Policy speech in the nineteenth century rhetorical presidency: the case of Zachary Taylor's 1849 tour.

Author:Ellis, Richard J.

Few books have had a greater influence on the study of the historical development of the American presidency than Jeffrey Tulis's The Rhetorical Presidency (1987). Of the books published in the last quarter century, perhaps only Stephen Skowronek's The Politics Presidents Make (1993) and Samuel Kernell's Going Public (1986) have had a comparable impact. The term "rhetorical presidency," first coined in a 1981 article by James Ceaser, Glen Thurow, Jeffrey Tulis, and Joseph Bessette, has entered the vocabulary of almost all political scientists, and occasionally even seeps into popular discourse.

The prominence of the rhetorical presidency concept owes a great deal to the centrality of rhetoric in the modern presidency. "Today," as Tulis points out, "it is taken for granted that presidents have a duty to defend themselves publicly, to promote policy initiatives nationwide, and to inspirit the population" (1987, 4). When presidents are in political trouble or want something, they make a speech. When they find Congress reluctant to follow their lead, they appeal directly to the people. Rhetoric is presumed to be the cure for whatever ails a president. (1)

A central argument of The Rhetorical Presidency is that today's rhetorical presidency represents a "fundamental transformation"--rather than a "logical development" (7)--of the constitutional presidency established by the founders. The framers, according to Tulis, worried "especially about the danger that a powerful executive might pose to the system if power were derived from the role of popular leader" (27). Demagoguery, always a danger in a democracy, was especially perilous in the executive for it was a sure path to tyranny. The framers intended presidential power to be derived from the grants of authority in the Constitution and not to depend on rhetorical appeals to the people.

In Tulis's telling, the figures chiefly responsible for the seismic shift from the "Old Way" to the "New Way" are Theodore Roosevelt and especially Woodrow Wilson. Although Roosevelt made pioneering popular appeals, Tulis argues they were largely designed to shore up the Old Way by forestalling demagoguery and sustaining representative deliberation. It is Wilson, in Tulis's telling, who recast the rhetorical foundations of the presidency and thus permanently altered the character of the American political system.

According to Tulis, the nineteenth-century presidency "embodied" the founders' proscriptions against the rhetorical presidency (9). Official presidential rhetoric in the nineteenth century reflected the original constitutional theory in two ways. First, policy speech--specifically the State of the Union message--was to be communicated to Congress and, beginning with Jefferson at least, in writing. Second, rhetoric that was directed primarily to the people, such as inaugural addresses and proclamations, emphasized general constitutional principles and avoided specific policy proposals. Furthermore, Tulis maintains that "unofficial" or informal nineteenth-century presidential rhetoric was also largely consistent with these original proscriptions; such speeches were generally few in number and limited to vague, innocuous utterances that avoided specific policies or partisan debates. (2) The only nineteenth-century president to deviate significantly from these rhetorical norms, according to Tulis, was Andrew Johnson, whose transgression of accepted norms produced an impeachment charge of improper rhetoric and thus stands as the exception that proves the rule.

In recent years a number of books and articles have been published that have chipped away at aspects of the rhetorical presidency thesis, particularly at Tulis's portrayal of the nineteenth-century Old Way. Instead of seeing the rhetorical presidency as an original creation of Roosevelt and Wilson, recent scholarship has tended to accent the gradual development of the rhetorical presidency throughout the nineteenth century. Moreover, whereas Tulis portrayed the nineteenth-century presidency as embodying the framers' constitutional vision, recent research has accentuated the ways in which the nineteenth-century presidency departed from that original vision by making the presidency "a seat of popular leadership" (Korzi 2004; also see Ellis 1998a; Bimes 1999; Laracey 2002; and Hoffman 2002).

Many of these revisionist efforts have rested on an examination of types of presidential communications that Tulis did not address. Richard Ellis (1998b), for instance, focuses on presidential acceptance addresses and speeches and finds a gradual evolution from Old Way to New Way, a transition in which neither Roosevelt nor Wilson emerge as important innovators. Mel Laracey (2002, also see 1998), to take another example, examines the ways in which nineteenth-century presidents used administration newspapers to communicate their policy positions to the people or at least to their fellow partisans. But while these efforts give a fuller picture of nineteenth-century presidential communications, a more direct test of Tulis's thesis is to examine the same popular rhetoric that Tulis surveyed. (3)

In this article we evaluate Tulis's portrayal of the nineteenth-century Old Way by focusing closely on a single presidential tour, one taken by Zachary Taylor in the summer of 1849. We select Taylor because by Tulis's own account Taylor's tour should provide one of the clearest illustrations of the rhetorical patterns of the Old Way. According to Tulis, "Taylor continued the laconic mode of leadership" that characterized nineteenth-century presidents (1987, 77). By Tulis's count, Taylor's 20 speeches on tour were limited to the purpose of expressing "greetings, [and] 'thank you[s]' for [the] welcome" the president received (66). (4) Indeed, according to Tulis, Taylor "even further narrowed one hitherto acceptable function of the presidential tour" by declaring that "his purpose [was] to see that section of the country, its people, and its need, that he went to see, not to be seen, and had no desire for public receptions" (77; emphasis in original). (5)

Taylor, moreover, was an adherent of the Whig party, which emerged out of opposition to Andrew Jackson's 1832 veto of the United States Bank. If any nineteenth-century party embodied the founders' fear that "a powerful executive might pose to the system if power were derived from the role of popular leader" it was the Whig party. The Whigs' primary objection to Jackson's bank veto, as historian Lynn Marshall points out, was that its direct appeal to the electorate bypassed "established political leaders" (1967, 49). The Whigs objected strenuously to Jackson's claim to have a mandate from the people to pursue his policies and they raised the same objections to Polk's effort to turn his 1844 election into a "power-generating event" (Ellis and Kirk 1995). (6) As a candidate Taylor faithfully toed the Whig line. "The will of the people, as expressed through the Representatives in Congress," Taylor insisted, "ought to be ... carried out and respected by the Executive" (Schlesinger 1985, 3:914). If ever there was a president who should unequivocally demonstrate the rhetorical patterns of the Old Way it is Zachary Taylor, a lifelong military man who had never delivered a political speech in his life.


There is no single repository of nineteenth-century presidential speeches. (7) Unlike official or formal presidential rhetoric--inaugural addresses, State of the Union messages, veto messages, proclamations, and the like--obtaining a precise count of "unofficial" speeches is difficult. In surveying the unofficial rhetoric of presidents between George Washington and William McKinley, Tulis drew upon "three major sources for manuscripts or references to speeches: (1) the Library of Congress collections of nineteenth-century presidential papers, (2) private 'unofficial' compilations of presidential speeches and addresses published in the nineteenth century, and (3) biographies of each of the nineteenth-century presidents" (1987, 62). Tulis did not claim to have located every nineteenth-century speech; the count was instead only a best estimate. (8) "Speech" is defined liberally to include "all remarks, however brief" (65).

Given the large number of presidents and speeches surveyed by Tulis, his reliance on biographies, collections of speeches, and Library of Congress papers was methodologically sensible. But each of those sources has limitations. Biographies often pay only sporadic attention to presidential speechmaking, and reliable biographies of lesser known presidents are scarce. Compilations of presidential speeches are useful for late nineteenth-century presidents, but there are few such compilations for presidents in the first half of the nineteenth century. Indeed the only compilation of speeches cited in Tulis's chapter on the nineteenth-century presidency is a collection of the speeches of Benjamin Harrison. Library of Congress collections are of uneven quality; Taylor's papers, for instance, were burnt during the Civil War and very little survived. (9)

Focusing on a single presidential tour enables us to utilize an additional source: newspapers. Partisan newspapers--there was hardly any other kind in the mid-nineteenth century--closely followed the movements and speeches of presidents on tour. They often published the president's speeches and informal remarks in full. Admittedly, mid-nineteenth-century newspapers are not without methodological problems of their own. Because newspaper editors viewed the tour through a fiercely partisan lens, papers sometimes differed markedly in their accounts of what a president said and frequently disagreed about how the speech was received. Even where partisanship did not color the reporting, the fact that many if not most of a president's remarks on tour were delivered without the benefit of a written text meant that there were often honest...

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