Miller Center

About Recasting American Presidential History in the Classroom

by Kathryn Cramer Brownell

The topic of the American presidency captures the interest of students, many of whom have studied the acts and influences of American presidents over the course of their education. Yet public discussions in the media and school curriculum on the history of the presidency overwhelmingly focus on biographical accounts of the men who have held the office. This “top-down” analysis is at odds with new historiographical directions in the field of American political history. Over the past two decades, historians have challenged this presidential synthesis, shifting focus away from the presidency and examining social movements, the relationship between citizens and interest groups, domestic and international policy, governing institutions, and the role of the United States in the world. In doing so, political historians have explored a more expansive sense of the spheres in which politics happen in order to understand the flow of power.1

But as historians begin to take “the presidency off the endangered species list” to examine the “context in which presidents operate and the structures that guide, and often limit, their actions and beliefs,” so too can history teachers.2 Capitalizing on the digitization of archival sources through the Connecting Presidential Collections (CPC) initiative and the C-SPAN Video Library, this website offers reading, discussion, and research activities for students to begin a historical analysis of the debates over the growth of the office and its implications.

This teaching website helps students study the history of the “modern American presidency,” a phrase that encompasses the changes in party politics, governing institutions, and technology that notably separate the function of the American presidency in the nineteenth century from its role in twentieth-century American political life. Historians debate when the modern presidency began—with some arguing Abraham Lincoln and the Civil War as a turning point and others pointing to Franklin Roosevelt’s presidency as its origins. But most scholars agree on the defining features of the modern presidency, which Lewis Gould classifies as “a significant increase in the size of the White House staff, a chief of staff to manage the expanded personnel, bureaucratic procedures to handle the interaction with the press, formalized relations with Congress through a White House office, greater power for the president as commander in chief, expanded travel in and out of the United States to build political support, increasing access to and dependence upon both traditional and electronic media, and continuous campaigning to ensure reelection and the success of the president’s party.”3

Though traditional primary and secondary teaching sources on the presidency prioritize biographical stories, presidential speeches, cabinet memos, and maps of Electoral College returns, this website brings together alternative primary and secondary sources to examine the presidency through other lenses. By integrating these sources into suggested online discussion and research activities for students, this website will encourage students to study the American presidency from a sociocultural perspective. This website aims to begin a classroom conversation about the American presidency in ways that capitalize on a generation of insights from social, economic, cultural, and political historians. Rather than focusing on biographies of individuals, students are encouraged to think about reordering presidential periods by looking at economic trends, technological changes, and the intersection between local movements and national institutions. These suggested reading and discussion assignments attempt to foster historical discussions about the long, nuanced history of and debate over the place of the president in American political life.

A note on sources:

Each section aims to integrate a particular development of the modern American presidency within recent historiography in American political history to situate the presidency within twentieth-century American political, cultural, economic, and social development. Though materials draw on a range of scholarly literature, specific reading assignments are selected from edited collections and monographs which are available digitally whenever possible. Suggested primary sources have been compiled from the CPC database, the C-SPAN Video Library, and other digital databases available in presidential libraries and the Library of Congress.

 Useful secondary sources in American history frequently referenced in this site include:

Recapturing the Oval Office: New Historical Approaches to the American Presidency, ed. Brian Balogh and Bruce J. Schulman. (Ithaca: Cornell University Press, 2015).

The Democratic Experiment: New Directions in American Political History, ed. Meg Jacobs, William J. Novak, and Julian E. Zelizer. (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 2003).

Lewis Gould, The Modern American Presidency, 2nd ed. (Lawrence: University of Kansas Press, 2009).

David Greenberg, Republic of Spin: An Inside History of the American Presidency.(New York: W. W. Norton, 2016).

Margaret O’Mara, Pivotal Tuesdays: Four Elections That Shaped the Twentieth Century, (Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press, 2015).

  1. Julian E. Zelizer, Governing America: The Revival of Political History, (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 2012).
  2. Brian Balogh, “Confessions of a Presidential Assassin,” in Recapturing the Oval Office: New Historical Approaches to the American Presidency, ed. Brian Balogh and Bruce J. Schulman, (Ithaca: Cornell University Press, 2015), 3-4.
  3. Lewis Gould, The Modern American Presidency, 2nd ed., (Lawrence: University of Kansas Press, 2009), xiiv-xiv.

Housed by the Miller Center, this project is made possible by:

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