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Before the Rhetorical Presidency

Edited by Martin J. Medhurst

Publication Year: 2008

Since its identification in 1981, the rhetorical presidency has drawn both defenders and critics. Chief among those critical of the practice is political theorist Jeffrey K. Tulis, whose 1987 book, The Rhetorical Presidency, helped popularize the construct and set forth a sustained analysis of the baleful effects that have allegedly accompanied the shift from a “constitutional” presidency to a “rhetorical” one. Tulis locates this shift in the presidencies of Theodore Roosevelt and Woodrow Wilson, arguing that the rhetorical presidency is a twentieth-century phenomenon. Yet not all scholars agree with this assessment. Before the Rhetorical Presidency is an attempt to investigate how U.S. presidents in the nineteenth century communicated with their publics, both congressional and popular. In part 1, Martin J. Medhurst, Mel Laracey, Jeffrey K. Tulis, and Stephen E. Lucas set forth differing perspectives on how the rhetorical presidency ought to be understood and evaluated. In part 2, eleven scholars of nineteenth-century presidential rhetoric investigate the presidencies of Martin Van Buren, John Tyler, James K. Polk, Franklin Pierce, James Buchanan, Andrew Johnson, Ulysses S. Grant, Rutherford B. Hayes, Benjamin Harrison, Grover Cleveland, and William McKinley. As the first volume ever to focus on nineteenth-century presidents from a rhetorical perspective, Before the Rhetorical Presidency examines administrations, policies, and events that have never before been subjected to rhetorical analysis. The sometimes startling outcomes of these investigations reveal the need for continuing debate over the nature, practices, and effects of the rhetorical presidency. In a brief afterword, Medhurst raises eight challenges to the original formulation of the rhetorical presidency and in so doing sets forth an agenda for future studies.

Published by: Texas A&M University Press

Series: Presidential Rhetoric and Political Communication


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pp. vii-viii


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pp. ix-x

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Introduction: Was There a Nineteenth-Century Rhetorical Presidency? A Debate Revisited

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pp. 1-16

When political theorist James Ceaser and his colleagues introduced the idea of a “rhetorical presidency” in 1981, they could scarcely have imagined that three decades later the construct would still be the subject of intense debate.1 Introduced as a way of theorizing and critiquing the place of rhetoric in the conduct of the presidential office, the rhetorical presidency was a construct...

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Talking without Speaking, and Other Curiosities

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pp. 18-28

One of the most notable works in the fields of presidential and rhetorical studies in the past twenty years has been Jeffrey Tulis’s The Rhetorical Presidency (1987). With the publication of that book, some topics essentially became closed to further scholarly discussion. In my book, Presidents and the People: The Partisan Story of Going Public (2002), I seek to reopen those topics...

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On the Forms of Rhetorical Leadership

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pp. 29-34

Mel Laracey’s chapter, reflecting a summary of his recent book, Presidents and the People: The Partisan Story of Going Public, deserves our attention and compels me to revisit some familiar territory.1 Presidents and the People is a well-written, thorough, and hard-hitting critique of several contemporary studies of presidential leadership. It reads like a legal brief, mustering evidence at every turn to support the proposition...

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Present at the Founding: The Rhetorical Presidency in Historical Perspective

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pp. 35-41

Few ideas have had more impact in presidential studies during the past twenty years than Jeffrey Tulis’s concept of the rhetorical presidency. Indeed, the phrase “rhetorical presidency” has become an integral part of the vocabulary of political scientists and rhetorical critics alike. It has also become highly controversial. Part of the controversy has revolved around the question...

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Little Magic: Martin Van Buren and the Politics of Gender

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pp. 44-62

The presidency of Martin Van Buren coincided with the growth of mass democracy and a concomitant increase in the power of public opinion. The burgeoning influence of the American public was cultivated by Martin Van Buren’s predecessor, Andrew Jackson, at a time when, according to Richard Hofstadter, the presidency had “declined from its heights under the leadership of Washington...

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John Tyler and the Rhetoric of the Accidental Presidency

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pp. 63-82

Except perhaps in his Virginia birthplace and in the Texas city that bears his name, our tenth president, John Tyler, is largely forgotten. He is the afterthought in the 1840 campaign slogan, “Tippecanoe, and Tyler Too.” He is “His Accidency,” a man never meant to be president but who succeeded to the office upon the unfortunate death of William Henry Harrison...

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James Knox Polk: The First Imperial President?

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pp. 83-105

“Who is James Polk?” sneered Whigs in the 1844 presidential campaign. A Whig circular declared, “He is destitute of the commanding talent—the stern integrity—the high moral fitness—the Union should possess at this crisis, and has twice been rejected for the Office of Governor in his own State—having no hold upon the confidence or affections of his countrymen...

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Franklin Pierce and the Exuberant Hauteur of an Age of Extremes: A Love Song for Americain Six Movements

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pp. 106-165

Radical Democrat and man-about-town Walter Whitman surveyed the nation from his beloved Brooklyn in 1855, and what he saw left him boggled, reeling from a confusion so deep that his only response was to produce poems that confounded each other in fantastic contradictions. In the closing lines of the first edition...

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James Buchanan: Romancing the Union

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pp. 166-193

James Buchanan is widely recognized as one of our worst presidents. Indeed, he is ranked at the very bottom in a 1994 survey sponsored by the Siena Research Institute, a 1997 study by the Intercollegiate Studies Institute, a survey of historians that accompanied C-SPAN’s 1999 series American Presidents: Life Portraits, an accompanying survey of C-SPAN viewers, and an October 2000 survey...

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Andrew Johnson and the Politics of Character

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pp. 194-212

By late fall of 1866, the usually staid Atlantic Monthly had had enough. Benefit of the doubt had been extended; novel circumstances acknowledged; regional habits respected. But this was too much: President Andrew Johnson— this “accident of an accident”—had just finished a three thousandmile journey—ostensibly to commemorate a statue to Stephen Douglas in Chicago—and thus plead his case to the American people...

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Resolute Commander for Just Peace: The Rhetoric of Ulysses S. Grant

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pp. 213-242

Things change, including evaluations of presidencies. A 1956 Woman’s Day Chart of the Presidents of the United States, reflecting the received wisdom of the day, dismissed Ulysses S. Grant’s presidency with the phrases “As President: Administration scandals; Grant not personally involved.” Fifty years later, in 2006, a tpmcafe.com blog by Nathan Newman was entitled “Ulysses Grant...

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The Challenges of Reunification: Rutherford B. Hayes on the Close Race and the Racial Divide

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pp. 243-266

In most U.S. history textbooks Rutherford B. Hayes ranks neither among the famous nor the infamous of the U.S. presidents; in short, he ranks among the lesser known. However, the controversy surrounding the 2000 presidential election gave him a sudden surge of fame as reporters dug into the history of contested elections. Near the end of November 2000, John Judis wrote...

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The Problem with Public Memory: Benjamin Harrison Confronts the “Southern Question”

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pp. 267-288

In late December, 1888, president-elect Benjamin Harrison sat poring through a mound of correspondence. Few would have guessed a year before that this five foot, six inch, Presbyterian deacon from Indiana, a man who insisted on keeping his then-unfashionable beard, would lead the United States into the last decade of the nineteenth century. The election had been close and controversial...

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Grover Cleveland andthe Nonrhetorical Presidency

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pp. 289-306

There are several good reasons why we might regard Grover Cleveland as a nonrhetorical figure in the history of the U.S. presidency. The first and perhaps most obvious of these has to do with his style. The prominent Buffalo lawyer, John G. Milburn, once commented that in pleading legal cases Cleveland was “forceful, deliberate, rather slow moving, impressive, genial...

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William McKinley and the Emergence of the Modern Rhetorical Presidency

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pp. 307-328

Commander in chief during a crucial period of U.S. history, William McKinley is today sometimes dismissed as a tired, unenthusiastic president who followed more than he led. Margaret Leech’s Pulitzer Prize-winning book, In the Days of McKinley, did much to draw the public’s interest back toward McKinley several decades after his death, but it may have reinforced the unfortunate opinion...

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Afterword: Questioning the Rhetorical Presidency Construct

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pp. 329-334

Have we learned anything from the study of eighteenth- and nineteenth-century presidencies that changes our understanding of the rhetorical presidency as set forth by Jeffrey Tulis? I believe we have. First, from a constitutional perspective, we have learned that there is a difference between how the Founders envisioned the functioning of the presidential office...


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pp. 335-337


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pp. 338-356

E-ISBN-13: 9781603446266
E-ISBN-10: 1603446265
Print-ISBN-13: 9781603440714
Print-ISBN-10: 1603440712

Page Count: 356
Illustrations: 4 b&w photos.
Publication Year: 2008

Series Title: Presidential Rhetoric and Political Communication

Research Areas


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Subject Headings

  • Presidents -- United States -- History -- 19th century.
  • United States -- Politics and government -- 19th century.
  • Presidents -- United States -- Language.
  • Rhetoric -- Political aspects -- United States.
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