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

By Korzi, Michael J. | Presidential Studies Quarterly, June 2003 | Go to article overview

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


Korzi, Michael J., Presidential Studies Quarterly


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. …

The rest of this article is only available to active members of Questia

Already a member? Log in now.

Notes for this article

Add a new note
If you are trying to select text to create highlights or citations, remember that you must now click or tap on the first word, and then click or tap on the last word.
One moment ...
Default project is now your active project.
Project items

Items saved from this article

This article has been saved
Highlights (0)
Some of your highlights are legacy items.

Highlights saved before July 30, 2012 will not be displayed on their respective source pages.

You can easily re-create the highlights by opening the book page or article, selecting the text, and clicking “Highlight.”

Citations (0)
Some of your citations are legacy items.

Any citation created before July 30, 2012 will labeled as a “Cited page.” New citations will be saved as cited passages, pages or articles.

We also added the ability to view new citations from your projects or the book or article where you created them.

Notes (0)
Bookmarks (0)

You have no saved items from this article

Project items include:
  • Saved book/article
  • Highlights
  • Quotes/citations
  • Notes
  • Bookmarks
Notes
Cite this article

Cited article

Style
Citations are available only to our active members.
Buy instant access to cite pages or passages in MLA, APA and Chicago citation styles.

(Einhorn, 1992, p. 25)

(Einhorn 25)

1. Lois J. Einhorn, Abraham Lincoln, the Orator: Penetrating the Lincoln Legend (Westport, CT: Greenwood Press, 1992), 25, http://www.questia.com/read/27419298.

Cited article

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

Settings

Typeface
Text size Smaller Larger Reset View mode
Search within

Search within this article

Look up

Look up a word

  • Dictionary
  • Thesaurus
Please submit a word or phrase above.
Print this page

Print this page

Why can't I print more than one page at a time?

Help
Full screen

matching results for page

    Questia reader help

    How to highlight and cite specific passages

    1. Click or tap the first word you want to select.
    2. Click or tap the last word you want to select, and you’ll see everything in between get selected.
    3. You’ll then get a menu of options like creating a highlight or a citation from that passage of text.

    OK, got it!

    Cited passage

    Style
    Citations are available only to our active members.
    Buy instant access to cite pages or passages in MLA, APA and Chicago citation styles.

    "Portraying himself as an honest, ordinary person helped Lincoln identify with his audiences." (Einhorn, 1992, p. 25).

    "Portraying himself as an honest, ordinary person helped Lincoln identify with his audiences." (Einhorn 25)

    "Portraying himself as an honest, ordinary person helped Lincoln identify with his audiences."1

    1. Lois J. Einhorn, Abraham Lincoln, the Orator: Penetrating the Lincoln Legend (Westport, CT: Greenwood Press, 1992), 25, http://www.questia.com/read/27419298.

    Cited passage

    Thanks for trying Questia!

    Please continue trying out our research tools, but please note, full functionality is available only to our active members.

    Your work will be lost once you leave this Web page.

    Buy instant access to save your work.

    Already a member? Log in now.

    Oops!

    An unknown error has occurred. Please click the button below to reload the page. If the problem persists, please try again in a little while.