Our Chief Magistrate and His Powers: A Reconsideration of William Howard Taft's "Whig" Theory of Presidential Leadership

Article excerpt

William Howard Taft, twenty-seventh president of the United States, is primarily remembered as an insignificant leader serving between far more interesting presidents, Theodore Roosevelt and Woodrow Wilson. But Taft is also remembered as offering a rather different understanding of presidential leadership than these two presidents as well; particularly, Taft's so-called "Whig" (or "strict constructionist" or "literalist") view of the presidency is often counterpoised to Roosevelt's "stewardship" theory. For a variety of reasons, Taft's theory of the presidency largely has been relegated to the ash heap of history, seen as anachronistic if not downright reactionary and deleterious.

This article seeks to revise the traditional understanding of Taft's theory of presidential leadership and also the conventional understanding of Whig or Whiggish leadership in general. First, I reexamine Taft's ideas on presidential leadership through an analysis of both his presidential actions and his postpresidential academic writings, particularly his 1925 book Our Chief Magistrate and His Powers. Taft's theory of presidential leadership is often labeled "apolitical," "weak," and "passive," but I argue that his theory is far more subtle and substantial, embodying a conception of leadership that prizes democratic presidential action but within a balanced political context. Next, I show that Taft's theory is rooted in the Whig theory of the presidency that predominated, especially among Whig and Republican partisans, in the nineteenth century after the 1830s. Similarly labeled weak and apolitical, a nuanced examination of nineteenth-century Whig leadership reveals a far more viable option for presidential leadership falling somewhere between the poles of dominant public opinion leader and independent constitutional officer. Finally, I conclude that Taft's theory of the presidency (and Whig theory in general) has much to contribute to contemporary debates on proper presidential leadership.

William Taft's "Whiggish" Theory of the Presidency

It is well-known how the reluctant, judicial Taft came to the presidency. Having faithfully served Theodore Roosevelt (TR) during his administration, when TR declined a third term (at least for the time being), Taft became Roosevelt's "anointed one" for the Republican presidential nomination in 1908. Just as George Bush succeeded Ronald Reagan with the intention of continuing the Reagan legacy, so did Taft assume the presidency in 1909 with the clearly stated purpose to continue the work begun by Roosevelt (see Taft 1989, 213-14). Yet, it would become immediately clear that while Taft may have wanted and attempted to follow Roosevelt's policies as president, he had a fundamentally different understanding of what his role--as president--should be in promoting those policies.

Taft was troubled by what he viewed as Roosevelt's aggressive use of the presidency, but he did not see his role as being simply an administrator or a constitutional clerk. To be sure, in Taft's view, the presidency should not be the driving force in the political system. However, Taft's actions as president and his writings after leaving the office suggest that he did believe a president had an important role to play in the system, a role that fell somewhere between that of a mere administrator or constitutional clerk and a modern, rhetorical leader. Taft carved out a role for the presidency that is well worth another look.

As Donald Anderson (1982, 28) has argued, Taft's political thought had four main principles: support for "constitutional democracy, separation of powers, [and] political parties as essential instruments of democracy," plus a concern with "the dangers of radical majoritarianism." Taft's theory of the presidency is consistent with these main principles. Taft's concern with limiting or at least "balancing" the office of the presidency corresponds to his concerns with constitutional democracy (as opposed to mass or plebiscitarian democracy), the sanctity of the separation of powers, and the problem of radical majoritarianism. …

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