as possibly having no relevance, he does bring it up and Washington did copy the list. In a similar vein, MacDonald writes that Washington was able to succeed “because he was a consummate actor who had self-consciously been role playing throughout his adult life (MacDonald 217). Both authors make the point that the 18th century concept of character was different than our concept today in that it was not only a self-assessment but dependent as well upon what impression your actions made on other people. Does this shed light on Washington’s performance in the public field? For example, did this need for peer acceptance (and a reputation of virtue) determine the outcome of his most celebrated actions such as relinquishing, first, his sword and, second, the Presidency?
  • Both MacDonald and Ellis do not use this 18th century concept of character as a negative assumption but they do make the point that our perspective needs to accept this context to understand Washington, particularly because there is so little public expression of his thoughts. Is Washington a completely 18th century character or could someone like him be as successful I politics today?
  • Ellis paints a portrait of a designing young Washington who seizes all advantageous opportunities that cross his path including military rank (Colonel) and civil marriage (Martha’s fortune). He does this ostensibly to climb the Virginian social ladder. He also seems to be obsessed with the accumulation of land and wealth, particularly the former. Does it seem more like he was on the road to become the nation’s first Donald Trump or the first president?
  • Washington was gripped by “Potomac Fever”, believing that American’s destiny was manifest from sea to sea. Granted that he displayed more tolerance for Indian sovereignty than Andrew Jackson (and attempted to guarantee a safe space within the westward expansion), does he escape the guilt that is associated with this manifest destiny? Was there an ineluctable hypocrisy in his position? Ellis points out that he was a realist. So, even though he gestured toward granting safe haven to natives, did he need to be more affirmative?
  • Ellis believes that Washington’s limited education forced him to formulate an ideology from experience rather than books. Does the fact that this method of learning was rooted in a series of real life experiences (Ohio exploration, Indian wars, managing a large farming enterprise) account for his ability to perform aptly in these trying conditions? Would he have done any better if he had gone to Harvard and Princeton also? Would he have been a better General?
  • Ellis points out that Washington ended up despising the British on multiple levels, mostly because he believed that he, as a Virginia planter, was controlled by English economic interests (represented by his agent, Calloway) and that his epic real estate ventures in the Ohio Country were thwarted by those same interests. Were Washington’s grand schemes the prevailing reasons for his “Spirit of ‘76”? Was self-interest his compelling motive? In other words, was there a way for an ideology other than aggrandizement to develop within the empirical path that he traveled to the Revolution?
  • There is not much disagreement regarding Washington’s prowess to lead nor is their disagreement about his incapacity to manage a complex military maneuver. Ellis cites the intricacy of his planning as being a shortcoming in the fast moving fields of battle. This becomes almost a moot point in the ultimate victory, but is the tendency to micromanage a positive or negative part of his character, overall? For example, Ellis cites critics who complain of his remoteness from the centrality of debate and his seeming preoccupation with the minute details of farm management at times of great stress. Could it be that Washington’s ability to withstand the pressures of leadership are related to this ability to escape into agricultural reverie? Today, computer games like “Farmville” are regarded by some in just that manner.
  • Washington’s troubles in obtaining necessary financing by the indecisive confederation of states (to support the Continental Army) were instrumental in making him favor a strong federal government that could act decisively in times of peril. If the situation had been different and a strong group of representatives had acted quickly and funded the Army quickly and affirmatively would Washington’s belief in a strong federal system have been changed? Had he formed an ideology that could refute accidental empirical evidence?
  • Did Washington demonstrate such growth when despite his avarice toward all things English he signed the John Jay Treaty? Or was this merely an expression of his realistic foreign policy?
  • Washington began his adult life by trying to become an accepted member of the Virginia Society. It compelled him to seek military stature to support his meager credentials of wealth and family. Later, by marrying Martha Custis, he gained the necessary wealth and family. Ellis points out that Washington sought to become an esteemed and respected member of this social structure. It was, to him, an affirmation of the life that he wanted to live. Does the fact that, assuming the responsibility of leading and building a nation, he rejected the beliefs of this social structure, proclaiming that the Virginians had a lot to learn about building a nation, does this suggest that Washington’s association with the leading intellects of the Republic, Jefferson, Hamilton, Madison, Jay et al, had given him the formal education that, added to his experience, vested him with a republican ideology? Had he acquired, over the years, a hint of idealism?
  • Finally, the question that seems the most controversial (and lingers to the detriment of his reputation) is the one regarding Washington’s treatment of the slave issue. Ellis makes a great case that Washington was trapped by, not the social mores of his time, but by his dedication to the survival of the infant nation. Ellis believes that Washington, even though he seemed to ponder the economic consequences more than the moral, was quite aware of the importance of this issue both to his reputation and the country.  He points out that Washington’s Last Will and Testament freed all the slaves that he owned (upon Martha’s death) but that he could not legally free the ones that belonged to the Custis Estate. Further, and more to the point, Ellis suggests that the evidence suggests that Washington’s endeavors during this time were all directed toward the survival of the fragile republic and, in this case, the overriding belief was that freeing the slaves would force the slave states to dissolve the nation. Is this a rationale or is it reality? Do the two moral issues regarding treatment of blacks and Native Americans forever diminish our view of his character? Of his virtue?

September 16: The Transitional Era

Sean Wilentz, The Rise of American Democracy [study questions: Jonathan Scrill. Nicole Scalera]

supplementary readings:

  • Walter Borneman, Polk [George]
  • Daniel Walker Howe, What Hath God Wraught [Jason]

September 23: NO CLASS—conversion days

September 30: Lincoln COURSE PAPER TOPICS DUE

David Herbert Donald, Lincoln [study questions: Jennifer Robinson]

supplementary readings:

  • Mark Neely, The Fate of Liberty [Jeffrey] 

October 7: The Post-Civil War Era

Brooks Simpson, The Reconstruction Presidents [study questions: Lauren Moss]

supplementary readings:

  • Henry Graff, Grover Cleveland [Sarah]
  • Kevin Phillips, William McKinley [Roderick]

October 14: Wilson

John Milton Cooper, Woodrow Wilson [study questions: Steve Melore]

supplementary readings:

  • Thomas Knock, To End All Wars [Jacob]

October 21: No class

October 28:  FDR

David Kennedy, Freedom from Fear [study questions: Krzysztof Lukasik]

supplementary readings:

  • Frank Freidel, Franklin D. Roosevelt: Rendezvous with Destiny [Louis]

November 4: The Postwar Presidency

James Patterson, Grand Expectations, pp. 3-310  [study questions: Louis Korman]

supplementary readings:

  • David McCullough, Truman [Krzysztof]

November 11: From JFK to LBJ

Robert Caro, The Passage to Power [study questions: Jacob Hirsch, Sarah Firage]

supplementary readings:

  • David Talbot, The Brothers [Steve M.]

November 18: Nixon

James Patterson, Grand Expectations, pp. 593-790  [George Esposito, Jeffrey Butler]

supplementary readings:

  • Rick Perlstein, Nixonland [Lauren]
  • Stanley Kutler, The Wars of Watergate [Jennifer]

November 25: The Transition to Reaganism

Rick Perlstein, The Invisible Bridge [Jason Reischel]

supplementary readings:

  • Taylor Branch, The Clinton Tapes [Jonathan]
  • Lou Cannon, President Reagan: Role of a Lifetime [Steve]

December 2: Obama

  • Mark Halperin and John Heilemann, Double Down [Lawrence Bosket]
  • Jonathan Chait, “2012 or Never
  • supplementary readings:
    • Peter Baker, Days of Fire [Nicole]

December 9: Review


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