The Historical Presidency: The Development of Unilateral Power and the Problem of the Power to Warn: Washington through McKinley


  • AUTHORS' NOTE: We would like to thank Tom Langford for expert editorial guidance and the National Science Foundation (SES-1237627) for generous funding.


The scholarly turn to the unilateral presidency has expanded our understanding of the presidency and executive power, but, to date, this body of work has focused on presidents since the New Deal. This is somewhat surprising, given that many of the most well-known unilateral orders were issued before 1900. Rather than being isolated events, they are part of a longer list of unilateral presidential orders among early presidents that, as a group, have received little scholarly attention. This article seeks, first, to introduce “settle down” proclamations (which are issued as warnings to the public) issued by presidents before Theodore Roosevelt as a way to further understand the development of executive power in the early presidency. Second, it uses these proclamations to test whether the findings of the unilateral presidency scholarship hold with respect to unilateral power before the twentieth century. The article concludes by comparing unilateral power to prerogative power and proposing a path for future research.