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American President Essays: William Taft

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William Taft: Life in Brief

William Howard Taft faced the difficult task as President of living up to the legacy of Theodore Roosevelt. Taft so disappointed his predecessor, former mentor, and friend, that Roosevelt opposed his renomination in 1912 and bolted from the Republican Party to form his own "Bull-Moose" party, creating an opening for Democrat Woodrow Wilson in the 1912 presidential election. Taft's lifelong ambition was to serve as Chief Justice of the United States, to which he was appointed after leaving the presidency. He remains the only man in American history to have gained the highest executive and judicial positions.

Meeting Expectations

Taft, born in 1857, spent his boyhood in Cincinnati, Ohio, trying to live up to the high expectations of his demanding parents, especially his father, Alphonso Taft. Alphonso Taft was a distinguished Cincinnati attorney and a prominent Republican who served as secretary of war and then attorney general under President Ulysses Grant, and was U.S. minister (ambassador) to Austria-Hungary and Russia under President Chester Arthur. The elder Taft had also sought but lost the 1879 Republican gubernatorial nomination in Ohio.

From childhood, William Howard Taft had a weight problem, a reaction perhaps to his parents' very high expectations for him. At times during his presidency, he reached 300 pounds. He followed his father's and half-brother's path to Yale University, graduating second in his class. He studied law at the University of Cincinnati and entered private practice while also holding several local appointive positions. At age 29, Taft married an ambitious, intellectual, and independent woman, Helen "Nellie" Herron, who pushed him to strive for more than a judicial career. He held several key legal and judicial posts from 1887 to 1900, including judge of the Cincinnati Superior Court, U.S. solicitor general, and then as a member of the Sixth U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals. President William McKinley then asked Taft to serve as president of the commission to oversee the newly won Philippine Islands. Taft was disappointed, but pushed by his associates, including his wife, he took the job, with McKinley's promise of a future position on the Supreme Court upon his return.

Governor General of the Philippines

Despite his initial hesitancy about it, Taft's service in the Philippines from 1900 to 1903 was fulfilling and largely successful. While there, he twice turned down President Roosevelt's offer of a Supreme Court appointment in order to finish his work. Becoming governor of the islands in 1901, Taft abandoned the brutal and bloody tactics the U.S. military government had used to squash the nationalist rebellion. By the time he left the islands to become Roosevelt's secretary of war in 1903, Taft had constructed a functioning civil regime and pacified the islands. At the same time, Taft fully subscribed to the view that Filipinos were not capable of self-rule. He believed that independence could only come to the undeveloped nation after a long period of U.S. tutelage and protection.

As secretary of war, Taft became Roosevelt's chief emissary and confidant, assisting him in the Portsmouth Peace negotiations, and in establishing a protectorate in Cuba. Roosevelt, having sworn upon his victory in 1904 that he would not seek another term, handpicked Taft to succeed him in 1908. The public joked that T.A.F.T. stood for "take advice from Theodore." Thanks in part to Roosevelt's popularity, Taft's victory over Democrat William Jennings Bryan was decisive. Taft promised to continue Roosevelt's reform program. But Roosevelt, and many of his allies, saw Taft's administration as abandoning progressivism. The consequent animosity split the Republican Party in 1912, sweeping Woodrow Wilson into office.

A Judicial President

Taft's disposition was more prone to judicious administration than presidential activism. Though he came to the White House promising to continue Roosevelt's agenda, he was more comfortable executing the existing law than demanding new legislation from Congress. His first effort as President was to lead Congress to lower tariffs, but traditional high tariff interests dominated Congress, and Taft largely failed in his effort at legislative leadership. He also alienated Roosevelt when he attempted to break up U.S. Steel, a trust that Roosevelt had approved while President. Taft also forced Roosevelt's forestry chief to resign, jeopardizing Roosevelt's gains in the conservation of natural resources. By 1911, Taft was less active in "trust-busting," and generally seemed more conservative. In foreign affairs, Taft continued Roosevelt's goal of expanding U.S. foreign trade in South and Central America, as well as in Asia, and he termed his policy "dollar diplomacy."President Taft's life-long dream of reaching the U.S. Supreme Court was satisfied in 1921 with his appointment as chief justice by President Warren Harding. Taft had been uncomfortable with politics. His tendency to contemplate every side of an issue served him well as chief justice but rendered him indecisive and ineffectual as President. His presidency is generally viewed as a failure, swinging as he did from a progressive program of "trust busting" to reactionary conservatism in the face of withering criticism from Roosevelt and his allies. While Taft's presidency left a mark on the organization and conduct of the executive branch, and developed the administration of anti-trust policy, his public leadership has been widely seen as below average for 20th century Presidents.

William Taft: Life Before the Presidency

Born in the Mount Auburn section of Cincinnati, Ohio, on September 15, 1857, William Howard Taft was a physically active child, playing sports and taking dancing lessons despite his tendency to obesity. He loved baseball, and he was a good second baseman and a power hitter. Taft studied at Woodward High School, a well-regarded private school in Cincinnati, graduating in 1874 second in the class with a four-year grade point average of 91.5 out of 100.

At Yale University, Taft followed his father's advice to refrain from athletics lest his participation impede his academic progress. He graduated second in his class of 132 students and then went on to the University of Cincinnati Law School while working part time as a courthouse reporter for the Cincinnati Commercial. Taft passed his bar exams in May 1880.

Living Up to High Expectations

Taft was raised in a large, close, and stimulating family. He had five siblings, two half brothers by his father's first marriage and two brothers and a sister born to his mother. The family identified with the Unitarian Church, subscribing to a belief in God but not the divinity of Christ. Taft's father, Alphonso Taft, was a lawyer and served as secretary of war and then attorney general in President Ulysses S. Grant's cabinet. President Chester A. Arthur appointed Taft's father to serve as minister (the title of ambassador in those days) to Austria-Hungary and Russia. A significant role model for William, Alphonso Taft was sensible, kind, gentle, and highly "Victorian"—a man who kept his emotions under rigid control. Politically active in the Republican Party, the senior Taft served on Cincinnati's city council and sought unsuccessfully the 1875 Republican nomination in the Ohio gubernatorial race. Alphonso had liberal views on women's rights, however, and encouraged Taft's mother, Louisa Maria Torrey Taft, in her independent ways and numerous outside activities and her intellectual curiosity. The energetic Louisa Taft organized a local and statewide kindergarten movement, an art association, book clubs, German and French clubs, and traveled widely with her husband on his diplomatic missions. Of the two parents, Louisa was the more curious and adventurous, often taking the family down paths none would have ventured on their own. Taft's father died in 1891.

William lived in constant fear of not meeting his parents' expectations. No matter how well he performed, he was anxious about their approval. When he graduated from high school in 1874, he chose for his graduation ceremony address the subject of women's suffrage, telling the audience about his progressive parents. Taft's large variations in his body weight, according to some scholars, stemmed from his social and family anxieties.

Political Ambitions

Taft married Helen "Nellie" Herron at her parents' home in Cincinnati on June 19, 1886. He was twenty-eight and she was twenty-five. Nellie equaled Taft's mother in intellect and energy. She accepted Taft's proposal for marriage in part because she saw him as a partner to fulfill her hope of a life in national politics, and beyond that of parochial Cincinnati. Her father, a one-time law partner of Rutherford B. Hayes, had taken Nellie to the White House for President and Mrs. Hayes's twenty-fifth wedding anniversary. Young Nellie was so captivated that she vowed to one day be First Lady. In 1911, she would celebrate her own silver wedding anniversary at the White House, filling the mansion with nearly 4,000 guests.

Principally due to his father's political connections, Taft became assistant prosecutor of Hamilton County, Ohio, in 1881. Thereafter, he worked as a lawyer for a few years before being appointed judge of the Cincinnati Superior Court in 1887. From an early point in his career, he aspired to a seat on the U.S. Supreme Court. He was appointed U.S. solicitor general in 1890 (the third highest position in the Department of Justice). While living in Washington, D.C., as solicitor general, Taft became close to Theodore Roosevelt, then a civil service commissioner. Taft later petitioned his fellow Ohioan, President William McKinley, to obtain Roosevelt's appointment as assistant secretary of the Navy. Against his wife's preferences, in 1892 Taft accepted appointment as a judge of the Sixth U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals with jurisdiction over Ohio, Michigan, Kentucky, and Tennessee. While on that court, Taft also served, from 1896 to 1900, as a professor of law and dean of the University of Cincinnati Law School.

Governor General of the Philippines

Although content with his place on the Sixth U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals as a possible stepping stone to the Supreme Court, Taft knew that it was not enough for Nellie Taft. She wanted the White House, and she seldom hid her irritation over Taft's judicial ambitions. When a telegram from President McKinley in January 1900 summoned Taft to Washington, Nellie suspected that something was in the works. She would welcome her husband's appointment to the Supreme Court as a way of moving back to Washington, but she hoped the meeting with McKinley would open other doors. Her hope was fulfilled.

Out of the victory in the Spanish-American War, the Philippine Islands had become a U.S. protectorate. McKinley wanted Taft to go to the islands to set up a civilian government. This entailed drafting and implementing laws, a constitution, an administration, and a civil service bureaucracy. A civil commission was established toward that end, and McKinley offered to Taft the commission's presidency. Taft was hesitant to take this challenging job, in a distant corner of the world, but Republican leaders maintained that this task would distinguish him for future high office.

In going to the Philippines, Taft knew that he was stepping into a political storm. Seventy thousand U.S. soldiers were fighting in the islands to put down a rebellion of Filipino nationalists led by Emilio Aguinaldo. The ferocity of America's attempt to squash the rebellion was especially bloody and often horribly brutal. It left a black mark on the nation's honor, and the "yellow press" had a field day attacking U.S. conduct against the Filipinos. Additionally, political opposition was growing to what critics charged were McKinley's imperialist policies. But Nellie, surprised and overjoyed, urged Taft to take the job. The two traveled with their three children to the islands, where they lived like royalty for the next several years.

Upon arriving in the islands, Taft immediately clashed with the military governor, General Arthur MacArthur (the father of General Douglas MacArthur of World War II and Korean War fame). Taft viewed the military control of the islands as too brutal and unsympathetic to the islanders. Obtaining McArthur's removal after the capture of Aguinaldo, Taft quickly set to work drafting the Island's constitution. It included a Bill of Rights that was nearly identical to the first ten amendments to the U.S. Constitution, with the notable absence of the right to trial by jury. Central to the new governance structure was the role of civil governor, a post to which Taft was appointed. He established a civil service system, a judicial system, English-language public schools, a transportation network, and health care facilities. He also negotiated with the Vatican (the Roman Catholic papal headquarters in Rome) to purchase 390,000 acres of church property in the Philippines for $7.5 million. Taft distributed this land by way of low-cost mortgages to tens of thousands of Filipino peasants.

While in the Philippines, Taft had twice turned down President Roosevelt's offer of a Supreme Court appointment in order to finish his work in the Islands. Taft was loved and supported by many Filipino residents for his evenhanded governance. In Taft's own view, the Filipinos were not yet capable of governing themselves, and he believed that it would take years before self-rule would work. He foresaw a long period of U.S. instruction and protection of the islands through which the "immature" culture could be raised by American tutelage to capacities for independent governance. The Philippines did not achieve self-rule and independence until 1946.

Secretary of War

Had it not been for the opportunity to become Roosevelt's secretary of war, Nellie Taft would have urged her husband to stay in the Philippines. Taft accepted Roosevelt's offer because he believed that as secretary of war he would continue to oversee affairs in the Islands. During his four years as secretary of war (1904-1908), Taft became Roosevelt's chief agent, confidant, and troubleshooter in foreign affairs. He supervised the construction of the Panama Canal, made several voyages around the world for the President, supervised affairs in the Philippines, and functioned as the provisional governor of Cuba. He traveled more than any other cabinet minister, with over 255 days of his four years spent abroad on special missions. He was gone so often that the press began questioning his huge travel expenses—partly because he almost always took Nellie and at least one or two of his children along. Concerned about the public's opinion, Roosevelt asked Taft to have the voyages funded by Taft's wealthy brother, Charles, who already was underwriting much of Taft's living expenses in Washington, D.C. (In 1904, Charles—who had married a wealthy Ohio heiress—gave William 1,000 shares of Cleveland Gas Company stock, which added $8,000 a year to his income, a large sum in those days.) Always eager to help his brother, Charles Taft assumed the lion's share of William's travel expenses.

William Taft: Campaigns and Elections

The Campaign and Election of 1908:

After his 1904 electoral victory, Theodore Roosevelt promised publicly not to seek the presidency again in 1908. While he later regretted that decision, he felt bound by it and vigorously promoted William Howard Taft as his successor. Both Nellie Taft and Roosevelt had to persuade Taft to make the race. Even with the presidency in his reach, Taft much preferred the U.S. Supreme Court chief justice appointment.

It was generally expected that Taft would be Roosevelt's man in the White House, and Taft himself vowed to continue Roosevelt's progressive policies. Still, up to the last minute before Taft's nomination at the Republican Party convention in Chicago, Nellie Taft feared that Roosevelt might announce his bid for a second elected term. It almost happened on the second day of the convention, when a spontaneous and wild demonstration produced a forty-nine minute stampede for Roosevelt—the longest-lasting demonstration that had ever occurred at a national political convention. Only when Roosevelt sent word via Senator Henry Cabot Lodge that he was not available did the convention nominate Taft on the first ballot. The final count gave Taft 702 votes (491 votes were needed to win) in a field of seven nominees. The Democrats once again nominated William Jennings Bryan, the twice-defeated candidate who still personified the populist politics of the Democratic Party and the moral fervor of its "silverite" wing.

At Nellie's urging, Taft announced that he intended to drop thirty pounds off his 300 pound plus weight for the campaign fight ahead. He retreated to the golf course at a resort in Hot Springs, Virginia, where he stayed for much of the next three months. His campaign, once it started, depended heavily upon Roosevelt for speechmaking, advice, and energy. Journalists bombarded the public with jokes about Taft being a substitute for Roosevelt. One columnist explained that T.A.F.T. stood for "Take Advice From Theodore." Nothing could hide Taft's dislike for campaigning and politics. His handlers tried to turn his sluggish style into a positive asset by describing Taft as a new kind of politician—one who refuses to say anything negative about his opponent. For most voters it was enough, however, that Taft had pledged to carry on Roosevelt's policies. His victory was overwhelming. He carried all but three states outside the Democratic Solid South and won 321 electoral votes to Bryan's 162. In the final tally for the popular vote, Taft won 7,675,320 (51.6 percent) to Bryan's 6,412,294 (43.1 percent). Socialist candidate Eugene V. Debs won just 2.8 percent of the popular vote, or 420,793.

The Campaign and Election of 1912

After four years in the White House, Taft agreed to run for a second term, principally because he felt compelled to defend himself against Roosevelt's attacks on him as a traitor to reform. The former friends and allies had become bitter opponents. Roosevelt saw Taft as betraying his promise to advance Roosevelt's agenda. He was especially bitter over Taft's antitrust policy, which had targeted one of Roosevelt's personally sanctioned "Good Trusts," U.S. Steel. The former President also felt personally betrayed by Taft's firing of Gifford Pinchot, head of the U.S. forest service and Roosevelt's old friend and conservation policy ally. Certain that Taft would take the party down with him in 1912, Roosevelt was determined to replace him as the 1912 Republican candidate.

After his return to America in 1910 from a big game hunting safari in Africa and a European tour, Roosevelt began to criticize Taft obliquely in speeches which sketched out his "New Nationalism" policies. He argued for the elimination of special interests from politics, direct primaries, and graduated income and inheritance taxes. Roosevelt's platform also advocated a downward revision of the tariff schedule, open publicity about corporate business practices and decisions, and laws prohibiting the use of corporate funds in politics. Additionally, he supported the initiative and referendum process, as well as the conservation and use of national resources to benefit all the people. In contrast to what would become Woodrow Wilson's 1912 political agenda, New Nationalism promised active government supervision and regulation of giant corporations rather than their dissolution. Monopolies would be made to operate in the public interest rather than solely in the interest of their stockholders. Taft considered Roosevelt's ideas hopelessly radical and listened to his conservative supporters—and especially his wife—who vilified Roosevelt as a man bent on destroying the nation and the President.

In the year before the Republican convention, Roosevelt attacked Taft mercilessly and at every opportunity. Several states had established direct primaries, which allowed the people to vote their opinion on a preference ballot for party candidates (though in most of those states, the convention delegates would still be selected by party leaders). By 1912, thirteen states had primary laws: South Dakota, Wisconsin, Maryland, Massachusetts, Nebraska, New Jersey, North Dakota, Oregon, Illinois, California, Pennsylvania, Illinois, and Ohio. Roosevelt's no-holds-barred attack on Taft finally reached a sore point when the former President spoke in favor of the popular recall of judges and judicial decisions on constitutional questions. Taft responded in a speech on April 25, 1912, declaring that a Roosevelt victory would institute a reign of terror similar to that following the French Revolution. Thereafter, the fight became a free-for-all, with Taft hitting back at Roosevelt constantly. The resulting campaign to win the Republican nomination was the first in which a sitting President campaigned in state primaries.

The primary elections showed Roosevelt to be the people's clear choice. Senator Robert LaFollette won North Dakota and Wisconsin while Taft carried New York. Roosevelt, however, carried all other primaries. When the convention opened in Chicago on June 7, Roosevelt had 271 delegates pledged to him compared to Taft's 71—just 80 votes short of a majority. Taft's major advantage as President then came into play: his control of federal patronage. Consequently, he was able to hold the delegates from southern states. In addition, he controlled the Republican National Committee, which decided on any challenges of delegates from the primaries. Most of the states sent two sets of delegates to the convention, and the Republican National Committee—dominated by Taft Republicans—seated all but a few of the Taft-pledged delegates. Three days of confusion followed on the convention floor. The party bosses handed the nomination to Taft with 561 votes to Roosevelt's 187. Forty-one delegate votes were cast for Senator LaFollette.

Having lost the nomination, Roosevelt led his followers out of the convention and formed the Progressive Party. It was quickly nicknamed the Bull Moose Party, in honor of Roosevelt's comparison of himself to a raging bull moose ready for a fight. The new party nominated Roosevelt as its presidential candidate on August 6 in the Chicago Coliseum. The progressive governor of California, Hiram Johnson, was selected as Roosevelt's running mate.

Sensing victory because of the Republican fratricide, the Democrats, nearly delirious with confidence over the mess in the Republican Party, had nominated Woodrow Wilson, the progressive governor of New Jersey, on the forty-third ballot at their convention in Baltimore. They pegged Indiana Governor Thomas Marshall as his running mate. In the campaign that followed, Taft became more conservative as he ran against two challengers, both identified as progressives. In the face of strong criticism from the challengers, Taft tended to retreat to the golf links where he hid away from the public. Understanding that Taft had essentially given up the fight, Roosevelt and Wilson slugged it out in the popular media. Wilson presented his "New Freedom" ideas, which were similar to Roosevelt's "New Nationalism," except that Wilson favored the dismantling of all giant monopolies. Roosevelt visited thirty-four states and won significant public sympathy from a bravura act following an assassin's attack in Milwaukee. After being shot in the chest, the healthy "bull moose" survived to make a scheduled campaign appearance. The bullet had entered his chest but had been deflected from its full force by a fifty page speech in Roosevelt's coat pocket.

On election day, Wilson beat the split Republicans decisively in the Electoral College. Taft carried only two minor states, Utah and Vermont. Wilson compiled 435 electoral votes to 88 for Roosevelt and 8 for Taft. Gauging from the election results, had the Republicans united behind Roosevelt, he probably would have won the election in view of the fact that Taft and Roosevelt won a larger combined popular vote than Wilson. Moreover, when the Roosevelt, Wilson, and Debs votes are combined, the election of 1912 represents a stunning victory for progressivism, or reform, at the national level. Taft's policies had been decisively repudiated by the end of his term.

William Taft: Domestic Affairs

William Howard Taft entered the White House determined to implement and continue Roosevelt's program. His central ambition regarding reform was to create an orderly framework for administering a reform agenda. His conception of executive leadership was primarily focused on administration rather than legislative agenda-setting. He felt most comfortable in executing the law, regardless of his personal feelings for the particular piece of legislation. However, during his presidency, Congress produced significant reform legislation. In one of his first acts in office, Taft called for a special session of Congress to reform tariff law through reduced rates.

Among the significant pieces of legislation passed by Congress during Taft's presidency was the Mann-Elkins Act of 1910, empowering the Interstate Commerce Commission to suspend railroad rate hikes and to set rates. The act also expanded the ICC's jurisdiction to cover telephones, telegraphs, and radio. Taft also placed 35,000 postmasters and 20,000 skilled workers in the Navy under civil service protection. In addition, the Department of Commerce and Labor was divided into two cabinet departments with Taft's approval. He also vetoed the admissions of Arizona and New Mexico to statehood because of their constitutional provision for the recall of judges. When the recall clauses were removed, Taft supported statehood. And while he pushed the passage of the Sixteenth Amendment (income tax), he only reluctantly advocated the Seventeenth Amendment (direct election of senators). Among his most controversial actions, Taft promoted an administrative innovation whereby the President, rather than the disparate agencies of government, would submit a budget to Congress. Congress prohibited that action, but Taft's effort foreshadowed the creation of the executive budget in the Budget and Accounting Act of 1921, which gave the President new capacities for efficiency and control in the executive branch.


Taft's intent to provide more efficient administration for existing reform policies was perfectly suited for the prosecution of antitrust violations. More trust prosecutions (99, in all) occurred under Taft than under Roosevelt, who was known as the "Great Trust-Buster." The two most famous antitrust cases under the Taft Administration, Standard Oil Company of New Jersey and the American Tobacco Company, were actually begun during the Roosevelt years. He also won a lawsuit against the American Sugar Refining Company to break up the "sugar trust" that rigged prices. And when Taft moved to break up U.S. Steel, Roosevelt accused him of a lack of insight—unable to distinguish between "good" and "bad" trusts. By 1911, however, Taft began to back away from his antitrust efforts, stung by the criticism of his conservative business supporters and unsure about the long-range effect of trust-busting on the national economy. Most importantly, Taft had surrounded himself with conservative businessmen who shared his love for golf and recreation at fine resorts. His new business cronies isolated Taft from the progressive followers of Roosevelt who had supported his election.

Presidential Missteps

Taft stumbled dramatically on two important occasions as President. The first misstep occurred with his special congressional session to revise the tariff downward. This move activated a concerted effort by the protectionist majority in the Republican Party to persuade Taft to back off on tariff reform. In the struggle over the tariff, Senator Nelson Aldrich of Rhode Island and Representative Sereno E. Payne of New York, representing big business, succeeded in pushing through a tariff (the Payne-Aldrich Tariff) that affected only modest reductions. Although during the course of congressional action Taft had threatened to veto a tariff bill with insufficient reductions, when the Payne-Aldrich bill came to his desk he signed it, later claiming it was the best tariff bill ever passed by Congress. Taft's reversal on tariff reform immediately alienated progressives who saw high tariffs as the "mother of trusts."The second misstep involved his dismissal of Roosevelt's friend, the chief forester of the United States, Gifford Pinchot. The affair stemmed from Taft's appointment of Washington-state businessman Richard Ballinger as head of the Department of the Interior. Ballinger held that Roosevelt had improperly closed large sections of federal public-domain lands to economic development, re-opened some tracts, including rich coal lands in Alaska that Roosevelt had previously designated not for sale. Consequently, Pinchot launched a public attack on Ballinger, and indirectly on Taft, leaving the President with no alternative but to dismiss Pinchot. The resulting explosion tore the Republican Party apart and drove an inseparable wedge between Taft and his once-beloved friend and mentor, Theodore Roosevelt.

William Taft: Foreign Affairs

President Taft was more committed to the expansion of U.S. foreign trade than was Roosevelt. He pursued a program, known as "dollar diplomacy," designed to encourage U.S. investments in South and Central American, the Caribbean, and the Far East. To implement this foreign policy agenda, Taft used government officials to promote the sale of American products overseas, particularly heavy industrial goods and military hardware. In Taft's conception of foreign policy, the U.S. military was a tool of economic diplomacy. He invited U.S. banks to rescue debt-ridden Honduras with loans and grants, and he sent 2,700 U.S. marines to stabilize Nicaragua's conservative, pro-U.S. regime when rebels threatened to overthrow its government.

Taft's effort at designing a new look for U.S. foreign policy was generally unsuccessful. United States trade with China actually declined under Taft. Additionally, his program aimed at seeking commercial advantages in Central America aggravated the existing ill will that had been generated by Roosevelt's military interventions in Panama and Santa Domingo. (See Roosevelt's biography, foreign affairs section, for further details.) The bad relations between the United States and other American nations to the south resulted in the convening of a Pan-American Conference. This conference was intent on finding ways to curtail U.S. commercial penetration, influence, and intervention. When Taft ordered two thousand troops to the Mexican border to stand ready to intervene in revolutionary-torn Mexico to protect U.S. investments, Congress offered stiff opposition. Taft then backed off (earning the nickname "Peaceful Bill"), leaving the situation in Mexico for his successor to handle.

William Taft: Life After the Presidency

After leaving the White House, William Howard Taft taught at Yale University Law School until President Warren G. Harding (who had nominated Taft in 1912 at the Republican convention) appointed him chief justice of the U.S. Supreme Court. During the years between his appointment to the court and his presidency, Taft campaigned for Charles Evans Hughes for President in 1916 and served as cochairman of the National Labor Board. He supported Wilson's European foreign policy and U.S. participation in the League of Nations.

Taft served as chief justice until his death in 1930. He wrote 253 opinions, or about one-sixth of all decisions handed down during his term. Most of his decisions were cautiously conservative and constraining of government. In Truax v. Corrigan, for example, he struck down the provision of the Clayton Anti-Trust Act which barred injunctions against labor picketing. He reasoned that even peaceful picketing may violate the Fourteenth Amendment in depriving business owners of their property without the due process of law. He also ruled against the right of Congress to discourage child labor by levying an excise tax on goods manufactured by children (Bailey v. Drexel Furniture Co.) However, in at least one instance Taft had an opportunity to expand the President's power. His majority opinion in Myers v. United States invalidated tenure of office acts which limited the power of the President to remove subordinates, in this case postmasters. President Andrew Johnson's violation of similar law, the Tenure of Office Act of 1867, led to his impeachment by the House of Representatives.

On March 8, 1930, Taft died from complications of heart disease, high blood pressure, and inflammation of the bladder. His funeral was the first presidential funeral broadcast on radio. He was buried at Arlington National Cemetery. Taft and John F. Kennedy are the only Presidents buried at Arlington. His wife lived for another thirteen years—the only woman to be both First Lady and wife of a chief justice.

William Taft: Family Life

As President, William Howard Taft left most family and domestic matters to Nellie Taft. Two of his three children, Robert Alphonso and Helen Herron, were college students during the White House years. Robert graduated from Yale in 1910, and then went on to Harvard Law School, where he graduated first in his class in 1913. He would go on to become one of the most distinguished and powerful senators of the twentieth century, earning the nickname "Mr. Republican." Helen earned her doctorate in history from Yale in 1917. The youngest sibling, Charles Phelps, aged eleven in 1908, spent his adolescence in the White House.

Taft loved to play sports. He was the first President to take up golf. Some western voters—those who equated Taft's Unitarianism with atheism—thought his golf playing indecent if not immoral. His love for the sport caused a golf boom in the nation, doubling the number of players on public courses. Taft's affection for golf also caused political problems during his presidency, when critics thought he would do well to spend less time on the links and more time at work in the White House.

What most people associated with Taft, however, was his enormous size, and the image of his 300 plus pounds of presidential flesh offended some people and amused many others. When he became stuck in the presidential bath tub, requiring six men to pull him free, the nation's press had a field day. His size made him the subject of countless jokes: "Taft was the most polite man in Washington. One day he gave up his seat on a streetcar to three women." Within the capital's social circle, Taft frequently embarrassed his family and associates by falling asleep at concerts, during presidential briefing sessions, and while presiding over his cabinet. At ease with his uncontrolled appetite and his need for sleep after eating or after exerting himself, Taft simply refused to be embarrassed by his weight or his behavior. He accepted his size and so did most of the American public in time.

William Taft: The American Franchise

The nation’s population had leaped from 76 million people in 1900 to 92 million people in 1910—a 21 percent increase. Nearly 9 million immigrants were included in that population surge, the largest number of newcomers in any decade of the nation’s history. Almost 60 percent of these immigrants came from Italy, Russia, and the Austrian-Hungarian Empire. They were poorer and less well educated than earlier arrivals from northern and western Europe. Their religious traditions clashed with America's dominant Protestantism. Most of the new immigrants settled in cities, which explains partly the shift in the rural/urban ratio in the nation. By 1920, more Americans lived in urban places than in rural areas.

Changes in the Political Scene

When William Howard Taft entered the White House in 1909, 65.4 percent of the eligible voters in the nation had voted. In 1912, the ratio of voter participation had dropped to 58.8 percent—a continuation of the downward trend that began in 1904. By comparison, the percentage of eligible voters who participated in the presidential elections from 1840 to 1900 always ranged between 75 to 80 percent. The principal reason behind the drop is related to the weakening of the political party structure with the onset of progressivism in the 1890s. States moved to restrict the influence of political parties by such measures as direct primaries that enabled citizens to support independents in party nominating elections. In addition, states adopted voter registration requirements which made access to the vote more difficult. State initiative and referendum processes allowed citizens to go beyond political parties to move legislation. The electorate was additionally empowered by its ability to recall elected state officials. And starting in 1916, voters—not state legislatures—chose U.S. senators. This latter change forced campaigns to focus on the popular vote rather than on legislatures controlled by party bosses. Moreover, civil service reform greatly reduced party patronage. As a result, a new style of campaign emerged in which candidates appealed directly to voters rather than party leaders and convention delegates. Advertising began to replace the armies of party workers who had mobilized voters in the nineteenth century. Unfortunately, without party efforts to get out the vote, voter turnout began to decline.

Rise of Interest Groups

As the influence of political parties weakened, organized interest groups could push their special interests without having to go through party leaders. Groups like the Anti-Saloon League, the National Association of Manufacturers, the American Federation of Labor, the National American Woman Suffrage Association, and the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People focused their attention on the legislative process and on electing specific individuals to support their causes. They also began to retain the service of lobbyists, paid advocates who pressured elected officials to support their respective group interests. By 1912, some elected officials came to see themselves as mediators among competitive interest groups rather than just loyal members of a political party. Additionally, beginning in the 1890s, parties had become more heavily dependent on campaign contributions by business leaders and corporations.

Empowering the Disfranchised

Among the disfranchised were women and African Americans. Most blacks still lived in the American South in 1908, and most of them had been disfranchised by the various Jim Crow laws that threw up barriers, such as literacy tests and poll taxes, to their registration for voting. Since the end of Reconstruction, the Republican Party had maintained a shadow organization among southern African Americans, but it was primarily a means for manipulating delegate votes at Republican conventions and gave no real political power to African Americans. Most importantly, the wave of violence that swept the South in the first two decades of the new century (white mobs lynched more than 1,000 blacks between 1900 and 1914) terrorized African Americans. Most of those lynched, although wrongly accused of sexual aggression towards white women, had actually violated the political color line by their political assertiveness or personal independence in the face of white intimidation. Understandably, very few blacks voted in the national elections of 1908 and 1912.

In response to the limitations on their civil and political rights, and because economic opportunity in the South was limited for them, African Americans began moving to Northern cities after 1900. Although they found job discrimination, inferior schools, and segregated neighborhoods, they at least felt a sense of empowerment in the Northern ghettos. In Harlem, for instance, they could walk the streets unmolested, and they could organize into political action groups of some power. Also, new leaders and organizations emerged in the new century, which advocated black power and black assertiveness in the face of discrimination. W. E. B. DuBois, a forceful black scholar and writer, broke with white-accommodationist policies advocated by black educator and leader Booker T. Washington when he established the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP). DuBois supported black mobilization for political and social rights, and by 1914, the NAACP had 50 branch offices and more than 6,000 members.

Demanding the Vote

During the Taft years, American women organized effectively to demand suffrage and new roles for women in all walks of life. (The Nineteenth Amendment, giving women the right to vote in federal elections, would be ratified in time for the 1920 elections). Their struggle, similar to the struggle for black rights, raised questions about tactics and female identity. Before 1910, those women who organized for women's rights thought of themselves as members of "the women's movement." This label signified their desire to move beyond the domestic sphere of life into social welfare activities and political equality. They believed women's special, even superior, traits as protectors of family and home would lift all of society to a higher moral level as a result of their participation.

Around 1910, some of those concerned with women's role in society began using a new word—feminism—to characterize their efforts. They thought less in terms of duty and morality and more about rights and self-realization as women. They believed that all women should unite politically and socially because of their shared disadvantages as women. Their advocacy presented them with a fundamental dilemma that their opponents often highlighted: the formation of a united gender group for the purpose of abolishing gender-based distinctions in politics, the economy, religion, society, and life. Feminists especially focused on economic (equal pay for equal work) and sexual independence, supporting birth control (led by Margaret Sanger) and "sex rights," or a single standard of social behavior for men and women in sexual relations.

As chief justice of the United States, Taft presided over the court when it came down with a decision in Adkins vs. Children's Hospital which abolished "protective legislation" regulating the number of hours and the wages paid to women in a federal hospital in the District of Columbia. Although the decision abolished the distinction between men and women, at the time it was considered a reactionary move by the court to strike down a law that had granted women preferential, or "protective," treatment. Taft dissented from the opinion, citing the authority of Congress to set maximum hours, a position that was considered progressive at the time.

William Taft: Impact and Legacy

Historians acknowledge that William Howard Taft had a challenging task as President: living up to the legacy of Theodore Roosevelt. It did not help that his political experience and skills were limited and that he was naturally critical of his own abilities. His biographers generally agree that his gigantic appetite reflected psychological tensions within himself that he never resolved. Taft was a warmhearted and kind man who wanted to be loved as a person and to be respected for his judicial temperament. It was his temperament, moreover, that caused most of his problems as a political leader. Taft seldom took any initiative in legislative matters, and he had little talent for leadership. He tended to ponder at great length all sides of a question. In essence, he was not decisive. He sat by quietly, for example, as the Republican-dominated Congress added 847 amendments to his tariff reform package, dashing any hope for real reform. Additionally, he was inactive. He typically ate a dozen eggs, a pound of bacon, and mounds of pancakes for breakfast, leaving him sluggish for most of the morning.

In the words of Arthur Link, the much-respected biographer of Woodrow Wilson, the Taft presidency was an unmitigated "disaster." Most historians agree to some extent, viewing Taft as a conservative interregnum between activist reformers Roosevelt and Wilson. Although the word "disaster" is perhaps too extreme, there can be no doubt that Taft's hesitancy as a leader and politician produced few accomplishments during his term.

Citation Information

Consulting Editor

Peri E. Arnold

Professor Arnold is a professor in the Department of Political Science at the University of Notre Dame. His writings include:

Making the Managerial Presidency: Comprehensive Reorganization Planning, 1905–1996 (University Press of Kansas, 1986)