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Book Review: The Presidents and the Constitution

The Presidents and the Constitution: A Living History, Ken Gormley, ed. (2016), KF 5053 .P75 2016

Article II of the Constitution, at little over 1000 words, is the provision in which most of the power of the American presidency is housed.  Those words grant the office of the President great power, but its limits and relationship to the judicial and legislative branches is not well defined. In the new book  The Presidents and the Constitution: A Living History, Ken Gormely tells the story of America’s forty-four presidents and how each one interfaced with the Constitution.  With a chapter devoted to each presidency, it is a collection of essays focused on the major constitutional issues each president faced.

The collection gives each President a compact biography, followed by a discussion of the major issues that President faced relating to the extent of executive power, influence on the judiciary, and the President’s role in foreign affairs. The tightly edited collection devotes little over twelve pages to each President, preferring to concentrate on the events having the greatest long-term effects rather than the minutiae of every policy decision.  For example, the chapter devoted to Andrew Jackson, by Mark A. Graber,  focuses on his bank veto (limiting federal powers) and the Proclamation on Nullification (expanding federal powers) and the historical context for these seemingly contradictory positions. This approach allows for the reader to learn a great amount about the character of each presidency in a single sitting, and it is inviting to return to again and again.

This fascinating volume examines the tensions between the branches of government and puts them in a personal and historical perspective for each presidency. It is sure to make great election year reading, and invites the author to wonder what issues and decisions will come to define our next President’s term. 


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