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Supreme Power: Franklin Roosevelt vs. the Supreme Court Hardcover – March 22, 2010

4.5 out of 5 stars 33 customer reviews

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Editorial Reviews

From Booklist

Lengthier than FDR vs. the Constitution, by Burt Solomon (2009), an account of the 1937 political fracas between the president, the Supreme Court, and the Senate, Shesol’s history of the same episode expands with detail about the origin of Roosevelt’s proposal to reorganize the federal judiciary. It sprang from liberals’ infuriation with the conservative Court’s invalidation of some New Deal programs; Shesol’s quotations of New Dealers’ diaries well convey the incandescence of their fury. He also attends to Washington’s sociopolitical atmosphere, such as the Gridiron Dinner’s spoofs of the Supremes and FDR’s landslide reelection, which set the stage for Roosevelt’s hubristic moment. After providing background to FDR’s reform plan, which its opponents (and history) branded a court-packing scheme, Shesol continues with a narrative of the political battle that erupted. Characterizing defining traits of the main combatants—FDR, Chief Justice Charles Hughes, and Senator Burt Wheeler—Shesol skillfully illustrates the nexus of personality and principle, with the New Deal and the Constitution being perceived as at stake. A book sure to recruit history readers, especially those eyeing present political currents. --Gilbert Taylor


Supreme Power is by far the most detailed―and most riveting―account of this extraordinary event.... an impressive and engaging book―an excellent work of narrative history. It is deeply researched and beautifully written. (The New York Times Book Review)

Starred Review. With insight and more than occasional humor, Shesol covers all aspects of the controversy, deftly explaining the issues at stake in a variety of legal opinions and shrewdly analyzing the intra-Court dynamics. (Kirkus Reviews)

[T]imely, for the light it casts on the politics of our current economic situation and on the situation itself. The book is also splendid to read. It will fascinate anyone who is interested in Roosevelt, the New Deal, the 1930s, Congress, the presidency, the Great Depression, judges, the Supreme Court, or constitutional law. (The New Republic)

Supreme Power is an extraordinary book that rings with relevance for our time. One of the most eloquent historians of his generation, Jeff Shesol has a deep understanding of the presidency, and the interplay of politics, personalities, and principles, all of which he brings to life in this rich, remarkable book. Full of surprises and new insights―each rendered in clear and confident prose – this book is about more than FDR’s plan to pack the Court. It’s about America’s enduring struggle to reconcile our founders’ ideals with conflicting challenges in our constant pursuit to build a more perfect union. (President Bill Clinton)

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Product Details

  • Hardcover: 656 pages
  • Publisher: W. W. Norton & Company; 1 edition (March 22, 2010)
  • Language: English
  • ISBN-10: 0393064743
  • ISBN-13: 978-0393064742
  • Product Dimensions: 6.5 x 1.8 x 9.5 inches
  • Shipping Weight: 2.4 pounds (View shipping rates and policies)
  • Average Customer Review: 4.5 out of 5 stars  See all reviews (33 customer reviews)
  • Amazon Best Sellers Rank: #433,741 in Books (See Top 100 in Books)

Customer Reviews

Top Customer Reviews

By Arnold VINE VOICE on May 26, 2010
Format: Hardcover Verified Purchase
In Supreme Power: Franklin Roosevelt vs. the Supreme Court, Jeff Shesol manages to do something rare: combine excellent research and a gripping narrative. (For those familiar with Rick Perlstein's Before the Storm: Barry Goldwater and the Unmaking of the American Consensus, I think the writing style and amount of detail are similar). The book deals with Franklin D. Roosevelt's attempt to pack the Supreme Court with extra justices in 1937 - an attempt that ultimately failed and, unfortunately, few people remember today. Shesol brings this important episode in our history to life.

First of all, Shesol resists the temptation of many historians to make the past prologue. He doesn't recite the whole history of the U.S. Supreme Court, nor does he stretch historical analogies to draw "lessons" or "comparisons" for today. Rather, Supreme Power stays focused like a laser on the subject of the book, beginning in 1932 with FDR's election. This allows Shesol to really delve into detail, spending almost all of the book's 530 pages on FDR and the court. (Incidentally, if you know absolutely nothing about the Supreme Court or its history, you might want to scan wikipedia quickly before reading this book).

And the detail in the book is extraordinary.
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Format: Hardcover Verified Purchase
There are a number of excellent books on the battle over the 1937 Court packing plan put forward by President Roosevelt in 1937 by, for example, Marian C. McKenna, Burt Solomon, and William E. Leuchtenburg. Each book takes a slightly different approach from the others; combined they afford an expansive and thorough view of this fascinating episode. This most recent recounting of the tale stands high, in my opinion, even in this distinguished group. For one thing, the author keeps his primary focus at all times where it should be: on FDR, his Attorney General Homer Cummings, and the FDR intimate circle of advisors: Tommy the Cork, Harold Ickes, Ben Cohen, Warner Gardner, James Roosevelt and Felix Frankfurter. Moreover, the author labors hard to give us the most complete peek into what was going on inside the Court during this period. This involves extensive manuscript research, reviews of published letters and unpublished diaries, information drawn from judicial biographies, and extensive press research. By its very secret nature, we will never know as much as we would like about what was taking place within the Court, but this book offers us certainly the most complete picture to date. Another strong advantage of the book is that the author sequentially introduces each element (and character) of the story so that the reader is not overwhelmed with everything (and massive detail) occurring all at once. This makes it much easier to understand what is happening since the reader can build upon what has already been explained as each new development takes place.

I found the book particularly helpful in its depiction of the key players in the White House, Congress, among interest groups such as the Liberty League, and within the Court itself.
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Format: Hardcover
Mr. Shesol has created a wonderful and readable account of politics in the 1930's. Even the chapter titles are colorful and implies the high stakes involved in the political showdown between the liberal President and the conservative Supreme Court. The author does not begin his tale in 1937 (the year of the court-packing political battle), but in 1932 with Roosevelt's election in a time of economic turmoil. He clearly covers Roosevelt's first term with the New Deal programs that were overturned by the Supreme Court, the 1936 landslide victory by Roosevelt and then his political decision to deal with all the 5-4 and 6-3 court rulings that he lost. With 500+ pages of text and 100 pages of supporting documentation/index, this is an excellent work of political history.
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Format: Hardcover
The effort by Franklin Roosevelt to "pack" the Supreme Court in 1937 is regarded today as one of the greatest political missteps ever made by a president. Devised in response to the Court's rejection of New Deal legislation, it galvanized a seemingly moribund conservative opposition and cost Roosevelt the enormous momentum he possessed coming out of his landslide 1936 reelection victory. Jeff Shesol does not dispute this conclusion, but instead seeks to explain the background to the plan and the course of the battle over it. In doing so, he has provided an absorbing account that illuminates many forgotten or overlooked aspects of the dispute.

Shesol traces the origins of the conflict to the very beginning of Roosevelt's presidency. From the first he and his administration were concerned about the fate of the New Deal when it was subjected to judicial review, both because of the dubious nature of much of the emergency legislation and because of the traditional role the Supreme Court had played in striking down economic regulation. Here the author does a good job of presenting the Court, showing how in spite of assumptions about its conservatism it nonetheless handed down a number of "liberal" decisions that gave many New Dealers cause for hope. The famous decision in the Schecter case ended causes for such hopes, and as the frustration over the Court mounted Roosevelt and his aides began to search for a solution to the Court's immovability.

Though numerous approaches were considered, ultimately Roosevelt settled on a plan to expand the number of justices on the Court in order to appoint more members sympathetic to the New Deal.
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