Lesson Plans: Grades 6-8
Curriculum Unit

Before and Beyond the Constitution: What Should a President do? (3 Lessons)



The Unit


Gilbert Stuart portrait of George Washington

Gilbert Stuart portrait of George Washington

Credit: Courtesy of American Memory

“… the executive authority, with few exceptions, is to be vested in a single magistrate. This will scarcely, however, be considered as a point upon which any comparison can be grounded; for if, in this particular, there be a resemblance to the king of Great Britain, there is not less a resemblance to the … khan of Tartary, to the Man of the Seven Mountains....”
—Alexander Hamilton in The Federalist Papers 69 on the EDSITEment-reviewed website Avalon Project at the Yale Law School

“if you adopt this government, you will incline to an arbitrary and odious aristocracy or monarchy…” —Anti-Federalist Paper Cato #5 Executive Power on the Constitution Society website, a link from the EDSITEment resource Internet Public Library

At the time the Founders were shaping the future of a new country, John Adams suggested the President should be addressed as "His Excellency." Happily, others recognized that such a title was inappropriate. Though the proper form of address represents only a small detail, defining everything about the Presidency was central to the idea of America that was a work-in-progress when the nation was young.

In this curriculum unit, students look at the role of President as defined in the Constitution and consider the precedent-setting accomplishments of George Washington.

Note: This unit may be taught either as a stand-alone unit or as a sequel to the complementary EDSITEment curriculum units, Background on the Patriot Attitude Toward the Monarchy and Lost Hero: Who Was Really Our First President?

Guiding Questions

  • How was the role of "President" defined in the Constitution?
  • What important developments occurred during George Washington's tenure as the first "President of the United States"?
  • How did they affect the future of the U.S. and the office of President?

Learning Objectives

  • Discuss the powers and responsibilities of the President as defined by the Constitution.
  • List some of the precedents set during George Washington's term in office.
  • Match an action of a President with a power or responsibility of the Chief Executive.

Preparation Instructions

  • Review the lesson plans in this unit. Locate and bookmark suggested materials and other useful websites. Download and print out documents you will use and duplicate copies as necessary for student viewing.
  • Download the Master PDF. Print out and make an appropriate number of copies of any handouts you plan to use in class.
  • Read "The Declaration of Independence: A History" and "Constitution of the United States - A History," available via the National Archives, for background information about both documents.  
  • Unless otherwise specified, historic documents referred to in the lesson plan are available on the EDSITEment-reviewed website Avalon Project at the Yale Law School.
  • The Founders were faced with a difficult decision-fix the flawed Articles of Confederation or develop a new system. Essays in favor of the passage of the Constitution and discussing weaknesses in the Articles (written by the likes of Madison and Hamilton) were published in the Federalist Papers. About the Federalist Papers, available via the Library of Congress, explains:
    …the Federalist Papers, is a series of 85 essays written by Alexander Hamilton, John Jay, and James Madison between October 1787 and May 1788. The essays were published anonymously, under the pen name "Publius," in various New York state newspapers of the time.

    The Federalist Papers were written and published to urge New Yorkers to ratify the proposed United States Constitution, which was drafted in Philadelphia in the summer of 1787. In lobbying for adoption of the Constitution over the existing Articles of Confederation, the essays explain particular provisions of the Constitution in detail. For this reason, and because Hamilton and Madison were each members of the Constitutional Convention, the Federalist Papers are often used today to help interpret the intentions of those drafting the Constitution.
  • George Washington became President-reluctantly-at a critical time in the history of the United States. The Confederation had threatened to unravel; the weak central government (which included a weak executive with the sole responsibility of presiding over meetings of Congress and no special power to initiate laws beyond that of any member of Congress, enforce laws, or check acts of Congress) created by the Articles of Confederation had failed. As part of its goal to form a “more perfect” government, The Constitution of the United States defined a new role for the executive, the President, in a much stronger federal system. However, a definition on paper and a President in practice could be two very different things. In this activity, students review the responsibilities and powers of the President as intended by the Founders and as practiced during Washington's precedent-setting terms in office.
  • Students with an understanding of the fears of the Founders-especially the Anti-Federalists-regarding a powerful executive will benefit the most from this lesson. When discussing the structure of the Executive sketched in the Articles of Confederation, it is useful to refer back to the complaints of the colonists as summarized by Jefferson in the Declaration of Independence. Help students understand why and how the Founders were cautious. Consult the following EDSITEment lessons for grades 6-8 for more information on:
  • The unit uses very brief excerpts from Alexander Hamilton's The Real Character of the Executive (Federalist #69), provided in the handout The Real Character of the Executive on pages 1-2 of the PDF (see download instructions, above). Hamilton's essential statements about the Executive have been grouped together. Definitions for a few difficult terms are provided in parentheses and some spelling has been modernized, but all of the text is Hamilton's. In many classes, students should be able to work with the passages in small groups. Classes can also work through the document together.

The Lessons

The Basics

Grade Level


Subject Areas
  • History and Social Studies > Themes > U.S. Constitution
  • Compare and contrast
  • Critical analysis
  • Critical thinking
  • Discussion
  • Gathering, classifying and interpreting written, oral and visual information
  • Historical analysis
  • Interpretation
  • Making inferences and drawing conclusions
  • Representing ideas and information orally, graphically and in writing
  • Using primary sources