The Forgotten Presidents: Their Untold Constitutional Legacy

Overview

Their names linger in memory mainly as punch lines, synonyms for obscurity: Millard Fillmore, Chester Arthur, Calvin Coolidge. They conjure up not the White House so much as a decaying middle school somewhere in New Jersey. But many forgotten presidents, writes Michael J. Gerhardt, were not weak or ineffective. They boldly fought battles over constitutional principles that resonate today.

Gerhardt, one of our leading legal experts, tells the story of The Forgotten Presidents. He...

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The Forgotten Presidents: Their Untold Constitutional Legacy

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Overview

Their names linger in memory mainly as punch lines, synonyms for obscurity: Millard Fillmore, Chester Arthur, Calvin Coolidge. They conjure up not the White House so much as a decaying middle school somewhere in New Jersey. But many forgotten presidents, writes Michael J. Gerhardt, were not weak or ineffective. They boldly fought battles over constitutional principles that resonate today.

Gerhardt, one of our leading legal experts, tells the story of The Forgotten Presidents. He surveys thirteen administrations in chronological order, from Martin Van Buren to Franklin Pierce to Jimmy Carter, distinguishing political failures from their constitutional impact. Again and again, he writes, they defied popular opinion to take strong stands. Martin Van Buren reacted to an economic depression by withdrawing federal funds from state banks in an attempt to establish the controversial independent treasury system. His objective was to shrink the federal role in the economy, but also to consolidate his power to act independently as president. Prosperity did not return, and he left office under the shadow of failure. Grover Cleveland radically changed his approach in his second (non-consecutive) term. Previously he had held back from interference with lawmakers; on his return to office, he aggressively used presidential power to bend Congress to his will. Now seen as an asterisk, Cleveland consolidated presidential authority over appointments, removals, vetoes, foreign affairs, legislation, and more. Jimmy Carter, too, proves surprisingly significant. In two debt-ceiling crises and battles over the Panama Canal treaty, affirmative action, and the First Amendment, he demonstrated how the presidency's inherent capacity for efficiency and energy gives it an advantage in battles with Congress, regardless of popularity. Gerhardt explains the many things these and ten other presidents have in common that explain why, in spite of any of their excesses, they have become forgotten chief executives.

Incisive, myth-shattering, and compellingly written, this book shows how even obscure presidents championed the White House's prerogatives and altered the way we interpret the Constitution.

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Editorial Reviews

From the Publisher
"The Forgotten Presidents run the gamut, from the truly important like Grover Cleveland to the truly forgettable like William Henry Harrison. But in recovering these stories, Michael Gerhardt reminds us that every president leaves a trace. The occupants of the highest office exercised power to reshape the nation they inherited, and in doing so they all sparked constitutional debates and transformed the constitutional landscape. Even our forgotten presidents helped shape the world we live in; a lesson worth remembering today." —Keith E. Whittington, William Nelson Cromwell Professor of Politics, Princeton University

"Forgotten but not gone. In these captivating stories, Professor Gerhardt shows how even our lesser presidents shaped the constitutional order and the political world that 21st century Americans inhabit." —Michael C. Dorf, Robert S. Stevens Professor, Cornell University Law School

"...Gerhardt's study is a positive contribution to the study of the presidency and the Constitution..." —Congress & the Presidency

Library Journal
Gerhardt (constitutional law, Univ. of North Carolina, Chapel Hill; The Power of Precedent) examines 13 presidents who lack historical star power but nonetheless significantly influenced how the U.S. Constitution is applied. In chronologically arranged chapters, including two on Grover Cleveland, the author provides rich behind-the-scenes detail and historical context. Gerhardt documents how federalism vs. state sovereignty, the reaches of presidential power, and the role of Congress are constitutional themes that recur across presidential administrations. The points of view as well as the strengths and weaknesses of each president are explored. The book documents how both the constitution and the presidency have been affected by the way in which lesser-known presidents dealt with economic crises, the challenges of foreign affairs, labor unrest, and disputes over presidential appointments. VERDICT With careful scholarship and deft storytelling, this book successfully illuminates the personalities, compromises, failures, strengths, and influences of the featured leaders. Illustrations, extensive notes, and a helpful appendix round out a timely and accessible book that will appeal to historians, constitutional scholars, and all those interested in the presidency and the evolution of the constitution.—Joan Pedzich, Rochester, NY
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Product Details

  • ISBN-13: 9780199389988
  • Publisher: Oxford University Press
  • Publication date: 10/1/2014
  • Pages: 352
  • Sales rank: 1,056,181

Meet the Author

Michael Gerhardt is Samuel Ashe Distinguished Professor of Constitutional Law at the University of North Carolina, Chapel Hill. A nationally recognized authority on constitutional conflicts, he has testified in several Supreme Court confirmation hearings, and has published five books, including The Power of Precedent.

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Table of Contents

Table of Contents

Introduction
Acknowledgments
Table of Recurrent Themes

Chapter 1: Martin Van Buren
Chapter 2: William Henry Harrison
Chapter 3: John Tyler
Chapter 4: Zachary Taylor
Chapter 5: Millard Fillmore
Chapter 6: Franklin Pierce
Chapter 7: Chester Arthur
Chapter 8: Grover Cleveland
Chapter 9: Benjamin Harrison
Chapter 10: Grover Cleveland
Chapter 11: William Howard Taft
Chapter 12: Calvin Coolidge
Chapter 13: Jimmy Carter

Conclusion
Bibliographical Essay
Appendix
End Notes
Index

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