July 02, 2024

The Presidents and the People

By Corey Brettschneider
Review by
Corey Brettschneider’s carefully researched The Presidents and the People chronicles American heads of state who abused their power, and people who stood up to them.
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Since the ratification of the U.S. Constitution in 1788, Americans have spent much time interpreting its meaning. As Corey Brettschneider, a professor at Brown University who teaches constitutional law and politics, points out in his informative and stimulating The Presidents and the People: Five Leaders Who Threatened Democracy and the Citizens Who Fought to Defend It, “two ingredients—popular sovereignty and a powerful executive—are an odd pair for the same constitutional system.” For many reasons, presidents can be tempted to overreach, but in our democracy, the legitimacy of the government comes from the preamble to the Constitution: “We the people.” The author reminds us that “The Supreme Court is not the final arbiter of constitutional meaning” and “constitutional rights throughout American history are won by citizens prevailing upon the political branches, not by courts proclaiming them out of thin air.”

This carefully researched book explores in detail how presidents in different eras abused their power. The Presidents and the People presents a litany of their misdeeds. When John Adams signed the Sedition Act in 1798, he targeted editors of newspapers owned by his political opponents, and at least 126 defendants were prosecuted as a result. The policies of James Buchanan, Andrew Johnson and Woodrow Wilson advanced slavery, guaranteed white supremacy after the Civil War and nationalized Jim Crow, respectively. And then there’s Richard Nixon, who ordered his aides to abscond with potentially damning evidence that proved he undermined democracy in the wake of the discovery of the Pentagon Papers. 

But concerned individuals who responded to these presidents’ anti-democratic approaches are, Brettschneider writes, “a testament to the power of citizens to push past authoritarian moments toward democratic ones.” No one of them is more important than Frederick Douglass, who is featured prominently in four separate chapters. His influence on Abraham Lincoln and Ulysses S. Grant was crucial, as was his decision to support the Constitution rather than abandon it as other abolitionists advocated. Others who fought against abuse include journalists William Monroe Trotter and Ida B. Wells, Thurgood Marshall, Martin Luther King Jr. and the Pentagon Papers whistleblower Daniel Ellsberg. 

These Americans stand as beacons of decency and hope, who sought to see the Constitution’s promise of “We the people” secured. Anyone interested in the ups and downs of American history should be inspired by reading about the courageous citizens who challenged powerful leaders and changed the direction of the nation.  

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The Presidents and the People

The Presidents and the People

By Corey Brettschneider
ISBN 9781324006275

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