1912

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Status: In Progress  |  Genre: Non-Fiction  |  House: Booksie Classic

Chapter 15 (v.1) - The Taft-Buchanan School

Submitted: June 30, 2020

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Submitted: June 30, 2020

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The disagreements between Taft and Roosevelt would evolve into the personal sphere as time went on, but they had begun with a difference in philosophy that only widened as Roosevelt became comfortable with the progressive program and the more unfettered usage of federal power it sanctioned. 

The time Taft had been in the White House, particularly on the heels of Roosevelt’s aggressive use of the bully pulpit, was a period largely lacking in the executive-led crusades department. Perhaps Taft thought Republican Party laurels could be rested on, but for whatever reason a man more temperamentally suited for the judicial than executive branch often seemed to lack the vigor and zeal that Roosevelt possessed in spades. 

“A man who means well, but who only means well feebly, rarely stands the strain of serious temptation,” Roosevelt had observed in response to the mounting evidence that Taft had drifted far from the shores of the reformist style of government he’d hoped he would run. 15.1

TR would offer up a commonly held interpretation of Taft’s philosophy toward governance in his Autobiography. Penned at a time when he had a more critical view of Taft, Roosevelt wrote that there “two schools of thought” when it came to presidential power. He would divide these two strains into the Buchanan-Taft and the Lincoln-Jackson schools.

Roosevelt viewed himself as part of the latter, which held the commander-in-chief to in fact be “subject only to the people, and, under the Constitution, bound to serve in all cases where the Constitution does not explicitly forbid him to render service.” But, contrary to himself, William Howard Taft was a member of the Buchanan-Taft school. 

And what did this mean in practice?

TR defined it as meaning he “took the narrowly legalistic view that the president is the servant of Congress rather than of the people” and was incapable of doing anything unless “the Constitution explicitly commands the action.” 

This, to Roosevelt’s way of thinking, was a handicap on Taft’s ability to deliver fundamental change for the American people. Such a philosophy might have been better suited to the early, pre-Civil War days of the republic. But with the advent of the Gilded Age and the mounting abuses exposed by the muckraking press, Roosevelt felt such an approach was not in the best interests of the American people in the twentieth century. Buchanan’s nickname-The Old Public Functionary-was singularly uninspiring and a title Roosevelt likely would agree described his feckless time in office well. 

These words encapsulated much of what he felt divided himself from President Taft, and they also foreshadowed a portion of the debate played out on the national stage of the 1912 election: the idea of an impotent head of the executive branch versus one who was energetic in its administration. Roosevelt would have loved a one-on-one matchup with a Taft-like candidate in the general election; in that case he had little doubt the American people would select him. But the 1912 campaign would not give him the luxury of making it such a clear choice. 

As things stood, Taft’s view of governance, the stewardship theory, was anathema to the growing body of American progressives who wanted to eliminate roadblocks to checking the power of corporate influence. 15.2 

The post-1904 election Roosevelt had more and more cast his lot with these progressives and with a school of thought which disdained much of the stewardship theory. Although Roosevelt had less to point to in the foreign policy realm than did Taft, it was this differing approach to domestic politics which ultimately ruptured these two friends’ relationship.

Roosevelt was convinced that, even in the best of times, the country could not afford a do-nothing executive. And he certainly did not view the present period as one where any leader could become impotent in the face of the transforming economy. The age of large, concentrated corporations-the dawn of the Industrial Revolution and the onset of the late 19th century’s Gilded Age-created a situation which Roosevelt and many reformers felt was simply untenable. He did not advocate for changes in governance out of any hostility to a view of Jeffersonian democracy; it was felt quite simply that the world at the turn of the twentieth century was so markedly different than that of the nineteenth’s that new mechanisms were needed. 

Many of the reformers were of the mindset that a new playing field required new rules, and Roosevelt’s own words during his last address to Congress summed up the viewpoint he had increasingly adopted during his second term, telegraphing the spirit he expected Taft to conduct his own administration in.

“The danger to American democracy,” Roosevelt had told Congress, “Lies not in the least in the concentration of administrative power in responsible and accountable hands. It lies in having the power insufficiently concentrated, so that no one can be held responsible to the people for its use.” 

These words would have come as a surprise not only to the relatives of Martha Bulloch’s, who had fought in a cause they claimed was aimed at a tyrannical government in D.C., but would likely have caused President McKinley to forego yoking himself to a man expressing such extreme views as this not even a decade earlier. But even these would take second billing to his assertion that “Labor is the superior of capital and deserves much the higher consideration” and that in his view the president was the “steward of the public welfare.” 15.3

These words would likely place Roosevelt to the left of whichever candidate would become the Democratic Party’s nominee two years down the road. They would not have fallen well on the ears of the Rockefellers or other holders of fantastic wealth and privilege, nor would other reactionary elements of Mr. Roosevelt’s own party have been comfortable embracing such expansive words. 

In fact, they even flew in the face of words Roosevelt had penned to Ray Stannard Baker during the summer of 1904. In the service of explaining how he intended to strike a middle ground between labor and capital while serving as president, TR had informed the muckraking journalist that “I believe in corporations. If a corporation does square work I will help it so far as I can. If it oppresses anybody...Why, when I have the power I shall try to cinch it.” But he continued in an effort to demonstrate that he would be an even handed arbiter: “I believe in labor unions. But if the members of a labor unions indulge in rioting and violence, or behave wrongfully either to a capitalist or to another laborer or the the general public, I shall antagonize them just as fearlessly as under similar circumstances I should antagonize the biggest capitalist in the land.” 15.4

A crystallizing scenario early in Roosevelt’s own presidency underscored the differing philosophies he and Taft brought to the presidential office. The 1902 Pennsylvania coal strike provided an excellent study of Roosevelt’s vision of what an earlier crop of statesmen would have called the Hamiltonian school of thought. 15.5 

The situation was one which an early twentieth century president would not have wished on his worst enemy. The struck anthracite coal fields of Pennsylvania, so crucial to the early twentieth century U.S.’s energy supply, had been walked out on by their workers. The laborers struck in the spring of 1902, and Roosevelt had received advice from Attorney General Philander Knox that it was not his place as president to intervene between the United Mine Workers (led by labor leader John Mitchell, a man Roosevelt would come to respect during upcoming negotiations) and the coal fields’ management (spearheaded by John Baer of the Philadelphia and Reading Railroad). 

In response to Attorney General Knox’s argument for not intervening, TR stuck him with the same label he would later apply to Taft: the Attorney General was sticking to “the Buchanan principle of striving to find some constitutional reason for inaction.” 15.6

Coming from Roosevelt, few descriptions could be less flattering. 

Roosevelt was able to adhere to Knox’s advice for a brief window of time, but the political weather, driven by the actual outdoors weather, would soon conspire against him. As the calendar inched closer and closer to the onset of winter, the then-newly installed president began to feel compelled to take some sort of action which would ensure the coal fields restarted production.

The energetic chief executive he would come to embody during his presidency was then on full display; as the standoff over wages dragged on into its sixth month (the Pennsylvania national guard had been called up by Governor William A. Stone after a clash between coal workers and strikebreakers), Roosevelt demanded a get-together of union and management in Washington. 

In his mind, the trench warfare-like standoff between the mine owners and workers was something his skills of persuasion might be able to end. It was a summit of sorts, one where he hoped the two sides could hash things out well in advance of the cold winter months. 

In calling such a get-together, Roosevelt pooh-poohed Attorney General’s Knox’s “Buchanan-esque” assertions. As Roosevelt viewed himself to be the vessel to carry out the people’s will, he felt justified going to great lengths to prevent homes from going freezing due to an unnecessary coal shortage. In case the negotiations were to somehow go awry, Roosevelt, in an action which yet again ran contrary to his own Attorney General’s claim that the president had no legal right to involve himself in the strike one way or the other, was prepared to send the U.S. Army to Pennsylvania for purposes of added pressure.

But this extreme measure was not going to be necessary: in exchange for a Coal Strike Commission investigation into treatment of workers, they got back to the coal fields before the month was out. 

Taft, however, was of the opinion that TR would be crossing a line if he used troops domestically for something other than quelling an insurrection or meeting an invasion, all the more so since this particular instance dealt with a dispute over private property. 

According his judicial mindset, the longer term effects of cold babies and homes in winter might be unfortunate, but the means proposed to stop these ends from taking place were something he, unlike TR, could not endorse. Roosevelt’s proposition for using federal troops, the judicial Taft felt, was “anything but lawless” when viewed from “the standpoint of a government of law.”  15.7

And yet Roosevelt, no dunce when it came to history, was surely aware that Taft would not be one to straitjacket his own power once elected in his own right in 1908. Even the most strict of allegedly constructionist presidents, Thomas Jefferson, had extended his own authority when faced with a real-world scenario. The Louisiana Purchase, criticized in some quarters at the time as being outside the constitutional scope of the president’s constitutional powers, was signed off on by none other than the sage of Monticello himself. 

Taft was certainly more conservative that TR would like, but actions of his own during his presidency leading up to the 1912 election nevertheless showed him to not be entirely subservient to the legislative branch.

And the fact that Taft had all but been Roosevelt’s hand-picked successor made him biased toward wishing the man success.  TR made no secret of his admiration for the man who succeeded Elihu Root as his second term Secretary of War, and the friendship between them had been nearly free from strain during both of their highly public careers. 

TR was not above ascribing the basest of motives to others in the political sphere, but at the time of his departure for the 1909 post-presidential safari none of these screeds had been reserved for the jolly new president. He had not felt it proper to come out and outright endorse Taft during the Republican nominating process, but the admiration he held for Taft’s intelligence and competence had once been second to none.

 

Chapter Fifteen Sources:

15.1 (Theodore Roosevelt Center, How a Moral Issue Can Seem Blurred") https://www.theodorerooseveltcenter.org/Research/Digital-Library/Record/ImageViewer?libID=o285275

15.2  (L. Peter Schultz William Howard Taft, a Constiutionalist's View of the Presidency Presidential Studies Quarterly Vol. 9, No. 4, Sources of Presidential Power (Fall, 1979), pp. 402-414) https://www.jstor.org/stable/27547512?read-now=1&seq=1

15.3 Chace, James 1912: Roosevelt, Taft, and Debs-The Election that Changed the Country, pg. 57)

15.4 Wigal, Donald,The Wisdom of Theodore Roosevelt, pg. 21

15.5 (U.S. Department of Labor, The Coal Strike of 1902: Turning Point in U.S. Policy) https://www.dol.gov/general/aboutdol/history/coalstrike

15.6 Morris, Edmund, Theodore Rex, pg. 151) 

15.7 (L. Peter Schultz William Howard Taft, a Constiutionalist's View of the Presidency Presidential Studies Quarterly Vol. 9, No. 4, Sources of Presidential Power (Fall, 1979), pp. 402-414) https://www.jstor.org/stable/27547512?read-now=1&seq=1

 


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