Supreme Power: Franklin Roosevelt vs. the Supreme Court

Supreme Power: Franklin Roosevelt vs. the Supreme Court

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by Jeff Shesol
     
 

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"A stunning work of history."—Doris Kearns Goodwin, author of No Ordinary Time and Team of Rivals
Beginning in 1935, the Supreme Court's conservative majority left much of FDR's agenda in ruins. The pillars of the New Deal fell in short succession. It was not just the New Deal but democracy itself that stood on trial. In February 1937, Roosevelt struck

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Overview

"A stunning work of history."—Doris Kearns Goodwin, author of No Ordinary Time and Team of Rivals
Beginning in 1935, the Supreme Court's conservative majority left much of FDR's agenda in ruins. The pillars of the New Deal fell in short succession. It was not just the New Deal but democracy itself that stood on trial. In February 1937, Roosevelt struck back with an audacious plan to expand the Court to fifteen justices—and to "pack" the new seats with liberals who shared his belief in a "living" Constitution.

Editorial Reviews

President Bill Clinton
“One of the most eloquent historians of his generation, Jeff Shesol has a deep understanding of the presidency, and the interplay of politics, personalities, and principles, all of which he brings to life in this rich, remarkable book.”
Jeffrey Toobin
“Written with a novelist's eye, a historian's care, and a blogger's energy, Jeff Shesol's Supreme Power is a fascinating reconstruction of one of the great political and legal battles of the twentieth century.”
Seth Stern
Shesol…is a fine writer with a gift for telling detail. He has produced a thorough and well told history…
—The Washington Post
Alan Brinkley
Jeff Shesol…is not the first to chronicle what became known as the "court-packing" controversy, but Supreme Power is by far the most detailed—and most riveting—account of this extraordinary event…an impressive and engaging book—an excellent work of narrative history. It is deeply researched and beautifully written. Even readers who already know the outcome will find it hard not to feel the suspense that surrounded the battle, so successfully does Shesol recreate the atmosphere of this great controversy.
—The New York Times
Library Journal
Franklin Delano Roosevelt owes his presidential greatness to his handling of the Great Depression and World War II, but he was also capable of blunder. This book considers his first major political mistake in the White House—how he dealt with the Supreme Court, which had begun to declare his New Deal economic reforms unconstitutional. Though this story is well known, Shesol (Mutual Contempt) presents it in a fuller and more balanced manner, pitting a great President against an equally great justice, Charles Evans Hughes. Unlike James MacGregor Burns's recent Packing the Court, on the same topic, Shesol sides with Hughes while recognizing FDR's multiple talents. Both books are necessary to appreciate the tug of war between the elected and nonelected branches of government, with Shesol's the more complete account of FDR's ill-fated court-packing plan. If a dimension is missing here, it's that FDR inherited a "mom and pop" presidency at a time when many abroad and some at home considered democracy outdated, so although Shesol mentions that FDR's judicial reorganization was tied to his executive reorganization effort, he doesn't explain its context or fate. VERDICT An accessibly written page-turner; essential reading for both general readers and specialists. [See Prepub Alert, LJ 10/1/09.]—William D. Pederson, Louisiana State Univ., Shreveport
Kirkus Reviews
The ideological battle between the New Deal president and the Supreme Court's Nine Old Men. Working secretly with Attorney General Homer Cummings, in 1937 Franklin Roosevelt drafted a bill to enlarge the Court, allowing the president to make immediate appointments of more ideologically congenial justices. The plan resulted in a humiliating defeat, the biggest blunder of Roosevelt's presidency. How and why did the most talented politician of the 20th century miscalculate so horribly? While not entirely rejecting the consensus that attributes FDR's court-packing fiasco to sheer hubris, former Clinton speechwriter Shesol (Mutual Contempt: Lyndon Johnson, Robert Kennedy, and the Feud that Defined a Decade, 1997, etc.) offers a more nuanced take, making clear FDR's move against the court involved more than momentary presidential pique or landslide giddiness. Rather, the president's scheme emerged after two years' worth of careful consultation about various proposals to "fix" the Court, including amending the Constitution. Moreover, there was genuine, widespread disgust with the Court's refusal to sanction modern solutions to an unprecedented economic crisis. FDR might well have prevailed, but for a concatenation of events: his own penchant for mystery and surprise that shut off debate among advisors at the critical point when the measure was finalized; his absurd masking of a straightforward fight against outcome-oriented judges as an attempt to help aging jurists with their workload; and his abandonment by progressives threatened by his power and party regulars too long taken for granted. In addition, the untimely death of Majority Leader Joe Robinson, the surprise retirement of conservativeJustice Willis Van Devanter and the Court's subsequent string of decisions upholding important New Deal laws-the famous "switch in time [that] saved nine"-blunted enthusiasm for radical judicial reform. With insight and more than occasional humor, Shesol covers all aspects of the controversy, deftly explaining the issues at stake in a variety of legal opinions and shrewdly analyzing the intra-Court dynamics. A thorough and thoroughly smart rendering of a dramatic Constitutional showdown. Author tour to New York, Washington, D.C., Boston
The New York Times Book Review
“Supreme Power is by far the most detailed—and most riveting—account of this extraordinary event.... an impressive and engaging book—an excellent work of narrative history. It is deeply researched and beautifully written.”
The New Republic
“[T]imely, for the light it casts on the politics of our current economic situation and on the situation itself. The book is also splendid to read. It will fascinate anyone who is interested in Roosevelt, the New Deal, the 1930s, Congress, the presidency, the Great Depression, judges, the Supreme Court, or constitutional law.”
Doris Kearns Goodwin
“Once in a generation a groundbreaking book comes along to provide a major reinterpretation of a familiar historical event. Shesol tells the story of FDR's court packing plan as it has never been told before. This is a stunning work of history.”
From the Publisher
"Shesol is a terrific storyteller, and he brings the book's events to life by taking the [listener] inside the key places where the constitutional conflict took shape." —The Boston Globe

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Product Details

ISBN-13:
9780393338812
Publisher:
Norton, W. W. & Company, Inc.
Publication date:
03/14/2011
Pages:
656
Sales rank:
708,317
Product dimensions:
6.10(w) x 9.10(h) x 1.30(d)

What People are saying about this

Bill Clinton
Supreme Power is an extraordinary book that rings with relevance for our time. One of the most eloquent historians of his generation, Jeff Shesol has a deep understanding of the presidency, and the interplay of politics, personalities, and principles, all of which he brings to life in this rich, remarkable book. Full of surprises and new insights—each rendered in clear and confident prose – this book is about more than FDR’s plan to pack the Court. It’s about America’s enduring struggle to reconcile our founders’ ideals with conflicting challenges in our constant pursuit to build a more perfect union.
From the Publisher
"Shesol is a terrific storyteller, and he brings the book's events to life by taking the [listener] inside the key places where the constitutional conflict took shape." —-The Boston Globe

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