Jim Cullen: Review of Michael J. Gerhardt's "The Forgotten Presidents: Their Untold Constitutional Legacy" (Oxford, 2013)

tags: Jim Cullen, Michael J. Gerhardt, Forgotten Presidents, executive branch

Jim Cullen, who teaches at the Ethical Culture Fieldston School in New York, is a book review editor at HNN. His latest book, Sensing the Past: Hollywood Stars and Historical Visions, was recently published by Oxford University Press. Cullen blogs at American History Now.

In The Forgotten Presidents, University of North Carolina law school professor Michael J. Gerhardt looks at a dozen presidents, beginning with Martin Van Buren and ending with Jimmy Carter, and argues that each had more of an impact than many people -- not simply a public at large that may only be vaguely familiar with their names, but also professional historians more likely to interested in more prominent figures -- and suggests their impact has been greater than is commonly recognized. As his subtitle makes clear, Gerhardt is not arguing that these presidents had compelling personalities, or that their political gifts or tactics were especially notable. Instead, he argues that each made essentially administrative decisions that either marked a precedent in the history of the presidency itself or quickened a tendency in the nature of office. Much of Gerhardt's analysis focuses on topics like presidential appointments, vetoes, and relationships with other branches of government, especially the courts and the U.S. Senate.

Insofar as there's a narrative trajectory in this series of profiles, it's that presidents of all times and parties have tended to guard and strengthen the prerogatives of the office. To be sure, there have been any number that have been avowedly in favor of limited government. But, as Gerhardt shows, these figures (Van Buren, Franklin Pierce, Grover Cleveland the first time around) are among the least successful in U.S. history. He also shows that the two Whig presidents elected to office, William Henry Harrison and Zachary Taylor, began their terms avowing deference to the legislative branch, in large measure as a reaction to the perceived high-handedness of Andrew Jackson. But both men, as well as the vice presidents (John Tyler and Millard Fillmore) who succeeded them, found this theory of government wanting. Indeed, even those executives who did profess a federalist approach to governing, from Cleveland to Coolidge, nevertheless fought hard to maintain and extend their power in their own domain when it came to things like removing cabinet officers or naming Supreme Court justices. And others, notably Cleveland the second time around -- he gets two separate chapters for each of his administrations -- became increasingly convinced of the need for presidential initiative in lawmaking.

Gerhardt is a scrupulous scholar who explores some compelling byways of presidential history; we learn, for example, that Carter, not Barack Obama, was the first president to confront the prospect of government default -- twice. But on the whole, this is pretty dry stuff, rendered in a pretty dry way (Gerhardt tends to list implications of presidential histories in lists with paragraphs that begin, "First," "Second," and so on). A little more context might also have been nice. For example, Gerhardt draws a series of contrasts between William Howard Taft and his mentor, Theodore Roosevelt, but the effect of of his emphasis on Taft's belief in limited government leads wonder to wonder why he wasn't a latter-day Jacksonian Democrat instead of a progressive Republican -- or, if he wasn't really progressive, why Roosevelt was so keen to have him as his successor. We sometimes lose the forest amid the trees.

Perhaps it's useful to end where we began: with Gerhardt's emphasis on law and policy rather than politics and personality. Though the book is organized in such a way that seems to emphasize individuals, the real story here is more about the presidency itself than the people who held the job. As such, The Forgotten Presidents makes a point worth remembering.

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