Today, we are happy to bring you our conversation with Stephen J. Rockwell, author of The Presidency and the American State: Leadership and Decision Making in the Adams, Grant, and Taft Administrations.
What inspired you to write this book?
I hoped to combine presidency studies with studies in American political history. Study of American political and state development is now robust, revealing extensive national governance in the nineteenth century on issues like westward expansion, land policy, economic regulation, and social programs. I wanted to see how incorporating this new body of knowledge might affect traditional understandings of American institutions like the presidency.
Over time, I began to focus on leadership of the American state. It became clear that what I was seeing in the details of the John Quincy Adams, Ulysses S. Grant, and William Howard Taft presidential administrations set up a direct challenge to established scholarship in presidency studies.
What did you learn and what are you hoping readers will learn from your book?
First, the presidency developed its institutional capacities and leadership role early. Contrary to accounts highlighting the differences between the modern presidency and the office in earlier eras, careful study of the Adams, Grant, and Taft administrations reveals that presidents have long led national administration, pursued legislative agendas, utilized unilateral executive authority through instruments like executive orders and proclamations, and engaged in public and popular communication.
Second, William Howard Taft emerges as a central figure in the era from Reconstruction to the New Deal. A judge in the late nineteenth century, president from 1909 to 1913, and later Chief Justice of the US Supreme Court, Taft’s career and influence span an epoch in which the Civil War amendments and judicial interpretations redirected and rebuilt American politics.
What surprised you the most in the process of writing your book?
I was most surprised by John Quincy Adams’s strong and effective presidential leadership. Having read numerous accounts of Adams’s supposedly failed presidency, I was surprised to see how shrewdly he wielded presidential authority. Adams led on a host of domestic and international policy issues, marshaling the influence of experts in administrative departments to influence everything from West Point admissions exams, to robust internal improvements projects, to the beginnings of a grand seafaring expedition in the Pacific Ocean. Adams blocked Georgia’s encroachments into Creek lands guaranteed by federal treaty. He used a version of the hidden-hand presidency to fight slavery. And he used accessible public communication to defend and perpetuate the federal government’s involvement in a host of government initiatives that endured long after his administration.
What’s your favorite anecdote from your book?
My favorite anecdote is probably the locusts. In the middle of his two terms, President Grant led a response to locust invasions in the Midwest. Not only did Grant order the distribution of army blankets and supplies to local populations devastated by infestation, but officials in his administration then coordinated work with entomologists and public servants to build an entire scientific-government apparatus for studying, tracking, and responding to such infestations. The level of expertise and organization on such a bizarre topic, at least to someone who grew up in New York, showed me how many smart, dedicated people were working on a host of issue areas even in the 1870s.
My next project is a book on United States political relationships with Native nations, in particular the federal treaty system.