Policy Speech in the Nineteenth Century Rhetorical Presidency: The Case of Zachary Taylor's 1849 Tour


Richard J. Ellis is the Mark O. Hatfield Professor of Politics at Willamette University in Salem, Oregon, where he has taught since 1990. His most recent books include To the Flag: The Unlikely History of the Pledge of Allegiance and (with Michael Nelson) Debating the Presidency: Conflicting Perspectives on the American Executive. His forthcoming book is a history of presidential travel.
Alexis Walker is a recent graduate of Willamette University.


Jeffrey Tulis's The Rhetorical Presidency (1987) is among the most influential accounts of the historical development of the American presidency. According to Tulis, the nineteenth-century presidency embodied the founders' proscriptions against the rhetorical presidency in several ways. Chief among these were that “unofficial” speeches were generally few in number and limited to vague, innocuous utterances that avoided specific policies or partisan debates. In this article we test Tulis's portrayal of the nineteenth-century “Old Way” by focusing on the presidential tour taken by Zachary Taylor in the summer of 1849. Taylor's speeches on tour, according to Tulis, were limited to the purpose of acknowledging greetings and expressing thanks for a town's welcome. Taylor's speaking tour was thus an archetype of the “laconic” style characteristic of the nineteenth-century Old Way. Our research indicates that Tulis's characterization of Taylor's tour is mistaken. We find that not only did Taylor discuss public policy throughout his tour but that the issue positions he staked out were harnessed to a strategic partisan agenda. These findings raise larger questions about the accuracy of Tulis's portrayal of a nineteenth-century Old Way governed by settled norms or an agreed upon rhetorical doctrine. Our research suggests instead that mid-nineteenth-century presidents were buffeted by competing expectations. On the one hand were the expectations and constraints that stemmed from the founders' plan for a president above party, and on the other hand were the expectations and demands that stemmed from the president's role as a party leader. Taylor's speeches reveal a president trying to navigate between these colliding expectations.