9780199967797Asked to rattle off a list of the great presidents, and you’re unlikely to mention Franklin Pierce, Millard Fillmore, Chester Arthur, or Benjamin Harrison. UNC-Chapel Hill constitutional law professor Michael Gerhardt does not argue in his new book, The Forgotten Presidents, that these men — or any of the other eight presidents profiled — should be considered great. But Gerhardt does explain why all dozen presidents in the book had significant constitutional impacts.

Each helped define the president’s role in public policy, especially the relationship between the president and the legislative and judicial branches of the federal government. Among the more fascinating passages is one discussing the man George Will once dubbed the last great Democratic president: Grover Cleveland.

The likely reason that Cleveland had meddled with the tariff was his strong belief that the president had the duty to block Congress from enacting legislation favoring special interests, exceeding the boundaries of its powers, or interfering with the independence of the executive branch. Cleveland objected to higher tariffs because he saw them as another form of favoritism for domestic businesses and manufacturers.

Throughout his presidency, Cleveland repeatedly emphasized the president’s duty to protect the American people from having the federal government play favorites, spend federal money to give special benefits to certain groups, or exceed the boundaries of its powers. In his inaugural address, he explained, “It is the duty of those serving the people in public place to closely limit public expenditures to the actual needs of the Government economically administered, because this bounds the right of the government to exact tribute from the earnings of labor or the property of the citizens, and because public extravagance begets extravagance among the people.”

It sounds as if Cleveland might have appreciated efforts to root out Carolina Cronyism.