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War in the Early Republic

50 min

How did the country’s first four Presidents exercise their powers as Commander in Chief?

Students will:

  • Identify ways the nation’s first four Presidents exercised their constitutional power as Commander in Chief.
  • Evaluate their various approaches to foreign enemies.
  • Assess what conditions require declarations of war from Congress.

  • Handout A: War in the Early Republic
  • Handout B: Name That President

To create a context for this lesson, have students complete Constitutional Connection: War and the Constitution.

Have students read Handout A: War in the Early Republic and answer the questions.

Divide students into groups of four. Within each group, assign one student each to play the role of George Washington, John Adams, Thomas Jefferson, and James Madison.

Have students use Handout A as a reference to review the actions they took as President to direct foreign policy/avoid war/wage war. Then have them summarize those actions in two or three sentences on their own paper.

Project a copy of Handout B: Name That President.

Revealing one statement at a time from Section I, have students playing the role of the President described stand up when a statement applies to them. Note: Some statements may apply to more than one President.

Clarify any questions students have as the activity progresses.

Moving on to Section II of Handout B, continue revealing one statement at a time. Have groups discuss the statement among themselves. Then discuss the question of who the statement applies to as a large group.

Variation: For any/all of the statements, have one group at a time come to the front of the room to debate the question in front of the class and have students vote on the answer. Encourage students to stay “in character” and lobby/persuade the class of their point of view.

Ask students to review what they wrote for their answer to question number three on Handout A. Has their thinking on this question changed at all as a result of the day’s activity? Why or why not? Discuss student responses as a large group.

In addition, ask the class:

  • Has the world ever been completely at peace?
  • How many wars are taking place right now?
  • Does the Constitution provide sufficient guidance to help Presidents and Congress know when to declare war?

Have students apply what they have learned to the present day and the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan. Has Congress declared war in either of these conflicts? Should it? Have them write a letter to their Senators and Representative in the US Congress expressing their viewpoint.

After two undeclared wars—one in 1801 and one in 1815—the US succeeded in defeating the Barbary pirates. Ironically, it was President James Madison who declared victory against them in his Seventh Message to Congress in 1815. Have students do additional research into the methods used by the first four Presidents of the United States in dealing with the threats posed by the pirates.