Presidents and Civil Liberties from Wilson to Obama: A Story of Poor Custodians.

Author:Littlejohn, Jeffrey L.
Position:Book review

Presidents and Civil Liberties from Wilson to Obama: A Story of Poor Custodians. By Samuel Walker. New York: Cambridge University Press, 2012. 546 pp.

In this comprehensive examination of 17 modern U.S. presidents and their individual records on civil liberties, historian Samuel Walker finds that most, if not all, of the chief executives during the last 100 years were "poor custodians of the Bill of Rights" (p. 2). Beginning with Woodrow Wilson and the civil liberties issues that arose during World War I, Walker shows how presidents have allowed majoritarian pressures, wartime hysteria, security concerns, and in some cases, outright discrimination to shape their approach to the first 10 amendments. As a former board member of the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) and the author of In Defense of American Liberties: A History of the ACLU (New York: Oxford University Press, 1990), Walker is particularly well suited for this study. Although a self-declared liberal Democrat, his analysis is even handed, and he reserves some of his harshest criticism for Democratic presidents who led the nation during wartime.

The opening chapters of Walker's book--grouped in a section called "The Early Years"--examine the period from 1913 to 1945. During this brief but crucial era, Woodrow Wilson, Warren Harding, Calvin Coolidge, Herbert Hoover, and Franklin Roosevelt oversaw two global wars, a domestic debate over "Americanism," and the worst economic depression in the nation's history. As a result, these presidents collectively expanded the size and scope of the federal government, which in turn affected the individual liberties of the American people. In Walker's opinion, Woodrow Wilson was "among the worst of all modern presidents" (p. 10) on civil liberties because he supported a ban on antiwar publications, segregated the civil service, and approved the prosecution of people under the infamous Espionage and Sedition Acts during World War I. After the conflict, however, Harding, Coolidge, and Hoover rolled back some of Wilson's abuses and presented a "more sympathetic {approach} to civil liberties," even offering "cautious support for an anti-lynching law and the ERA (Equal Rights Amendment)" (p. 48). Yet, Walker finds that President Roosevelt ironically reversed this trend, creating one of the most "contradictory" records of any chief executive on civil liberties. Although Roosevelt offered a forward-looking, civil libertarian position on the freedom...

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