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June 1, 2019

Lesson plan: Watergate and the limits of presidential power

August 8, 2019, marks the 45th anniversary of the resignation of President Richard Nixon from the Oval Office. Nixon remains the only president in U.S. history to resign. The world had been closely watching the nationally televised Senate committee hearings about the break-in at the Democratic National Committee offices at the Watergate hotel in Washington, D.C. The hearings revealed that the break-in had been part of a political spying campaign perpetrated by President Richard Nixon’s reelection campaign, and eventually led to Nixon’s resignation.


Social Studies, U.S. History, U.S. Government



Estimated time

One 45-minute class period


To gain an understanding of the events of the Watergate scandal and its impact on the American presidency.

Students will:

  1. Learn about the Watergate scandal of 1972-1974 and the events that led to Nixon’s resignation.
  2. Discuss the reasons why Nixon’s leadership was known as an “Imperial Presidency.”
  3. Discuss issues such as executive privilege and think about how much Watergate has limited presidential power over the last four decades. If you are not sure of the limits placed on presidential overreach, or its staying power through the present time, how could you find out?
  4. Explore the ways that the Watergate scandal has changed the public perception of the presidency over the past 40 years.


  1. For homework, students should read the Watergate Background handout.
  2. In class, as a group, students should complete the Watergate Background Worksheet together. They should discuss any terms that are unfamiliar.
  3. In class, students should read the excerpt on U.S. v. Nixon and the transcript excerpt from the June 23, 1972 White House tapes.
  4. After they read these documents, they should work in small groups to fill out the Watergate Primary Source Worksheet.
  5. As a class, students can discuss their answers to the questions on the Watergate Primary Source Worksheet.
  6. If they have time, students can read the essay, “Above the Law” from UVA’s Miller Center. If computers are available they can read this essay online; otherwise the text of the essay can be distributed to the class.
    1. What do they think of the idea that Nixon’s downfall was due to the fact that he imitated his enemies and put himself above the law?

Extension Activities

  1. Students can look at Ford’s pardon of Richard Nixon.
  2. Students can look at other controversial actions of the Nixon Administration, such as the bombing of Cambodia, the break-in to gather Daniel Ellsberg’s files from his psychiatrist’s office, and the debate over the Pentagon Papers.
  3. Students can research a more recent presidential scandal, such as Iran-Contra, Whitewater, and the Lewinsky-Clinton scandal. What impact did Watergate have on the media’s investigation of these scandals and their willingness to investigate the President of the United States.

Stephanie Schragger teaches American and European history in New York. She has taught at The Lawrenceville School and York Preparatory School in New York City. She currently teaches at Saint Ann’s in Brooklyn. Stephanie has an A.B. in History from Princeton University and a M.A. in History from Yale University.

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  • Standards

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    Relevant National Standards:
      Common Core Standards
      History/Social Studies
    • CCSS.ELA-Literacy.RH.11-12.1 Cite specific textual evidence to support analysis of primary and secondary sources, connecting insights gained from specific details to an understanding of the text as a whole.
    • CCSS.ELA-Literacy.RH.11-12.2 Determine the central ideas or information of a primary or secondary source; provide an accurate summary that makes clear the relationships among the key details and ideas.
    • CCSS.ELA-Literacy.RH.11-12.3 Evaluate various explanations for actions or events and determine which explanation best accords with textual evidence, acknowledging where the text leaves matters uncertain.
    • CCSS.ELA-Literacy.RH.11-12.4 Determine the meaning of words and phrases as they are used in a text, including analyzing how an author uses and refines the meaning of a key term over the course of a text (e.g., how Madison defines faction in Federalist No. 10).
    • CCSS.ELA-Literacy.RH.11-12.7 Integrate and evaluate multiple sources of information presented in diverse formats and media (e.g., visually, quantitatively, as well as in words) in order to address a question or solve a problem.
    • Writing
    • CCSS.ELA-Literacy.WHST.11-12.1a Introduce precise, knowledgeable claim(s), establish the significance of the claim(s), distinguish the claim(s) from alternate or opposing claims, and create an organization that logically sequences the claim(s), counterclaims, reasons, and evidence.
    • CCSS.ELA-Literacy.WHST.11-12.2b Develop the topic thoroughly by selecting the most significant and relevant facts, extended definitions, concrete details, quotations, or other information and examples appropriate to the audience’s knowledge of the topic.
    • CCSS.ELA-Literacy.WHST.11-12.9 Draw evidence from informational texts to support analysis, reflection, and research.

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