Related: Civil & Human Rights, DC Public Schools, Education, Higher Education, Holidays

Civics Lessons for Presidents’ Day


constitution 3Happy Presidents’ Day!  With a new president of the United States in town, this 2017 Presidents’ Day (aka Washington’s Birthday) seems like a great time to review some concepts in American civics.

Most readers of this blog may not know that my first job after law school was teaching and supervising in a Georgetown Law Center clinic called Street Law, which today is a global citizenship education program created by Georgetown law professors in 1972.  I started my Street Law career as a second year law student teaching about government and law to high school students at Coolidge Senior High School in DC.  Those students at Coolidge sparked my lifelong passion for teaching everyday citizens about law and government, something I try to do even today through writing and speeches.

Since the 2016 presidential election, a lot of Americans have found cause to revisit their high school and college civics and political science courses, and the debates we are having as citizens of the greatest free country on earth are important and healthy.

I have also found myself thinking about how important it is for people who work in government to revisit those fundamental lessons about how our system of government is organized, what the rights and freedoms of people are in this country, and how public officials must discharge their oaths of office and fundamental responsibilities.   If I were to teach a version of Street Law for elected and appointed officials of government today, here are some of the major topics I would include in the syllabus:

  • We, the People:  WE are the government.  We must never forget that.  We elect officials to represent our interests but the ultimate power in the United States resides in the citizens of this nation.
  • The Bill of Rights: Perhaps the greatest statement about a free society ever crafted, the Bill of Rights to the Constitution of the United States is essential for every public official to know and to respect.  The First Amendment is pre-eminent: without Freedom of Speech, Freedom of Religion, Freedom of the Press, Freedom of Assembly we would hardly have any of our other rights and freedoms today.  This is an entire course unto itself, hard to address in this short blog space.
  • Separation and Balance of Powers:  this Constitutional principle is essential for our government to work effectively.  No branch is superior to the other, all three — legislative, executive, judicial — operate as a system of checks and balances on each other.  If one branch denigrates or tries to overpower the other, gridlock and resistance ensues.  The Framers of the Constitution deliberately created this system to prevent the tyranny of the majority in legislation, and to restrain executive power.  Of course, over the two centuries since Madison, Jefferson, Adams and Hamilton crafted this solution, the United States government has had some rip-roaring debates and conflicts over the structure — all to the good since the structure ultimately ensured balance and fairness for all.
  • Role of the President and Executive Branch:  in the United States, the president is not a central ruler, but rather, the person responsible to carry out law and legislation, and also the Commander-in-Chief of the military.  The president may recommend legislation, and may veto legislation, but the president does not enact laws unilaterally.  This issue has become more controversial in recent years as presidents have used executive orders and regulatory authority to by-pass legislative processes they believe are unresponsive or ineffective.  A key civics and legal question is whether the increasingly expansive use of executive orders and regulatory authority undermines Constitutional principles.
    • Executive regulatory authority is a particularly controversial issue as changes in parties in power demonstrates the political weight of regulation.  Rules that the Obama Administration created — e.g., regulations affecting financial advisors, regulations concerning teacher education — were among the first rules eliminated by the Trump administration.  Obama issued the DACA order (Deferred Action for Childhood Access) giving some protection to undocumented young people but the Trump administration is talking about eliminating that order along with more severe actions on immigration.
  • Role of Congress and the Legislative Branch:  Congress is supposed to make the laws, but in recent years partisan gridlock (different parties controlling different houses of Congress) made enacting legislation difficult.  With both houses of Congress and the president now of the same party, more legislation is likely, but two large questions loom:  whether partisan acrimony will abate or continue to haunt legislative processes, and whether and how the rights of the minority will be protected.
  • Role of the Judiciary:  Courts are responsible to ensure that the laws of the nation and states are enforced, correctly interpreted and fairly applied.  Courts do not make the law, but over the course of history some politicians have accused courts of doing just that through the power of judicial interpretation and review of existing laws according to Constitutional principles.  The famous case of Marbury v. Madison in 1803 established the principle of judicial review.

As the leader of the nation, the president of the United States needs to understand and respect the fundamental principles of the form of organization, roles and responsibilities of each branch of government.  That does not mean the president is always happy with how the branches function.  Almost every president has had occasion to complain about Congress.  President Franklin D. Roosevelt was so unhappy with the Supreme Court that he tried to change its composition, failing spectacularly.  President Richard Nixon saw his presidency really begin to unravel when the Supreme Court, whose members he tried to influence, ruled against his claim of executive privilege in the release of secret recordings that became known as the Watergate tapes.

President Trump is also speaking out against the judiciary, railing against the 9th Circuit Court of Appeals for staying his immigration order, and denouncing Seattle Judge James Robart as a “so-called judge” when he issued the first stay of the order.  If I were teaching a Street Law civics course at the White House, I would caution the president on his language — the only way to start your oral argument before a judge is with the time-honored words, “May it please the court..”  Calling the judge names is just not a way to win the case.  Street Law 101.

So many other topics in civics and citizenship education come to mind — as a nation we should probably make a widespread national commitment to regenerate teaching civics at all levels of education as a powerful way to guide our current dialogues and debates about the role of government and future of our society.

Here at Trinity, I welcome ideas from students, faculty and staff about these issues.  Please offer comments below or write to me at

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Patricia A. McGuire, President, Trinity, 125 Michigan Ave. NE, Washington, DC 20017
Phone: 202.884.9050   Email: