The Failure of the Founding Fathers: Jefferson, Marshall, and the Rise of Presidential Democracy

Bruce A. Ackerman, Author . Harvard Univ./ Belknap $29.95 (384p) ISBN 978-0-674-01866-2

Focusing on the electoral crisis of 1801, Yale constitutional scholar Ackerman advances a bold new interpretation of early American history. The election is noted for the electoral tie between two Republicans, Thomas Jefferson and Aaron Burr. Jefferson won, of course, but Ackerman's focus is less on the tie than on the sound Republican thrashing of Federalist John Adams. The fracas, he says, revealed a serious flaw in the framework for presidential elections: it couldn't easily accommodate party politics, which the framers had abhorred. The tempestuous jockeying of 1801, the author says, "marks the birth-agony of the plebiscitarian presidency"—that is, having soundly defeated the Federalists, a president claimed for the first time that the people had given him a mandate for broad change. In sketching the consequences of Jefferson's ascendance, Ackerman also rereads the history of the Supreme Court, suggesting that scholars have erred in abstracting the famed Marbury v. Madison decision from the larger political context, i.e., Federalist Chief Justice John Marshall used judicial review to try to limit Jefferson's mandate. Ackerman innovatively recasts the histories of parties, constitutional interpretation and presidential politics. This is not an easy read—indeed, it's quite dense at times, and the argument is complex—but the payoff is worth it. Rarely has a study of American history been more timely. (Oct.)

Reviewed on: 08/01/2005
Release date: 10/01/2005
Genre: Nonfiction
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