William Howard Taft’s Constitutional Progressivism
By Kevin Burns
JMC faculty partner Kevin Burns has written a book, William Howard Taft’s Constitutional Progressivism. The book is due for release in April 2021.
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 “laissez 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 regulations, and worker safety laws. 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.
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.
Kevin Burns is an Assistant Professor in the Department of Political Science and Economics at Christendom College. His teaching and research interests include American Constitutionalism (especially separation of powers), American Political Thought (particularly the American Founding and the Progressive Era), the presidency, the judiciary, and Ancient and Early Modern political theory. He is currently working on a number of smaller projects, including essays on The Federalist’s understanding of the United States as a commercial republic, the place of the president’s pardon power in the constitutional scheme, and the constitutional problems with the War Powers Resolution of 1973.
Professor Burns is a JMC faculty partner.
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