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
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.
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