Author Q&A Session: Richard J. Ellis

Author of The Development of the American Presidency, Richard J. Ellis, discusses his title and what makes his title so unique.

Author Interview | Richard J. Ellis

What’s new to the second edition?

The most important addition is a brand new chapter titled "The Unilateral Presidency : Legislating from the Oval Office." It places the current controversy over Obama's use of executive orders into historical context, going all the way back to Martin Van Buren, who used an executive order to mandate a 10 hour work day at naval yards. The chapter also focuses on the key role that unilateral orders played in reserving public lands in the late 19th and early 20th centuries and in combating racial discrimination in the 20th century. A principal theme of the chapter is that unilateral directives (executive orders, presidential memorandum, proclamations, and the like) are neither the panacea that a president's allies imagine not the autocratic danger that the president's enemies fear. Although styled as "unilateral," such directives are often better conceptualized as "multilateral" because of the many players involved in their making. The chapter also includes a section on signing statements and here too traces the history of such statements and evaluates the broader question of whether such statements are better thought of as a species of unilateral power or as a vehicle for interbranch dialogue.

What will students learn from your textbook?

The simplest answer is that students will learn the history of the presidency. The better answer is that readers of my book will learn to recognize and critically assess the misuse and abuse of presidential history. A mythologized past often gets in the way of a measured evaluation of our current presidents. For instance, as I show in Chapter 4, many of those who blasted Barack Obama for failing to be bold like the great FDR had little or no knowledge of how Roosevelt actually governed. Roosevelt actually governed. Similarly, placing unilateral presidential directives in historical perspective, as I do in Chapter 6 enables students to more soberly evaluate current controversies over Obama's executive orders and George W. Bush's signing statements. By teaching about past presidents, political scientists can help citizens and students more realistically evaluate what presidents can be expected to achieve.

Close attention to the framers of the Constitution and early presidential history is also important in inoculating students and citizens against extravagant or erroneous readings by presidents and their apologists of the meaning of the Constitution and early presidential precedents. Chapter 10 begins with a paradigmatic instance: Richard Nixon’s 1977 televised interview with David Frost, in which he invoked Lincoln’s words—words written in a letter explaining why Lincoln had enlisted black men in the fight against slavery—to justify burglary and other illegal acts


What makes your book so unique to others in the field?

Few presidency texts pay serious attention to the historical development of the presidency or the framing of the Constitution. Their focus is instead on the modern presidency, typically understood as starting with FDR. The one other text that does focus on the historical development of the presidency is organized chronologically. The problem with that is that presidency classes are almost all organized topically: a chapter on presidential elections, a chapter on the president and the public, a chapter on congressional relations, and so on. So what makes my book unique is that is attuned to the full story of the development and origins of the presidency but it organizes that story topically rather than chronologically. Teachers using my book can thus keep their topical organization without sacrificing an in-depth understanding of the historical development of the American presidency.

Featured Products

  • The Development of the American Presidency

    2nd Edition

    By Richard J. Ellis

    A full understanding of the institution of the American presidency requires us to examine how it developed from the founding to the present. This developmental lens, analyzing how historical turns have shaped the modern institution, allows for a richer, more nuanced understanding beyond the current…

    Paperback – 2015-06-29
    Routledge