Academic journal article Presidential Studies Quarterly

William McKinley and the Rhetorical Presidency

Academic journal article Presidential Studies Quarterly

William McKinley and the Rhetorical Presidency

Article excerpt

The rise of the "rhetorical presidency" in the early 1900s is widely seen as a pivotal development of that office. According to the original rhetorical presidency theory, Theodore Roosevelt and Woodrow Wilson diverged from the traditional mode of presidential leadership and guided the institution in a starkly different, more visible, and popular direction rooted in public speaking. While Roosevelt and Wilson are certainly worthy of the attention they have received in transforming the office, William McKinley's status as a key player in the development of the rhetorical presidency has been overlooked. Jeffrey K. Tulis, the rhetorical presidency's standard-bearer, relegated McKinley to an unremarkable position emblematic of the nineteenth-century chief executive (1987, 87). Mel Laracey has employed evidence from an 1899 speaking tour to argue that Tulis's treatment of McKinley is wrong (2002, 134). While Tulis admits to making a mistake on certain points concerning McKinley, he maintains that, on the whole, McKinley's rhetoric still failed to meet modern rhetorical standards (2007, 487-88).

This article analyzes a set of speeches from the fall of 1898 that both Tulis and Laracey overlook. This new evidence reinforces Laracey's (2002) assertions regarding

McKinley's policy rhetoric, demonstrates that such speech was not limited to a single tour, and casts further doubt on Tulis's (1987, 2007, 2008) treatment of McKinley. It also introduces a new, partisan aspect of his rhetoric. President McKinley's rhetoric during, and press coverage of, his speaking tour following the Spanish-American War and just ahead of the 1898 midterm election showcases a president immersed in the kind of popular leadership that became customary in the twentieth century--specifically, partisan campaigning and attempting to sway public opinion on a policy issue. Therefore, McKinley deserves a place alongside his two more heralded, Progressive successors as a central figure in the development of the rhetorical presidency.

The Rhetorical Presidency Canon

Initially developed in the 1980s, the rhetorical presidency scholarship is central to the study of America's executive branch, as is evident in even a brief review of its vast literature (e.g., Ceaser et al. 1982; Dorsey 2002; Ellis 1998b; Garsten 2007; Lim 2002, 2008; Medhurst 1996; Mellow 2007; Rubenstein 2007; Sheingate 2007). The original thesis is rooted in the idea that the presidency underwent a key developmental shift during the Progressive Era. (1) Tulis's landmark work distinguishes between the "old way" and the "new way" of presidential speech. "Since the presidencies of Theodore Roosevelt and Woodrow Wilson," Tulis asserts, "popular or mass rhetoric has become a principle tool of presidential governance" (1987, 4). "New way" presidents engage in practices that were once taboo: speaking directly to the people instead of Congress, giving more speeches and fewer written messages, addressing public policy issues, and routinely engaging in partisan politics (e.g., campaigning). This shift is important because popular rhetoric poses a dilemma for constitutional governance. Public appeals run the risk of undercutting the constitutionally deliberative function of the government, particularly Congress, and allow public opinion to become the source of presidential authority (Tulis 2007, 482-83).

This model runs counter to the founders' intentions. While the Articles of Confederation aptly demonstrated the need for executive power, the founders recognized its inherent danger. Alexander Hamilton's inaugural essay in The Federalist highlighted the concern:

   {A} dangerous ambition more often lurks behind the specious mask of
   zeal for the rights of the people than under the forbidden
   appearance of zeal for the firmness and efficiency of government.
   History will teach us that the former has been found a much more
   certain road to the introduction of despotism than the latter, and
   that of those men who have overturned the liberties of republics,
   the greatest number have begun their career by paying an obsequious
   court to the people; commencing demagogues, and ending tyrants. … 
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