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The Resignation of Richard Nixon

50 min

Did President Gerald Ford best preserve, protect, and defend the Constitution by pardoning Richard Nixon?

Students will:

  • Understand the sequence of events by which Gerald Ford became President.
  • Assess the legitimacy of Gerald Ford’s presidency.
  • Evaluate the legitimacy and wisdom of President Ford’s pardon of Richard Nixon.

  • Handout A: The Resignation of President Nixon
  • Handout B: Memo to President Ford

To create a context for this lesson, students complete Constitutional Connection: Presidents and the Transfer of Power.

Have students read Handout A: The Resignation of Richard Nixon and answer the questions.

Write on the board the following quotation from President Gerald Ford: “I learned that public policy often took precedence over a rule of law. Although I respected the tenet that no man should be above the law, public policy demanded that I put Nixon—and Watergate—behind us as quickly as possible.”

Divide students into pairs or trios. Ask the groups to define, in context, what President Ford meant by the terms “public policy” and “rule of law.” Ask groups to share their definitions.

Have each group come up with at least one public policy reason for and against a pardon and one rule of law reason for and against a pardon. Ask groups to share their reasons, and write them on the board.

Distribute Handout B: Memo to President Ford to each group. Tell students that their assignment is to play the part of advisors to President Ford. Ask students in their groups to review the reasons for and against issuing a pardon to former President Nixon, and to write a memo justifying their decision.

Ask students to share their decision with the class, and their top reason for making that decision.

Remind students that Gerald Ford took office without having won election as President or even as Vice President. Also remind them that only about a third of Americans approved of pardoning Richard Nixon.

Absent a pardon, how would the prosecution of the disgraced Nixon have affected the transfer of power? Would Ford have been able to govern effectively?

Ask students whether, given the circumstances of the transfer of power from Nixon to Ford, Ford was justified in pardoning Richard Nixon. Was he was wise to pardon Nixon?

Have students read the Memorandum presented to Watergate Special Prosecutor Leon Jaworski that detailed reasons for and against a pardon found at https://watergate.info/1974/08/09/jaworski-memorandum-on-prosecuting-nixon.html.

Students should make a Venn Diagram organizing the reasons given by Jaworski, the reasons they generated in class, and the reasons given by both. Finally, ask students to identify the reason for or against a pardon that they found most persuasive and why.

Ask students to research the Supreme Court case Burdick v. United States (1915), which dealt with pardons, and to explain in a one-page essay its significance in Gerald Ford’s decision to pardon Richard Nixon.