The Forgotten Presidents: Their Untold Constitutional Legacy by Michael J. Gerhardt
ARC, e-Book, 336 pages
Oxford University Press
March 1, 2013
Source: Received for review from the publisher via Netgalley request
“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.
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.”
Well, I would not exactly describe this as “compelling”, but it was certainly different than I expected. Probably if I had read the subtitle, “Their Untold Constitutional Legacy”, I might have been a little more prepared for the book I was beginning to read. Reading through my first forgotten president, Martin Van Buren, I was able to realign my expectations and fall into the concept of this book. The presidents featured in this book (Martin Van Buren, William Henry Harrison, John Tyler, Zachary Taylor, Millard Fillmore, Franklin Pierce, Chester Arthur, Grover Cleveland, Benjamin Harrison, Grover Cleveland [again], William Howard Taft, Calvin Coolidge, and Jimmy Carter) are primarily those who are overlooked during American History lessons, or receive very little coverage. Gerhardt does not focus so much on the events of their presidencies, but features the Constitutional legacies left by the decisions these Presidents made in office.
The Constitutional dialogue was VERY dry and so very academic. The author picks apart these Presidents and discusses how their decisions changed American policies, their legal legacy, and shaped history. While not necessary, it is a good idea to have some Constitutional legal knowledge prior to reading this book.
When I picked up this book I thought I would get a general glimpse into the lives of those presidents who do not have as much written about them – and that isn’t exactly what I got. I would recommend this book to those who have an interest in law or the Constitution, but not for the casual presidential observer. That being said, I did learn quite a bit about the legal side of the Presidency – it just took a little while to get through it. This book does show just how much of an impact a perceived “ineffectual” president can have through his Constitutional legacy.
Author Michael J. Gerhardt also has written legal non-fiction works: The Power of Precedent and The Federal Impeachment Process.
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If you have no intention of reading this book, but are curious about the content, below is a video of a discussion with the author about the Presidents featured in this book:
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