Sean Wilentz, one of the country’s most renowned historians and the George Henry Davis 1886 Professor of American History at Princeton University and Jeffrey Rosen, National Constitution Center CEO and Constitutional Law professor at George Washington University, discussed the history of the presidency and where presidential authority intersects with the constitution at The Hun School of Princeton on January 13th. All Upper School students and faculty attended the talk, which was the inaugural event of the John Gale Hun Program for Civics Education.
Dr. Wilentz and Mr. Rosen agreed that the president’s powers are bound by the Constitution. However, they also recognized that scholars and judges continue to debate the president’s authority as it relates to what is not explicitly outlined in the Constitution.
“The framers were very suspicious of power,” said Dr. Wilentz, who writes for publications ranging from American Scholar to Rolling Stone. “The founders wanted to make sure that the president did not become a Caesar.”
Tracing the waning powers of the presidency through the 19th century, Dr. Wilentz noted that “Teddy Roosevelt redefined the presidency” at the beginning of the 20th century with his bully pulpit, expanding its powers.
“Teddy Roosevelt said that he could do anything that the Constitution doesn’t say he cannot do,” said Dr. Wilentz.
Beyond the Constitution, Both Dr. Wilentz and Mr. Rosen said that new media has dramatically changed the presidency by allowing voters and presidents to have “direct contact” with each other.
“There’s been a technology revolution; there are no longer just three television networks in the country,” he said, telling the students they must know how to evaluate information. “It’s going to be up to you (to decide) what is truth, what are facts, and how are we going to arrive at them.”
Mr. Rosen explained that his organization’s new online tool, called Interactive Constitution, is one way to examine all of the articles and amendments of the Constitution and views about them. The app presents parts of the U.S. Constitution, complete with conservative and liberal viewpoints on each one. All Hun School students downloaded the app before the event.
“No one can undo the First Amendment,” noted Mr. Rosen as an example of what can be learned by examining the. “There is a presidential veto, and the ability to override a veto. The president cannot do anything he or she wants.”
Mr. Rosen suggested that the audience study the U.S. Constitution, read the arguments on both sides of issues and Supreme Court rulings, and use it as “a framework for reasoned dialogue … to respectfully disagree and converge around these values of human freedom that define us as Americans.”
Dr. Wilentz, parent of alumnus James Wilentz ’98, serves on a School committee for the John Gale Hun Program, which is developing curriculum to educate students about American democracy and government at all grade levels. The program is made possible by the generosity of Betty Wold Johnson.
About The Hun School of Princeton:
The Hun School of Princeton is a co-educational, private day and boarding school in Princeton, New Jersey. Individual attention and strong student-faculty relationships are the hallmarks of the School. On the 45-acre campus between Philadelphia and New York City, student-centered, hands-on learning prepare students for the global community in which they will live and work. The Hun School is comprised of 640 students in its Middle School, Upper School, and Postgraduate Program. The Hun School is home to students from twenty-nine countries and sixteen states.
Additional biographical info:
Sean Wilentz is a prominent US historian, author, and commentator on topics ranging from music and literature to America politics. His commentary on music is as acclaimed as his opinions on history and politics – his liner notes on Bob Dylan’s album, The Bootleg Series, earned him a Grammy nomination. One of his best known books of history, The Rise of American Democracy: Jefferson to Lincoln (2005), was the winner of the Bancroft Prize and a finalist for the Pulitzer Prize.
In addition to teaching history at Princeton University, Dr. Wilentz serves as general editor of the American Presidents’ series for Times Books. He is also a regular contributor to The New Republic, The Daily Beast, and Dissent. He has appeared frequently on The Charlie Rose Show, Morning Joe, Radio Times, and NPR. He is a graduate of Columbia University, Balliol College, Oxford University and Yale University, where he earned his Ph.D. in history.
Jeffrey Rosen is President and CEO of the National Constitution Center. He is also a Professor of Law at The George Washington University Law School, and a contributing editor of The Atlantic. Mr. Rosen is a graduate of Harvard College, Oxford University, and Yale Law School. His new book, Louis D. Brandeis: American Prophet, was published on June 1, 2016, the 100th anniversary of Brandeis’s Supreme Court confirmation. His other books include The Supreme Court: The Personalities and Rivalries that Defined America, a best-selling companion book to the award-winning PBS series; The Most Democratic Branch: How the Courts Serve America; The Naked Crowd: Freedom and Security in an Anxious Age; and The Unwanted Gaze: The Destruction of Privacy in America, which The New York Times called the definitive text in privacy perils in the digital age.
His essays and commentaries have appeared in The Atlantic, The New York Times Magazine, on NPR, in the New Republic, and The New Yorker. The Chicago Tribune named him one of the ten best magazine journalists in America, and the Los Angeles Times called him the nation's most widely read and influential legal commentators.
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