Book Reviews

Three Book Recommendations From Me (Plus Many From My Colleagues)

An excellent fantasy series, an 1100 page biography, and the original meaning of Article II

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As is our annual tradition, the University of Chicago Law School has posted a list of books our faculty are reading and recommend this year. Here are the two I highlighted:

Penric's Demon, by Lois McMaster Bujold

The first in a new series of nine novellas by one of the best living fantasy authors. The main character is possessed by a demon and uses his newfound powers to solve mysteries, heal the sick, and revolutionize the system of scholarly translation. Each story is funny and satisfying on its own, and taken together they build an interesting and theologically complex world.

And Grant, by Ron Chernow

1,100 pages about General and President Ulysses S. Grant, this book was surprisingly gripping despite its length. Part military history, part West Wing intrigue, part meditation on the process of reconciliation and reconstruction, the book is also full of rich legal nuggets and cameo appearances by everybody from Mark Twain to George Custer. The biggest puzzle about Grant is how somebody who was so mediocre at almost everything in his life turned out to be such a historically great general. But he did.

Unfortunately I finished sending in those recommendations just before the mail delivered a copy of Michael McConnell's blockbuster book on the original understanding of the presidency, The President Who Would Not Be King. I hope to have more to say about it soon, but in the meantime, here's the book description:

One of the most vexing questions for the framers of the Constitution was how to create a vigorous and independent executive without making him king. In today's divided public square, presidential power has never been more contested. The President Who Would Not Be King cuts through the partisan rancor to reveal what the Constitution really tells us about the powers of the president.

Michael McConnell provides a comprehensive account of the drafting of presidential powers. Because the framers met behind closed doors and left no records of their deliberations, close attention must be given to their successive drafts. McConnell shows how the framers worked from a mental list of the powers of the British monarch, and consciously decided which powers to strip from the presidency to avoid tyranny. He examines each of these powers in turn, explaining how they were understood at the time of the founding, and goes on to provide a framework for evaluating separation of powers claims, distinguishing between powers that are subject to congressional control and those in which the president has full discretion.

Based on the Tanner Lectures at Princeton University, The President Who Would Not Be King restores the original vision of the framers, showing how the Constitution restrains the excesses of an imperial presidency while empowering the executive to govern effectively.

NEXT: Are Mormons Christians?

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  1. If you like Penric, (I’ve only read the first three books so far, but they ARE good.) Bujold has extended the Sharing Knife series, too.

    The whole world of five gods series is excellent, but I’ve never known Bujold to write a bad book.

      1. My wife and I have both enjoyed the Penric books we have gotten from the library. Build can certainly write.

        1. Bujold. Spell correct strikes again.

          Get an edit function, Reason.

        2. She’s insidious: I started reading space opera in the Vorsigian series, and five books later I realized I was reading romance novels.

          That’s some scary writing skill to pull that off.

  2. “The biggest puzzle about Grant is how somebody who was so mediocre at almost everything in his life turned out to be such a historically great general. But he did.”

    What I was told is that as general he simply had an insight denied to the other generals – that the North could win by sustaining heavy casualties better than the South. So he fought battle after battle – the North had the economy and the population to replace casualties, while the South got weaker and weaker.

    What does Chernow think?

    1. Chernow’s book is really good and also shows that Grant probably got a bad rap for his failures. He was pretty good at stuff when he focused on things, but had a drinking problem.

      I don’t think Grant was unique in having that insight. Sherman had it too. The problem was it wasn’t what the politicians wanted to hear, so they were shipped out west (in Grant’s case) or out of the army entirely (in Sherman’s case) until the politicians had exhausted all other alternatives.

  3. I’ve read Chernow. Well written and a good follow up to Jean Edward Smith’s groundbreaking bio in bringing out the positive aspects of Grant’s presidency. However not critical enough in my opinion.

  4. One wonders if this sentence

    “The President Who Would Not Be King restores the original vision of the framers, showing how the Constitution restrains the excesses of an imperial presidency while empowering the executive to govern effectively.”

    is still relevant given the Trump presidency. Just a few instances,

    1. Trump spending money specifically denied to him by Congress
    2. Trump violating the Emoluments clause with impunity.
    3. Trump denying people entry to the nation based on religion.
    4. Trump attempting to bribe a foreign leader to obtain ‘dirt’ on his opponent.
    5. Trump claiming the President can do anything.
    6. Trump using temporary appointments to get around the requirement that the Senate confirm certain appointees.

    There is also the problem, sanctioned by the Courts, that the Congress has delegated much of its constitutional authority (taxes, war powers, etc) to the Executive.

    Well, you get the picture. And the fact that Trump tried, and so far failed, to get Republican state legislatures to overturn an election, supported by a large number of Republicans does not leave one optimistic. An unrestrained President in the future may well occur if there is a competent would be dictator instead of Trump in the White House.

    1. If you think it all started with Trump — if you think all previous Presidents trod lightly — boy o boy have I got a complete set of all the bridges to sell you for a low low price!

      1. Not even just in the USA. This is a recurrent theme in presidential systems generally.

    2. Let’s take your outrages apart, shall we?

      1. Trump spending money specifically denied to him by Congress

      I recall the courts thumping him so he did not spend all the money he wanted, and presumably the rest passed muster with the courts, who have more authority than you to decide that. I’d also bet a paycheck that most past Presidents have found plenty of wiggle room, especially when cloaked by national security.

      2. Trump violating the Emoluments clause with impunity.

      Pretty much universally laughed out of the courts as a wet dream.

      3. Trump denying people entry to the nation based on religion.

      Let’s not forget FDR’s and Wilson’s racism.

      4. Trump attempting to bribe a foreign leader to obtain ‘dirt’ on his opponent.

      Said ‘dirt’ was in fact the very thing you complain of — VP Biden paid for favors done for his son.

      5. Trump claiming the President can do anything.

      Ooooh, nasty words! He ‘claimed’ something! Don’t forget Obama’s pen and phone, Hillary’s email servers, and every President everywhere in all time.

      6. Trump using temporary appointments to get around the requirement that the Senate confirm certain appointees.

      Yet it was Obama who lost several Supreme Court cases for illegal recess appointments.

      You left out all the unconstitutional wars Trump started. Oh wait, that was Obama, Bush, Clinton, Bush, Reagan, Nixon, LBJ, Truman. I don’t know if you want to count Eisenhower’s advisors in Vietnam or JFK’s continuation of said advisors. Then there are the countless banana republic wars, the Indian wars, but why go back a century when you only have to go back 4-12 years?

      You left out the unconstitutional gut and amend to pass Obamacare, the illegal Obamacare payments which Trump got in trouble for stopping, the illegal DACA which Trump got in trouble for stopping, the holy mackerel unconstitutional Title IX Dear colleague letter which Trump got yelled at for rescinding, the illegal oceanic national monument declaration, …

  5. “Based on the Tanner Lectures at Princeton University, The President Who Would Not Be King restores the original vision of the framers, showing how the Constitution restrains the excesses of an imperial presidency while empowering the executive to govern effectively.”

    Time for the Conspirators and other clingers to pause briefly (that’s what they figure, at least) in their ‘unitary executive’ campaign.

    1. Based on the summary. I don’t see any indication that Prof. McConnell’s analysis is inconsistent with a unitary executive theory. (Nor does that seem to be a particular penchant of the conspirators, but I could be misremembering.)

      1. It’s worth remembering that the unitary executive theory is a bit of a motte and bailey.

        There’s a very defensible argument that executive power is unitary, in the sense that Congress cannot impose certain rules that prevent the President and presidential appointees from doing their constitutional duties. There are counter-arguments, but that’s the sort of scholarly “unitary executive”.

        But the expression has also used to make a much more far reaching claim, especially during the Bush 43 years but also during other presidencies, that the President is basically all powerful. It certainly sounds like McConnell is refuting that.

        And a more wistful comment- it’s interesting that conservative scholars are discovering limits on presidential power just before Biden’s inauguration.

    2. Unitary executive theory says only that the President is entitled to exercise the power of the entire executive branch, because it is granted him, and only delegated to others. It says nothing about the legitimate extent of that power.

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