The Presidents and the Constitution: A Living History, edited by Ken Gormley

Nine stars

First and foremost, a large thank you to NetGalley, Ken Gormley, and NYU Press for providing me with a copy of this book, which allows me to provide you with this review.

Ken Gormley edits this compendium of short historical summaries that permit the reader to better understand the forty-four presidents (Cleveland’s two non-consecutive terms are treated as two, rather than one presidency) that have taken up office in the United States and the connection they had to the U.S. Constitution. As a collection of authors present, the Constitution was not simply a document that oversaw these administrations, but acted as a thread to connect them, as well as to guide these men in the daily task of overseeing America. While no two presidents were alike, neither were the struggles or victories they had with the Constitution, as each interpreted the rules by which they had to abide in unique ways. In numerous chapters, the author will also exemplify the U.S. Supreme Court’s interpretation of key cases that shaped the presidency or the delivery of laws by the president, sometimes expanding on powers and at other times curtailing them significantly. Placing each presidency in a historical context and then overlaying the constitutional hurdles before them, these authors summarize events in a cogent manner while giving the lay reader a better understanding of how America has progressed through more than two centuries of constitutional evolution. A stellar primer for anyone interested in presidential politics and constitutional law, without the highly technical legal jargon to muddy the waters.

Gormley has not only gathered a wonderful collection of authors to pen poignant chapters about each of the American presidents, he also offers a powerful argument to show that the U.S. Constitution is a living document whose interpretation varied throughout the country’s history. While there are threads seen throughout the collection, as Gormley presents in the conclusion, there are also numerous instances where presidents have used precedents set by their predecessors to shape their own ideas and desires while running the country. While a constitution is the set of rules by which the country governs itself, the nuances found therein require insight higher than the political leader of the country. Enter the U.S. Supreme Court, whose voice echoes through all the chapters in the collection. Gormley has ensured that all those who have contributed have kept the Court’s presence known and clear to the reader. Be it to uphold, dismantle, or interpret laws, the Court does not shy away from colouring the discussion, nor should it. No book on the constitutionality of forty-four presidents would be complete without a peppering of judicial interpretation. Gormley has done a wonderful job, so much so that a non-American like me (albeit with a strong passion for politics and constitutions) cannot say enough about this collection.

Kudos, Mr. Gormley for this wonderful collection. I hope that many take the time to better understand the nuances of the American presidencies and the constitution that reined them in.