William Howard Taft - Ohioan and 27th President of the United States
Created | Updated Jul 23, 2013
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Presidents come and go, but the Supreme Court goes on forever.
Imagine Santa Claus in the White House. Aside from perhaps a few elf appropriations, he would be a fairly ineffective politician with few achievements. In a way, that was the essence of William Howard Taft's presidency. Taft could be compared to Father Christmas in many ways - he was a large man (at around 300 pounds)1, was warm, generous, jovial and an all around good egg. However, Taft wasn't nearly as popular as Father Christmas.
Taft, who was the 27th American President and the seventh Ohioan in that office, served as President from 1909 to 1913. He was a decent man without much of a political brain. But he was an intellectual, and after his tenure as President, became the tenth Chief Justice of the Supreme Court - the only person to serve both those high offices. It was a role he was much more comfortable in.
As proof of his inexperience as a politician, consider that he only once held a relatively minor elected office before the Presidency - the rest of his governmental jobs were appointments. He described the campaign for the Presidency as 'one of the most uncomfortable four months of my life'. He alienated members of his party, annoyed his benefactor and got defeated in a landslide when he ran for re-election. He never truly wanted to be President.
However, the story of William Howard Taft doesn't begin with his time in the White House. It begins in 1839 in Cincinnati, Ohio.
Alphonso Taft was a man born in Vermont who became a lawyer in Connecticut. In 1839 he moved. His destination was Cincinnati, Ohio, and there Alphonso met a woman called Louisa Torrey. Both were members of respectable New England families with British lineage. She was Taft's second wife, and a boy named William Howard was her second try for a healthy child (their first child ended up dying in infancy).
William Howard Taft was born on 15 September, 1857 - a time of great political conflict in America. 1857 was the year that the infamous Dred Scott decision was made by the Supreme Court, ruling that slavery could not be outlawed in free states and that African-Americans could not be citizens in America. It is interesting that one of the Supreme Court's most distinguished justices was born in the year of one of its most embarrassing and troubling decisions.
The nation was becoming more and more divided over the issue of slavery. Then the Civil War took place, from 1861 - 1865, just as the young Taft and his three siblings and two half-brothers were growing up. Alphonso Taft would end up serving as Secretary of War and Attorney General under Ulysses S Grant after the Civil War2. The children grew up in a household in which Republican values and education were highly prized. It's no wonder then that the House of Taft would become one of America's most influential political dynasties.
Taft was educated in public schools and was active, good natured and smart. As a boy, he was pudgy, so he was nicknamed 'big lub' by his schoolmates. Taft was then sent to Yale for higher education. There, he joined the secret Skull and Bones society that his father had co-founded when he attended Yale a generation earlier. Taft did extremely well in Yale, ranking second in his class and earning quite a few friends. He went on to study Law at Cincinnati Law School, and graduated from that institution in 1880. Shortly afterwards, Taft officially became a lawyer when he passed the Ohio bar. He took a job as a reporter, and then as Assistant Prosecutor of Hamilton County.
In 1886, Taft married a woman named Nellie Herron. She was in many ways like Taft's mother - independent, intelligent and strong-willed. Her father was a friend of Rutherford B Hayes (another Ohioan President) and once visited the White House while she was young. After that, she was determined to become First Lady of the United States, and said that anyone she married would have to want to become President. She always pressured William into running for President and tried to prepare him for it, even though he never really wanted that.
The Taft family at that time was a fairly influential one. Nellie's family was also powerful. Between them, they managed to get William Howard an appointment to finish the term of a judge in 1887 on the Superior Court of Cincinnati. Taft was then re-elected to that job. Taft worked his connections to try to get President Benjamin Harrison (incidentally, a member of another Ohioan political family) to appoint him to the Supreme Court. Believing he was too young for the job, though, Harrison appointed him as Solicitor-General, meaning he would represent the US Government in cases at the Supreme Court. His wife was excited by the prospect of working in Washington, DC because it could lead to political advancement and meeting important people. In fact, during this time, Taft met a man named Theodore Roosevelt. Taft eventually helped Roosevelt get a job in Washington as Assistant Secretary of the Navy under then President McKinley (another Ohioan).
Taft wasn't crazy about the job though, and preferred his time as a judge. He got Harrison to appoint him to the Sixth US Circuit Court of Appeals in 1892 (which was based in Taft's hometown). After William McKinley fought the Spanish-American War (in which Theodore Roosevelt famously led a charge with his cavalry group called the 'Rough Riders'), the United States acquired the Philippines. McKinley wanted Taft to take a job as governor of the Philippines. Taft didn't want to... at all. He didn't want to leave his home, liked being a judge and didn't believe the US should force a government onto the Philippines. However, he was persuaded into taking the job at his wife's suggestion and at the promise of McKinley that he would appoint Taft to the Supreme Court as soon as he could.
Taft was good at his job in the Philippines. He built infrastructure for the people and demonstrated compassion for the people on the islands.
Meanwhile, back in the United States, William McKinley was assassinated. The man he had chosen as his Vice President was Theodore Roosevelt, who had become good friends with Taft over time. Roosevelt became President on 14 September, 1901 and asked Taft to be his Secretary of War in 1904, the year he was re-elected. Taft was not eager to become a Secretary of War - he would have been better suited to a judgeship, but Roosevelt had every confidence in his friend. Taft didn't like the idea of controlling the armed forces when he had never served in them and had no real experience. He left this office in 1908, because he had a much more pressing job to worry about.
Don't sit up nights thinking about making me President for that will never come and I have no ambition in that direction. Any party which would nominate me would make a great mistake.
Roosevelt decided not to run for re-election in 1908, but threw his support behind Taft to be his successor. Roosevelt thought that he had the wisdom and capability to become a truly great President. He said of Taft:
There cannot be found in the whole country a man so well fitted to be President.
Boy, was he wrong...
On the popular Roosevelt's suggestion, the Republican National Convention nominated Taft to be President of the US. During the campaign, Taft basically said he would continue the policies of the Roosevelt administration, which appealed to the more progressive end of the party, but his conservative family reassured the base of the party. Taft defeated Democrat William Jennings Bryan easily, with 321 of 476 electoral votes and a very strong part of the popular vote.
There is a legend that during his Presidency, Taft when to a baseball game in Washington, DC. By the seventh inning, he was aching and stood up to stretch. The crowd stood up as well, believing he was leaving, in order to show respect. However, he sat back down again after a bit of moving about, and supposedly the tradition of the 'seventh-inning stretch' was born'. In fact, this tradition is known to have existed at least since 1869.
However, one baseball tradition can definitely be attributed to him. At the same game that he supposedly initiated the seventh inning stretch, Taft threw out the opening pitch of the Washington Senators' season. Every President since (except for Jimmy Carter) has done the same for a baseball team. Incidentally, Taft was actually once offered a contract to pitch for his hometown team, the Cincinnati Reds. One of his favourite games to play as a child, even though he was rather large, was baseball.
I am afraid I am a constant disappointment to my party. The fact of the matter is, the longer I am President the less of a party man I seem to become.
Roosevelt was a tough act to follow. Taft was a gentle, warm fellow, but his personal charisma didn't appeal as widely to the masses as his predecessor had done. He lacked the oratory skills of Teddy. He really wasn't the sort of person suited for the Presidency, but he was under pressure from Roosevelt and his wife. It was the story of his life. He really just wanted to be a judge, but all these other positions were thrust upon him. Unlike most US Presidents, Taft had greatness thrust upon him rather than making himself great. That isn't the best way to start in taking the White House.
Taft was more conservative than Roosevelt, and didn't believe that the President should be in charge of the government. He relied on the Congress to take the lead on most legislation. Taft also chose very conservative men for his cabinet and alienated the reformist, progressive wing of the Republican Party. He also pushed for lower tariffs, which bothered the conservative wing. However, he signed a bill that actually raised tariffs on many things, making the progressives feel betrayed. This divided the Republican party and left Taft without a base to rely on.
As Taft's administration went on, Roosevelt became less and less happy with the performance of his friend. When Taft fired Roosevelt's US Forestry Service head Gifford Pinochet, Roosevelt felt that Taft had fully abandoned his agenda. Understandably, as Roosevelt had made Taft President, he must have felt betrayed or that Taft was being ungrateful.
Progressives and conservatives in the Republican party both disliked Taft's actions, and especially disliked huge Democratic gains in Congress during midterm elections, which were blamed on Taft. His political blunders overshadowed his reforms, such as the changes he made to the Post Office and the breaking up of more monopolies than the Roosevelt administration managed. He also helped reform Federal taxation and passed reforms on political campaigning. He championed economic imperialism, especially in Latin America. But President Taft had more weaknesses than strengths in foreign policy. Several treaties he created were destroyed in the Senate or not signed by the other nation.
Politics makes me sick.
For all his good intentions, Taft became very unpopular quickly. In the election of 1912, Roosevelt, now Taft's enemy, made a run at the Republican nomination. However, being the incumbent, Taft displayed a small glimmer of political ability when he used his power within the party to prevent Roosevelt from taking the party's nomination. Roosevelt was determined that Taft not get a second term, though, and ran for President in the Progressive, or 'Bull Moose' party. Even though Taft was miserable as President, he still ran for re-election. Perhaps he didn't want Roosevelt to win the election just as badly as Roosevelt didn't want Taft to win. The Democrats fielded Woodrow Wilson as their candidate.
When the results were in, something was clear. Roosevelt's entrance to the race had split the Republican vote, and Woodrow Wilson won. Taft came in an embarrassing third place, with eight electoral votes and only about three and-a-half million votes.
I don't remember that I ever was President.
In some way, it must have been a relief to Taft to lose. He got to go back to a quiet, private life, as Professor of Law at Yale University. However, on 19 May, 1921, the Chief Justice of the Supreme Court, Edward D White, died. An Ohioan man named Warren G Harding happened to hold the Presidency. He appointed Taft as the Chief Justice of the Supreme Court. Taft valued this honour above everything else, and became the only President to serve as Chief Justice of the Supreme Court. He was also, of course, the only former President to administer the oath of office to future presidents. He would inaugurate both Calvin Coolidge and Herbert Hoover, before he left the Supreme Court on 3 February, 1930.
The Ohioan died on 8 March, 1930 and was buried at Arlington National Cemetery, the first of two Presidents to be buried there3.
William Howard Taft left behind quite a few political leaders. His son, Robert A Taft, became a Senator from Ohio and the leader of Republicans there. He was a detractor of the New Deal and frequently attempted to get the Republican nomination for the presidency. Another son, Charles Phelps Taft served as Mayor of Cincinnati for a short time. WH Taft's grandson, Robert Taft, Jr was another Senator from Ohio in the 1970s. At the time of this writing, Robert Taft III, William Howard's great-grandson, is the governor of the state of Ohio. There were also various other office-holders in the family.