How George Washington established the presidency

Washington’s reception on the bridge at Trenton in 1789 on his way to be inaugurated 1st president of the U.S. Engraved by T. Kelley. c. 1835. Library of Congress

President Franklin D. Roosevelt took office in 1933 amidst the worst economic depression in the nation’s history. Almost 25% of Americans were out of work, and many had been unemployed for years. Churches and public relief organizations had long-since emptied their pantries and spent their emergency funds, and families were literally starving. Faced with the unprecedented crisis, FDR and Congress worked together to pass fifteen bills to rescue banks, support farmers, feed Americans, and put people back to work. The enormous outpouring of legislation and executive activity in FDR’s first 100 days created a new standard for productivity.

But long…


And what the state of the union can tell us about the presidency

New York, Wall Street, Federal Hall and Trinity Church 1789 (Public Domain). On April 30, 1789, George Washington took the first oath of office on the balcony of the second floor of Federal Hall, then delivered his inaugural address in the Senate chambers.

In the coming weeks, President Joe Biden will give his first State of the Union address. Unlike some of his predecessors, his speech wasn’t delivered in February (the month after his inauguration), causing many pundits to question whether Biden is breaking the terms of the Constitution.

Like many aspects of the presidency, the State of the Union has evolved since 1789. There are almost no written rules or laws governing the practice, instead it is almost entirely guided by norms and customs. …


A historian’s view of Neera Tanden’s confirmation process as Women’s History Month begins

Woman suffrage procession, Washington, D.C. March 3, 1913 / Dale. Courtesy: Library of Congress.

Today is the beginning of Women’s History Month. This year, more than ever, that designation feels like a slap in the face. Women nominees to high office are derided, abused, and held to obvious double standards. The pandemic has pushed women out of the workplace at record numbers. And of course, the language we use to describe women continues to reflect our outdated social norms and values.

The Senate appears poised to reject Neera Tanden as President Joe Biden’s nominee to lead the Office of Management and Budget. Her qualifications are not in question, nor her past experience. …


For a historian, it’s a complicated question

Dean Franklin, WikiCommons

Every year, usually around Presidents’ Day, Americans talk about the best and worst presidents and debate how to rank their successes and failures. Inevitably, questions about their values and morality come up and we ponder how much weight to give their personal characteristics versus their leadership while in office.

I cohost and produce a podcast with the Center for Presidential History, called The Past, The Promise, The Presidency. This season we are exploring the complex history of race and the president, so naturally we’ve covered the good, the bad, and the ugly of the American story. While we were interviewing…


To grasp the full scope of Trump’s historic failure, compare him to FDR

President Franklin D. Roosevelt sitting at desk, giving radio address.
President Franklin D. Roosevelt sitting at desk, giving radio address.
President Franklin D. Roosevelt giving a radio address. Harris & Ewing, Courtesy: Library of Congress

As the impeachment trial in the Senate begins today, the country is grappling with the final weeks of the 45th president. In the days leading up to the inauguration, Donald Trump’s cemented his presidential legacy by inciting a seditionist insurrection. On January 6, the same day rioters attacked the U.S. Capitol, over 4,000 people died from COVID-19. When Trump left office, the death toll passed 400,000–70,000 more than the number of Americans killed in combat in World War II. In his inaugural address, President Joe Biden noted this dark milestone. President Trump remained silent. His indifference to American suffering and…


But there is still a ways to go…

Richard Bronshvag / Ms. magazine

No institution better embodies the advancements made by women at the highest levels of power and the challenges that remain than the president’s Cabinet.

On September 11, 1789, President George Washington nominated the first candidates for the secretaries of the executive departments. In 1933–143 years after the first Cabinet appointment — President Franklin D. Roosevelt named Frances Perkins as secretary of labor, the first woman to hold a Cabinet position.

Since then, women have shaped the Cabinet, contributed to executive branch governance, and expanded their role at the federal level. This evolution culminated in President Biden’s Cabinet, which features gender…


The evolving history of the number two office and why it might change now

Kamala Harris’s is among the stories of the leading political figures of our time. And yet, history shows us that women’s progress is often met with obstacles to success.

As white men made the vice president’s office more powerful, they likely inadvertently increased the obstacles facing women aspiring to that post. The vice presidency is no longer just a symbolic role. As a result, women have to present stronger credentials than their male counterparts to run for the slot. …


Recommendations from a historian on what you should be reading

Days of Fire

By Peter Baker (2013)

1. For the first few years of the Bush presidency, Dick Cheney served as George W. Bush’s closest adviser, the last person in the room before every big decision. The two were not close. But the interactions between them during the 9/11 terror attacks attest to the vice president’s authority. Mr. Cheney convinced the president to stay on Air Force One until they knew Washington, D.C., was safe, and when aides reported that United Flight 93 was headed toward Washington, Mr. Cheney gave the order to shoot the plane down if necessary. During…


A historian on why nothing is better suited to podcast form than history

Courtesy popkantor_tv on Flickr.

Podcasts are one of my favorite ways to learn about history, as well as share it. First, you can multitask while listening! Do you ever feel like you are wasting time while commuting, doing chores, running errands, cooking, cleaning, etc.? Try listening to an educational podcast! I feel much less resentful about time spent doing those activities if I’m also enriching my brain.

There’s also so much variety. I can learn about Egyptian pyramids one moment, the Jamestown Virginia colony the next moment, and finish up with race and politics in the 1980s. All in one morning! …


What is dereliction of duty anyway?

“The fall of Washington — or Maddy in full flight.” A cartoon depicting President James Madison fleeing Washington, D.C., for which he was widely criticized. Courtesy of Library of Congress.

When the framers crafted the Constitution, they included the president’s oath of office. All presidents promise to defend and protect the Constitution from enemies, foreign and domestic. But what does that actually mean?

Does it apply to international attacks? The framers certainly thought so, but they had no conception of a cyber attack.

Does it apply to domestic rebellions? I’d argue that they did, as many of the founding generation supported the forceful suppression of rebellions.

What about public health crises? Here’s where it gets complicated. In 1793, when yellow fever broke out in Philadelphia, there was no conception of…

Lindsay Chervinsky, Ph.D.

Historian. Writer. Speaker. Author of THE CABINET.

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