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U.S. Constitution: The Powers of the Presidency

Lesson Plan

Inauguration of Mr. Lincoln, March 4, 1861

Grade Level:

8th or higher (might be OK for high functioning 5th graders)


The objective is to have students see the powers of the presidency as described in the Constitution being put into practice by real people and by a real president.  Students will examine the documents listed below.  The students will then pull the phrase or lines from the Constitution that support what is begin discussed in the letters or photograph. The powers of the presidency that are shown in these letters include the president’s ability to pardon, make treaties, nominate positions, serve as commander-in -chief, and support the Constitution, including the Bill of Rights. This activity can be used either in a unit on the Constitution or as review of Article 2 after a discussion of the Civil War. 


Estimated duration of lesson:

40 minutes

Ohio Content Standards:

  • Grade 5 : 1b – Executive Branch headed by the President
  • Grade 8 – 4 d &e – Separation of power and checks and balances, 5 – govt. protects rights of citizens, 6c – due process of law
  • Grade 9- 2d – Presidential Democracies
  • Grade 11 – 3 – Checks and balances, 9- Interpretations of Constitution have changed over time, 10 – Importance of Habeas Corpus

Primary Sources: 
The following letters from the Papers of Abraham Lincoln at the Library of Congress, American Memory.
The link above takes you to the main page of the Lincoln Papers. Find the letters by clicking on “search by keyword,” then cut  from the list below the" from name to name and date" information and paste in the search window and then click "search." The documents will come up.
  • Letter from Madison Mills to Abraham Lincoln, Monday, January 07,1861 – proposes reorganization of the army – American Memory – The Abraham Lincoln Papers  at the Library of Congress
  • Letter from Abraham Lincoln to Henry W. Halleck, Monday, December 02,1861 – executive order authorizing suspension of writ of habeas corpus – American Memory – The Abraham Lincoln Papers at the Library of Congress
  • Letter from Salmon P. Chase to Abraham Lincoln, Wednesday, March 02, 1864 – sends nomination – American Memory – The Abraham Lincoln Papers at the Library of Congress 
  • Letter from Caleb B. Smith to Abraham Lincoln, Monday, April 14, 1862 – treaty with Sac and Fox – American Memory – The Abraham Lincoln Papers at the Library of Congress 
  • Letter from Sally C. Petty to Abraham Lincoln, Tuesday, April 22, 1862 – seeks pardon for her father – American Memory – The Abraham Lincoln Papers at the Library of Congress 

Materials needed:
Copies of letters to make students packets, a copy of the Constitution (from their textbook or follow the link above). For follow-up activities students may need access to computers.

Instructional Steps:

1. Discuss/review of the powers of the presidency including reading Article 2 again.
2. Students work in groups with packets which have copies of the primary documents with the exception of the primary source dealing with suspension of habeas corpus. Students are to read each document and then underline the phrases that indicate which presidential power is being carried out or requested.
3. Students write the line from the Constitution that gives the president this power. After class discussion, see if all students came to the same conclusions.
3. Handout the primary source dealing with habeas corpus and see if students can identify what presidential power is being used here and what personal right is being taken away.
4. Have  students find in the Constitution where the right of 

Assessment is up to you:

The assessment may be very informal as a review of executive branch or as an introduction to the executive branch in action.

Key Vocabulary:

* Habeas corpus
* Execute (execute the office or President)
* Commander-in-chief
* Pardon
* Treaty
* Impeachment
* Unconstitutional
* Nominate

Expansion activity:

This activity could be greatly expanded by having students explore the web site and letters and find other example of presidential power.  
Habeas Corpus Activity.   Look at the conditions under which Lincoln made his decision to suspend the writ of habeas corpus and whether or not he was correct.  Within the American Memory- Abraham Lincoln Papers of the Library of Congress, there are many other letters that either support or argue against Lincoln’s decision.  Simply type "habeas corpus" in “search key word” .  Students could do their own searches, find primary sources, and then debate the point of views that are presented in the letters.
The Emancipation Proclamation could also be used to discuss how far the power of the presidency reaches.
The activity could also be expanded to explore these same ideas with the Nixon/Ford administration (pardons, commander-in-chief, presidential privilege, impeachment, & 25th amendment).
Prepared by Rebecca McKinnell, Crestline Village Schools, Ohio.