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The Presidents and the People

The Presidents and the People


American presidents have often pushed the boundaries established for them by the Constitution; this is the inspirational history of the people who pushed back.

Imagine an American president who imprisoned critics, spread a culture of white supremacy, and tried to upend the law so that he could commit crimes with impunity.


In this propulsive and eminently readable history, constitutional law and political science professor Corey Brettschneider provides a thoroughly researched account of assaults on democracy by not one such president but five. John Adams waged war on the national press of the early republic, overseeing numerous prosecutions of his critics. In the lead-up to the Civil War, James Buchanan colluded with the Supreme Court to deny constitutional personhood to African Americans. A decade later, Andrew Johnson urged violence against his political opponents as he sought to guarantee a white supremacist republic after the Civil War. In the 1910s, Woodrow Wilson modernized, popularized, and nationalized Jim Crow laws. In the 1970s, Richard Nixon committed criminal acts that flowed from his corrupt ideas about presidential power. Through their actions, these presidents illuminated the trip wires that can damage or even destroy our democracy.


Corey Brettschneider shows that these presidents didn’t have the last word; citizen movements brought the United States back from the precipice by appealing to a democratic understanding of the Constitution and pressuring subsequent reform-minded presidents to realize the promise of “We the People.” This is a book about citizens—Frederick Douglass, Ida B. Wells, Daniel Ellsberg, and more—who fought back against presidential abuses of power. Their examples give us hope about the possibilities of restoring a fragile democracy.

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