Progressive constitutionalism : William Howard Taft as chief executive and chief justice.


This dissertation explores the relationship between William Howard Taft’s constitutionalism and progressivism, considering both his term as president and his tenure on the Supreme Court. While Taft has traditionally been painted as a “stand-pat” conservative who sought to stymie progressive reforms, he actually shows the flexibility of the Constitution and its ability to adapt to different times and circumstances. Taft was both a conservative on constitutional matters and a progressive with respect to policy. His jurisprudence has been praised as a model for originalists, yet he inherited a host of progressive policies from Theodore Roosevelt. Taft shows a perspective on American politics quite foreign to the modern eye, seeking to enact progressive reforms within the bounds of constitutional restraint. Taft’s political project provides a viewpoint too often missed by both conservatives and liberals today. Frequently, conservatives view the Constitution through the lens of original intent, and argue that the Constitution requires that public policy be in line with the thought of the Founders of 1789. Liberals, on the other hand, are prone to focus on the broadest language of the Constitution – “general welfare,” “liberty,” and “equality” – to the virtual exclusion of the rest of the document. The common error is that both liberals and conservatives too often attempt to argue that the Constitution mandates their preferred policy priorities. Taft, in contrast, shows that the Constitution is a fundamental law, which creates a structure by which government is empowered to enact a plethora of policies. The Constitution, in his terms, has the “elasticity” to adapt to changing circumstances and permit the government to respond to any of a variety of problems. Thus, he shows that the Constitution does not require either conservative or liberal policies, but is open to both.



William Howard Taft. Presidency. Public law. Progressivism.