American Whigs have always had a difficult relationship with the office of the president. In part, this is probably because they started off against a particular “imperial president,” Andrew Jackson.
If one looks at past Whig presidents, however, the list is short and far from illustrious. Despite the shortcomings of these individuals, the Whigs have left a lasting constitutional approach to the presidency that continued at least until the time of Republican president William Howard Taft. After leaving office and becoming a law professor at Yale in 1915, Taft wrote a book called Our Chief Magistrate and his Powers, in which he laid out what has become known as the strict constructionist or “Whig” theory of the presidency.
In part, Taft was arguing against some of the excesses of Theodore Roosevelt who, in the election of 1912, ran for an unprecedented third term as president. In what has become known as the stewardship theory of the presidency, Roosevelt was reflecting a viewpoint that the chief executive is limited only by what the Constitution strictly prohibits; otherwise, the president is free to act as he or she sees fit in order to advance the interests of the American people. Taft on the other hand reflected a much longer tradition within American history, and especially within the Republican Party after the Civil War. In Taft’s interpretation of the Executive Office, he claims: “
The true view of the Executive functions is, as I conceive it, that the President can exercise no power which cannot be fairly and reasonably traced to some specific grant of power or justly implied and included within such express grant as proper and necessary to its exercise. Such specific grant must be either in the Federal Constitution or in an act of Congress passed in pursuance thereof.”
In other words, the presidency is limited only to the powers that the Constitution provides the office.
One might argue that since Theodore Roosevelt, presidents have subscribed heavily to the stewardship theory. In fact one might even go so far as to suggest that the majority of modern presidents could be called an imperial president who has taken on too much power. Commentators from both the left and the right have contended that Franklin Roosevelt, Harry S. Truman, Lyndon Johnson, Richard Nixon, Ronald Reagan, Bill Clinton, George W. Bush, Barack Obama and culminating in Donald Trump have done exactly that. Perhaps being an imperial president is now no longer the exception, but the norm. Taft summarized the dangers of the stewardship theory and the presidents such a model could produce by saying: “
The mainspring of such a view is that the Executive is charged with responsibility for the welfare of all the people in a general way, that he is to play the part of a Universal Providence and set all things right, and that anything that in his judgment will help the people he aught to do, unless he is expressly forbidden not to do it. The wide field of action that this would give to the Executive one can hardly limit.”
To put Taft's statement another way, by allowing presidents to gain too much power, there is a very real danger of presidential tyranny. From a Whig viewpoint which that stands ardently against tyranny of any kind, it is important to fight against any potential for a president to become too powerful. Fortunately there is a solution to the problem, which is to make sure that the true voice of the people, Congress, functions properly.
It is up to Whigs to fight the imperial presidency and to make our the people’s voice in Congress work again. The tenth amendment to the Constitution states that “The powers not delegated to the United States by the Constitution, nor prohibited by it to the States, are reserved to the States respectively, or to the people.”
It is time for Whigs to take back the powers usurped by the imperial presidency and give them back to the legislative branch where they belong. It is time to resurrect Taft’s theories on executive powers and to ensure that every government official “exercise no power which cannot be fairly and reasonably traced to some specific grant of power or justly implied and included within such express grant as proper and necessary to its exercise.”
The Modern Whigs are dedicated to giving power back to the people, through having true representatives in the peoples' House and Senate.
Shawn Martin is an informationist and historian who, among other things, researches 19th-century American history. Former Pennsylvania State Chair. More information about Shawn is available at https://shawnmartin.net/.