The Presidents and the People Five Leaders Who Threatened Democracy and the Citizens Who Fought to Defend It

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

Available July 02, 2024

"[A]n essential survey… [The Presidents and the People] is an invaluable breakdown of present-day concerns in an illuminating historical context."

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.

"Corey Brettschneider traces a stunning pattern right across American history. Again and again, brave citizens wielded the Constitution against power, arrogance, and racism to save the republic. The Presidents and the People challenges our conventional wisdom about the presidents, the people, the courts, and democracy itself. Deeply researched, beautifully written, dramatic, wise, and inspiring—a must-read for scholars, citizens, and anyone interested in how the United States really works." —James A. Morone, author of Hellfire Nation and Republic of Wrath

"Rarely can a book be called indispensable, but here the term applies. At a time when aspiring autocrats appear to be winning across the globe, it is essential to remind citizens why they should not lose hope. With deft sketches from US history, one of our finest constitutional theorists demonstrates how so-called ordinary people, rather than having to rely on judges or professional politicians to save the system, can themselves play a crucial role in the process of recovering democracy." —Jan-Werner Müller, Professor of Social Sciences and Politics, Princeton University, and author of What is Populism?

"An inspired history dramatically rendered: the crises five past presidents inflicted on the nation and the moral sense, political skill, and persistence the people mustered to restore constitutional order. Richard Nixon’s abuse of power, however, eluded recovery—why? The Presidents and the People supplies a guide and issues a warning." —Nancy L. Rosenblum, Senator Joseph Clark Research Professor of Ethics in Politics and Government, Harvard University, emerita

Corey Brettschneider
Corey Brettschneider
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Corey Brettschneider is professor of political science at Brown University, where he teaches constitutional law and politics, as well as visiting professor of law at Fordham Law School. He has also been a visiting professor at Harvard Law School and the University of Chicago Law School. His recent writing has appeared in the New York Times, Politico, and the Washington Post. His new book is The Oath and The Office: A Guide to the Constitution for Future Presidents, which Kirkus calls “vital reading for all Americans.” Brettschneider is frequently interviewed about constitutional issues on BBC, Sirius XM, and other media outlets. He is also the author of two books about constitutional law and civil liberties and numerous articles that appear in top academic journals and law reviews. His constitutional law casebook is widely used in classrooms throughout the United States. Brettschneider holds a PhD in Politics from Princeton and a JD from Stanford Law School.