William Howard Taft (September 15, 1857 – March 8, 1930) was an American politician, the twenty-seventh President of the United States, the tenth Chief Justice of the United States, a leader of the progressive conservative wing of the Republican Party in the early 20th century, a pioneer in international arbitration and staunch advocate of world peace verging on pacifism, and scion of a leading political family, the Tafts, of Ohio.
Taft served as the Solicitor General of the United States, a federal appellate judge, Governor-General of the Philippines, and Secretary of War before being nominated for President in the 1908 Republican National Convention with the backing of his predecessor and close friend Theodore Roosevelt.
His presidency was characterized by trust-busting, strengthening the Interstate Commerce Commission, expanding the civil service, establishing a better postal system, and promoting world peace. Roosevelt broke with Taft in 1911, charging Taft was too reactionary. Taft and the conservatives were alarmed at Roosevelt's attacks on the judiciary, and took control of the party machinery. Taft defeated Roosevelt for the Republican nomination in a bruising battle in 1912 that forced Roosevelt out of the GOP and left Taft's people in charge for decades. William Howard Taft remains the only U.S. President to finish third in a bid for reelection to a second consecutive term. During World War I he helped set national labor policy that reduced strikes and generated union support for the national cause. In 1921, he became the Chief Justice of the United States. As the President and the Chief Justice he helped make the federal courts, especially the Supreme Court, much more powerful in shaping national policy. To date he is the only former President to serve on the Supreme Court.
Taft was brought up in the Unitarian church and remained a faithful Unitarian his entire life (later in life he once remarked, "I do not believe in the divinity of Christ, and there are many other of the postulates of the orthodox creed to which I can not subscribe.). At age 18, he met his future wife, Helen Herron, in Cincinnati; she and Taft courted while he was away at college. He enjoyed spending time with his aunt, Meredith Johnson, who required wheelchair and crutches to get around. One of his secretaries, formally known as his right hand man, described Willam Taft by saying, "He was fat...and he liked it...and he played with it often." This quote came from a time when the secretary walked in on Taft playing with his fat.
The William Howard Taft National Historic Site is the Taft boyhood home. The house in which he was born has been restored to its original appearance. It includes four period rooms that reflect the family life during Taft's boyhood. The home also includes second floor exhibits highlighting Taft's life center.
In addition to his judgeship, between 1896 and 1900 Taft also served as the first dean and a professor of constitutional law at the University of Cincinnati. Eventually, he became the chief judge of the Sixth Circuit. One of Taft's most famous opinions was in Addyston Pipe and Steel Company v. United States (1898).
In 1900, President William McKinley appointed Taft as the chairman of a commission to organize a civilian government in the Philippines, which had been ceded to the United States by Spain following the Spanish-American War and the 1898 Treaty of Paris. Although Taft initially had been opposed to the annexation of the islands and told McKinley that his real ambition was to become a justice of the Supreme Court of the United States, he reluctantly accepted the appointment when McKinley suggested that he would be "the better judge for this experience."
From 1901 to 1903, Taft served as the first civilian Governor-General of the Philippines, a position in which he was very popular among both Americans and Filipinos. In 1902, Taft visited Rome to negotiate with Pope Leo XIII for the purchase of lands in the Philippines owned by the Roman Catholic Church. Taft then persuaded Congress to appropriate $7,239,000 to purchase the lands, which he sold to Filipinos on easy terms. In 1903, President Roosevelt offered Taft the seat on the Supreme Court to which he had for so long aspired, but he reluctantly declined when native Filipino groups begged him to remain in Manila as Governor-General.
After serving for nearly two full terms, the popular Theodore Roosevelt refused to run in the election of 1908. Roosevelt certified Taft as a genuine "progressive", in 1908, pushing through the nomination of his Secretary of War for the presidency. At age 51, and after a legal and political career of more than 20 years, Taft ran in an election for the first time. His opponent was William Jennings Bryan, who had run for president twice in 1896 and 1900 against William McKinley. During the campaign Taft undercut Bryan's liberal support by accepting some of his reformist ideas and Roosevelt's progressive policies blurred the distinctions between the parties. Bryan on the other hand ran a vigorous campaign against the nation's business elite. But in the end, Taft won by a comfortable margin, giving Bryan his worst loss in three presidential campaigns.
Taft considered himself a "progressive" because of his deep belief in "The Law" as the scientific device that should be used by judges to solve society's problems. Taft proved a less adroit politician than Roosevelt and seemed to lack the energy and personal magnetism of his mentor, not to mention the publicity devices, the dedicated supporters, and the broad base of public support that made Roosevelt so formidable. When Roosevelt realized that lowering the tariff would risk severe tensions inside the Republican Party, pitting producers (manufacturers and farmers) against department stores and consumers, he stopped talking about the issue. Taft ignored the risks and tackled the tariff boldly, on the one hand encouraging reformers to fight for lower rates, then cutting deals with conservative leaders that kept overall rates high. The resulting Payne-Aldrich tariff of 1909 was too high for most reformers, but instead of blaming this on Senator Nelson Aldrich and big business, Taft took credit, calling it the best bill to come from the Republican Party. Again, he had managed to alienate all sides.
Unlike Roosevelt, Taft never attacked business or businessmen in his rhetoric. However, he was attentive to the law, so he launched 80 antitrust suits, including one against the country's largest corporation, U.S. Steel, for an acquisition that Roosevelt personally had approved. As a result, Taft lost the support of antitrust reformers (who disliked his conservative rhetoric), of big business (which disliked his actions), and of Roosevelt, who felt humiliated by his protégé. Progressives within the Republican party began agitating against Taft. Senator Robert LaFollette of Wisconsin created the National Progressive Republican League to replace Taft at the national level; his campaign crashed after a disastrous speech. Most of LaFollette's supporters went over to Roosevelt, leaving LaFollette embittered and alone. More trouble came when Taft fired Gifford Pinchot, a leading conservationist and close ally of Roosevelt. Pinchot alleged that Taft's Secretary of Interior Richard Ballinger was in league with big timber interests. Conservationists sided with Pinchot, and Taft alienated yet another vocal constituency.
Taft fought for the prosecution of trusts (eventually issuing 80 lawsuits), further strengthened the Interstate Commerce Commission, established a postal savings bank and a parcel post system, and expanded the civil service. He supported the 16th Amendment, which allowed for a federal income tax, and the 17th Amendment, mandating the direct election of senators by the people, replacing the previous system whereby they were selected by state legislatures.
One of Taft's main goals while President was to further the idea of world peace. Given his judicial sensibilities, he believed that international arbitration was the best means to effectuate the end of war on Earth. As such, he championed several reciprocity and arbitration treaties. In 1910, he convinced congressional Democrats to support a reciprocity treaty with Canada, but the Liberal Canadian government of Wilfrid Laurier that negotiated the treaty was turned out of office in 1911 and the treaty collapsed. In 1910 and 1911, however, he secured the ratification of arbitration treaties that he had successfully negotiated with Britain and France and thereafter was known as one of the foremost advocates of world peace and arbitration.
In July, 1909, a proposed amendment to remove the apportionment requirement was passed unanimously in the Senate and by a vote of 318 to 14 in the House. It was quickly ratified by the states, and in February 3, 1913, it became a part of the Constitution as the Sixteenth Amendment, as Taft was leaving office.
On his return from Europe, Roosevelt broke with Taft in one of the most dramatic political feuds of the 20th century. To the surprise of observers who thought Roosevelt had unstoppable momentum, Taft outmaneuvered Roosevelt and LaFollette, seized control of the GOP, and forced both out of the party. The main issue in 1911–12 was independence of the judiciary, which Roosevelt denounced. Most lawyers in the GOP supported Taft, including many of Roosevelt's key supporters like Elihu Root, Henry Stimson, and Roosevelt's own son-in-law, Nicholas Longworth. In lining up delegates for the 1912 nomination, Taft outmaneuvered Roosevelt, who had started much too late, and kept control of the Republican party. 1912 was the first year that some delegates were determined through primary elections. Primary elections were seen as a way to take power away from party bosses and put it in the hands of the people. Out of the 14 Republican primaries held, Roosevelt won 9, and Taft only won 3. Robert LaFollette won the other 2. Nevertheless, Taft had the delegates and won the nomination at the Republican nominating convention in Chicago.
Instead, Roosevelt was forced to create the Progressive Party (or "Bull Moose") ticket, splitting the Republican vote in the 1912 election. Woodrow Wilson, the Democrat, was elected, although many historians argue that Wilson would have won anyway, because the Republican factions would not support each other. Taft won the mere eight electoral votes of Utah and Vermont, making it the single worst defeat in American history for an incumbent President seeking re-election. He achieved what he felt were his main goals as President, however: keeping permanent control of the party and keeping the courts sacrosanct until they were next threatened. It also should be noted that while the strife during the election of 1912 devastated the once very close friendship between Taft and Theodore Roosevelt, the two eventually did reconcile not long before Roosevelt's death in 1919.
|President||William Howard Taft||1909–1913|
|Vice President||James S. Sherman||1909–1912|
|Secretary of State||Philander C. Knox||1909–1913|
|Secretary of the Treasury||Franklin MacVeagh||1909–1913|
|Secretary of War||Jacob M. Dickinson||1909–1911|
|Henry L. Stimson||1911–1913|
|Attorney General||George W. Wickersham||1909–1913|
|Postmaster General||Frank H. Hitchcock||1909–1913|
|Secretary of the Navy||George von L. Meyer||1909–1913|
|Secretary of the Interior||Richard A. Ballinger||1909–1911|
|Walter L. Fisher||1911–1913|
|Secretary of Agriculture||James Wilson||1909–1913|
|Secretary of Commerce & Labor||Charles Nagel||1909–1913|
Taft's six appointments to the Court rank (in number) third only to those of George Washington (who appointed the entire Court - but a smaller panel - as the first President) and Franklin D. Roosevelt (who was president for just over twelve years); as well, Taft's appointment of five new justices tied the number appointed by Andrew Jackson and by Abraham Lincoln. Four of Taft's appointees were relatively young at ages 48, 51, 53 and 54.
The appointments of Edward Douglass White and Charles Evans Hughes also are notable because Taft essentially appointed both his predecessor and successor Chief Justices, respectively. Hughes initially was appointed an Associate Justice, but later resigned to run for the Republican Party's presidential candidate in the 1916 election, which he would lose. President Herbert Hoover renominated Hughes to the Supreme Court as Chief Justice following Taft's retirement.
Upon leaving the White House in 1913, Taft was appointed the Chancellor Kent Professor of Law and Legal History at Yale Law School. Upon his appointment, the Yale Chapter of the Acacia Fraternity made him an honorary member. At the same time Taft was elected president of the American Bar Association. He spent much of his time writing newspaper articles and books, most notably his series on American legal philosophy. He was a vigorous opponent of prohibition in the United States, predicting the undesirable situation that the Eighteenth Amendment and prohibition in general would create. He also continued to advocate world peace through international arbitration, urging nations to enter into arbitration treaties with each other and promoting the idea of a League of Nations even before the First World War began.
When World War I did break out in Europe in 1914, however, Taft founded the League to Enforce Peace. He was a co-chairman of the powerful National War Labor Board between 1917 and 1918. Although he continually advocated peace, he strongly favored conscription once the United States entered the War, pleading publicly that the United States not fight a "finicky" war. He feared the war would be long, but was for fighting it out to a finish, given what he viewed as "Germany's brutality."
In 1929, Taft successfully argued for the construction of the United States Supreme Court building, reasoning that the Supreme Court needed to distance itself from Congress as a separate branch of the government. Until then, the Court had heard cases in the old Senate Chamber of the Capitol building. The Justices had no private chambers, and their conferences were held in a room in the basement. However, Chief Justice Taft did not live to see the building's completion (1935).
Taft retired as Chief Justice on February 3, 1930, because of ill health. He was succeeded by Charles Evans Hughes, whom he had appointed to the Court while president. Taft died 5 weeks following his retirement on March 8, 1930. Three days later, on March 11, he became the first president to be buried at Arlington National Cemetery. His grave marker was sculpted by James Earle Fraser out of Stony Creek granite.. William Howard Taft is one of two presidents buried at Arlington National Cemetery; the other being John F. Kennedy and one of four Chief Justices buried at Arlington; the others being Earl Warren, Warren Burger, and William Rehnquist. He was the only Chief Justice to have had a state funeral, having served as the president.
A third generation of the Taft family entered the national political stage in 1938, with the election of the former President's oldest son Robert A. Taft I to the United States Senate, representing Ohio. He continued in office as a senator until his death in 1953. President Taft's other son, Charles Phelps Taft II, served as the mayor of Cincinnati, Ohio, from 1955 to 1957. Two more generations of the Taft family later entered politics: The President's grandson, Robert Taft Jr., served a term as a Senator from Ohio from 1971 to 1977; the President's great-grandson, Robert A. Taft II, served as the Governor of Ohio from 1999 to 2007. William Howard Taft III was the U.S. ambassador to Ireland from 1953 to 1957. William Howard Taft IV, currently in private law practice, was the general counsel in the former Department of Health, Education, and Welfare in the 1970s, the Deputy Secretary of Defense under Casper Weinberger and Frank Carlucci in the 1980s, and he acted as the Secretary of Defense during the vacancy during January–March 1989. In addition, he was a high-level official in the United States Department of State from 2000 to 2006.
President Taft's enduring legacy has included many things being named after him. These include the courthouse of the Ohio Court of Appeals for the First District in Cincinnati, Ohio, streets in Cincinnati, Ohio, and Manila, Philippines, a law school in Santa Ana, California, and high schools in San Antonio, Texas, Woodland Hills, California, Chicago, Illinois, and the Bronx, New York. After a fire burned much of the town of Moron, California, during the 1920s, it was renamed Taft, California, in his honor.
According to legend (though probably apocryphal), the traditional 7th inning stretch at baseball games is owed to Taft. The President was watching a game and, in the seventh inning, he got up to stretch. The crowd, out of respect for the President, also rose to its feet. Since then, people have stretched during the seventh inning of baseball games.