The Presidency and the Politics of Racial Inequality: Nation-Keeping from 1831 to 1965

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The Presidency and the Politics of Racial Inequality: Nation-Keeping from 1831 to 1965. By Russell L. Riley. Power, Conflict, and Democracy: American Politics into the Twenty-First Century. (New York: Columbia University Press, c. 1999. Pp. xvi, 373. Paper, $22.50, ISBN 0-231-10723-4; cloth, $49.50, ISBN 0-231-10722-6.)

That a book on this subject ends with a superbly and predictably unmajestic seven-line quotation from Warren Harding of all people, is oddly appropriate. The first five of these words ("Abraham Lincoln was no superman ...") suggest that Americans ought not expect much help along the color line from the White House. But of course we do, principally because cultural memory on the subject seems to be based solely on the Abraham Lincoln and John F. Kennedy-Lyndon B. Johnson eras, when presidential leadership helped topple slavery and Jim Crow. To correct this distorted view and rescue history from historians (among others), the political scientist Russell Riley draws on a larger sampling of presidents. He hopes in the name of social science "to increase the relevant `N,' [and] to overcome the severe handicap of idiosyncrasy [that] presidential scholarship faces" (p. 9). This means that the author will move beyond the common approaches that focus either on the big three (Lincoln, Kennedy, Johnson) or on the "modern" presidency (that is, from Franklin D. Roosevelt forward).

Riley therefore devotes two chapters to the abolition-era White House and one each to Lincoln, Rutherford B. …