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Michael Gerhardt selects a most interesting subject for his book The Forgotten Presidents: Their Untold Constitutional Legacy. His subjects are twelve men who have occupied the oval office, but who are not among the most remembered. Ever the academic, Gerhardt does not select his subjects haphazardly, but uses quite a comprehensive methodology, one to which he dedicates an entire chapter at the end of the book to explain the objectivity of his selection process. His final contestants are Martin Van Buren, William Henry Harrison, John Tyler, Zachary Taylor, Millard Fillmore, Franklin Pierce, Chester Alan Arthur, Grover Cleveland (in two non-consecutive chapters, like his presidency), Benjamin Harrison, William Howard Taft, Calvin Coolidge and Jimmy Carter.


Each of these presidents have interesting and forgotten stories to tell, but this is not a biographic anthology. It is an analytical, not an anecdotal, review of their presidencies from the standpoint of the constitutional scholar. Gerhardt undertakes an academic review of each presidency and the accomplishments and failures of each man on a number of subjects which define their constitutional legacies. These include how each saw the division of responsibilities between the executive and legislative branches, how they handled appointments to the federal courts, their use of the veto, exercise of presidential pardon power, federalism and states rights, performance on the international stage and a number of other similar criteria.

For the reader interested in the office of the presidency, the book is an interesting one with some surprising assessments. For example Gerhardt disagrees with the common historical conclusion that the 19th century era following Andrew Johnson (Abraham Lincoln excluded) produced a series of weak presidents. A number of virtually unknown presidents garner high marks from the author for fighting the good fight with congress in a number of important constitutional fields. These include Chester Alan Arthur, William Henry Harrison, Millard Fillmore, Benjamin Harrison and William Howard Taft. Gerhardt is more critical of Franklin Pierce and Jimmy Carter, especially in the latter's lack of vision in entering the office and in alienating congress while attempting to achieve great and noble goals.


The book is extremely well researched. Gerhardt has read extensively and, as every good author should, he has considered an amazing amount of source material, to the point where, when historians differ on a point, Gerhardt boldly states that he has "corrected" their "mistaken assertions." This book is very pedantic and academic in style, with little intimate information on each president other than general commonly known conclusions (e.g. Franklin Pierce entered the presidency very despondent after the recent tragic death of his young son Benny.) One's enjoyment of this book will depend on what aspect of the forgotten presidents most interests the reader. It is not a page turner or a conversation piece, but for the reader with a keen interest in constitutional history, it is an essential read.


( 4 comments — Leave a comment )
Jul. 27th, 2013 09:10 pm (UTC)
I will most probably be too lazy to take the necessary steps for procuring this book, although I'm very fond of authors who dare speak about correcting mistaken assertions of others. A pedantic and academic style won't deter me if it does not come together with opinionlessnes.

Else I'm astonished what a good-looker van Buren is in this special assembly of Presidents - and pleased that I did not find Polk among them.
Jul. 27th, 2013 10:21 pm (UTC)
As I'm sure you know, Polk is often ranked high as one of the best presidents, given all he accomplished. Still, I could see how some could consider him to be "forgotten." Conversely, James Buchanan was such a terrible president that there was nothing good the author could think of to devote a chapter to him.
Jul. 28th, 2013 09:14 pm (UTC)
Buchanan made a cameo in a book I just finished "Travels in Siberia." He didn't necessarily make any impact in his time in Russia....but it was the most positive depiction I've ever seen of him.....usually anything about Jimmy B. is him sitting on his hands while the Union hemorrhages Southern states.

Do agree that Polk is under appreciated especially considering the sheer amount he managed to get accomplished with just one term.
Jul. 28th, 2013 11:58 pm (UTC)
I certainly agree that Polk is under appreciated. He's not as well known as he should be, but he's not as "forgotten" as we might think. One of Gerhardt's criteria for selecting who was "forgotten" was the number of biographies written about that president in the Library of Congress. I have quite a few about him in my own potus_geeks library, and in the past few years alone, some very good ones have been written about him, for example by Robert Merry and Walter Bornemann, as well as the 2011 book about the Mexican War entitled A Wicked War: Polk, Clay, Lincoln, and the 1846 U.S. Invasion of Mexico. But I really think that the credit for Polk not being forgotten really should go to They Might Be Giants.
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