Mark Zachary Taylor

Jan 25, 2024

Presidential Leadership in Feeble Times

Explaining Executive Power in the Gilded Age

Oxford University Press 2023

Mark “Zak” Taylor, a political scientist at Georgia Tech University, has a new book that explores the presidents of the Gilded Age, from Ulysses Grant through William McKinley. This period of presidencies is often a forgotten era, since the presidents were somewhat constrained by congressional action taken in the wake of Abraham Lincoln’s presidency and then Andrew Johnson’s impeachment. But Taylor has another complex, fascinating, and lively story to tell about the presidencies of Grant, Hayes, Garfield, Arthur, Cleveland, Harrison, and McKinley. And tell it he does, in great detail, with extensive qualitative and quantitative data, sources, and information, with a specific focus on the American economy during this time and the roles that presidents played in relation to the changing and diversifying economy. Presidential Leadership in Feeble Times: Explaining Executive Power in the Gilded Age (Oxford UP, 2023) traces the turbulent postbellum American economy, with questions about the gold and silver standard and the “greenback”, with the drive for foreign and domestic investments, western expansion, and the quest to stabilize the country and pay off the debts incurred during the Civil War.

The United States, during the Gilded Age, was considered a developing country and a developing economy. And this grouping of presidents had to contend with that as industrialization, immigration, and expansion all transpired during this period. Taylor came to the project because he was interested in getting at the idea of presidential success and the connection to economic wellbeing or health of the country. But the project evolved over time and the research indicated—particularly within this grouping of presidents—that the individual president’s vision for the country and the direction he wanted to take it, along with political skills, coalition building capacity, and the ability to instill trust in American institutions were the key components for success, both political and economic. This is a very accessible book, weaving together archival research, historical details, presidential scholarship, and data analysis in clear and lively discussions of the presidents, the economy, party politics, and foreign and domestic policy. Presidential Leadership in Feeble Times: Explaining Executive Power in the Gilded Age will appeal to scholars and students of American political development, political economy, and presidential studies. For anyone who has any interest at all in American history, this is a truly captivating book.

Lilly J. Goren is a professor of political science at Carroll University in Waukesha, WI. She is co-host of the New Books in Political Science channel at the New Books Network. She is co-editor of The Politics of the Marvel Cinematic Universe (University Press of Kansas, 2022), as well as co-editor of the award winning book, Women and the White House: Gender, Popular Culture, and Presidential Politics (University Press of Kentucky, 2012). She can be reached @gorenlj.bsky.social

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Lilly J. Goren is professor of political science at Carroll University in Waukesha, WI.

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