William Howard Taft's Constitutional Progressivism

Kevin J. Burns

In William Howard Taft’s Constitutional Progressivism Kevin J. Burns makes a compelling case that Taft’s devotion to the Constitution of 1787 contributed to his progressivism. In contrast to the majority of scholarship, which has viewed Taft as a reactionary conservative because of his constitutionalism, Burns explores the ways Taft’s commitment to both the Constitution and progressivism drove his political career and the decisions he made as president and chief justice. Taft saw the Constitution playing a positive role in American political life, recognizing that it created a national government strong enough to enact broad progressive reforms.

In reevaluating Taft’s career, Burns highlights how Taft rejected the “laisser [sic] faire school,” which taught that “the Government ought to do nothing but run a police force.” Recognizing that the massive industrial changes following the Civil War had created a plethora of socioeconomic ills, Taft worked to expand the national government’s initiatives in the fields of trust-busting, land conservation, tariff reform, railroad regulation, and worker safety law. Burns offers a fuller understanding of Taft and his political project by emphasizing Taft’s belief that the Constitution could play a constructive role in American political life by empowering the government to act and by undergirding and protecting the reform legislation the government implemented. Moreover, Taft recognized that if the Constitution could come to the aid of progressivism, political reform might also redound to the benefit of the Constitution by showing its continued relevance and workability in modern America.

“A comprehensive and convincing study of Taft’s Progressive credentials. Combining Herbert Croley’s nationalism with a deeply studied constitutional faith, Taft as president and as chief justice vindicated the state-building capacity of the federal government to express and institute an articulate national will through a reformed Republican Party. In marked contrast, both the Democratic Party and Woodrow Wilson appear mired in an intellectual, constitutional, and partisan past premised on states’ rights, patronage, and local interests.”

—Eldon J. Eisenach, professor of political science emeritus, University of Tulsa

“This major revisionist interpretation of William Howard Taft rejects the long-standing view that he was merely a standpat conservative and hidebound legalist. Kevin J. Burns argues persuasively that Taft was simultaneously a political reformer and a constitutional conservative. Deeply researched and clearly written, this book traces Taft’s support for substantial Progressive reforms amid his irrevocable conviction that the founders’ Constitution should not be transformed or abandoned. How Taft reconciled these imperatives is explained in this work of keen historical insight and remarkable contemporary relevance. This book will stand as a landmark in the study of Taft’s constitutionalism.”

—Johnathan ONeill, professor of history, Georgia Southern University

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Although Taft’s efforts to promote significant policy-level reforms attest to his progressivism, his major contribution to American political thought is his understanding of the US Constitution as a fundamental law, not a policy-oriented document. In many ways Taft can be thought of as an originalist, yet his originalism was marked by a belief in robust national powers. Taft’s constitutionalism remains relevant because while his principles seem foreign to modern legal discourse, his constitutional vision offers an alternative to contemporary political divisions by combining political progressivism-liberalism with constitutional conservatism.

About the Author

Kevin J. Burns is an assistant professor of political science and economics, Christendom College, Front Royal, Virginia, and coeditor of Readings in American Government, 10th ed.

Additional Titles in the American Political Thought Series