William Howard Taft (Cincinnati, September 15, 1857 – Washington, D.C., March 8, 1930) was an American lawyer and politician who served as the 27th President of the United States from 1909 to 1913 and also the 10th Chief Justice of the United States from 1921 to 1930, the only person in history to serve in both positions. Taft was elected President in the 1908 election as Theodore Roosevelt’s chosen successor, however he was defeated for re-election in 1912 by Woodrow Wilson after Roosevelt left the Republican Party and ran as an independent candidate. President Warren G. Harding subsequently appointed Taft as Chief Justice, a position he held until he resigned just one month before his death.
Taft was born into a modest but extremely demanding family about success. He studied at Yale until 1878, then became a lawyer and then a judge under the age of thirty. He continued his rapid rise, being appointed Solicitor General and a judge of the Court of Appeals. President William McKinley appointed him in 1901 as civilian governor-general of the Philippines. Taft became in 1904 the Secretary of War for Roosevelt, who personally chose him to be his successor in the presidency. He turned down several offers of appointment to the United States Supreme Court, despite his personal ambition to become Chief Justice, because he believed his political work was more important.
Taft faced little opposition to secure the Republican nomination for president in 1908, easily defeating William Jennings Bryan, the Democratic Party candidate, in the election. In the White House he focused more on East Asia than Europe and also repeatedly intervened to establish or remove governments in Latin American countries. Taft sought to reduce trade taxes, then a major source of government revenue, but the resulting bill was heavily influenced by special interests. His administration was fraught with conflict between the conservative wing, with which Taft often sympathized, and the progressive wing, with which Roosevelt grew increasingly close. Controversies within the administration separated the two men further. The former president challenged his successor for renomination in 1912, but the latter used his control of the party machinery to win a majority of delegates. Roosevelt left the party and Taft was left with little chance of reelection.
Taft returned to Yale as a professor after leaving the presidency, continuing his political activity and working against World War I through the League to Strengthen the Peace. Harding appointed him in 1921 as Chief Justice. Taft was conservative on business issues, but during his tenure there were advances in individual rights. He resigned from office in February 1930 due to ill health and died a month later, being buried at Arlington National Cemetery. Taft is generally rated as an average president in historical evaluations of former presidents.
William Howard Taft was born on September 15, 1857 in the city of Cincinnati, Ohio, the second child of a total of six to Alphonso Taft and his second wife Louise Torrey. The Taft family was not wealthy, living in a modest home in the suburbs of the Mount Auburn district. Alphonso worked as a judge, ambassador, and in Ulysses S. Grant’s presidential cabinet as Secretary of War and Attorney General.
Taft was not regarded as a bright person as a child, but as a hard worker; his parents were demanding and encouraged him and his four male siblings toward success, tolerating nothing less. Taft attended Woodward College in Cincinnati. He was burly and jovial, becoming popular after entering Yale College in 1874. One of his classmates described him as succeeding through hard work rather than being the smartest, also stating that he possessed integrity.
Taft graduated in 1878 as the second in a class of 121 students. He attended the University of Cincinnati Law School, graduating in 1880 with a Bachelor of Laws. Taft worked at The Cincinnati Commercial newspaper while still in college. He was assigned to cover local courts and also spent some of his time studying law in his father’s office; both activities gave him practical knowledge of the law that was not taught in class. Taft went to the state capital Columbus shortly after graduating in order to take the bar exam, passing with ease.
Lawyer and judge
Taft devoted himself full time to his work at the Commercial after being admitted to the order. Murat Halstead, the newspaper’s editor, was willing to take him on permanently with a pay raise if he gave up the right, but Taft refused. He was appointed in October 1880 as an assistant Hamilton County prosecutor, taking the job the following January. He served as an assistant for a year and participated in several routine cases. He resigned in January 1882 after President Chester A. Arthur appointed him Collector of Internal Revenue for the First District of Ohio, the area around Cincinnati. Taft refused to fire competent employees who were not politically favored, resigning in March 1883 and writing to Arthur that he wished to practice law in his hometown. He campaigned in 1884 for James G. Blaine, the Republican Party presidential candidate, who was ultimately defeated in the election by Grover Cleveland, the Democratic Party candidate.
Taft, then 27, was appointed in 1887 by Governor Joseph B. Foraker of Ohio to fill a vacancy on the Cincinnati Superior Court. The appointment was valid for one year, after which it would have to be confirmed by the voters; he sought election in April 1888. Taft was elected to a full five-year term. A few dozen of his opinions as a state judge have survived to this day, the main one being Moores & Co. v. Masons’ Union No. 1 of 1889, mainly because it was later used against him when he ran for president in 1908. The case involved masons who refused to work for any firm that dealt with a company called Parker Brothers, against which they were in dispute. Taft ruled that the union’s actions amounted to a secondary boycott, something illegal.
It is not clear when Taft met Helen Herron (often called Nellie), however it was not until after 1880, when she mentions in her diary receiving an invitation to a party from him. The two were meeting regularly by 1884 and the following year, after an initial rejection, she agreed to marry. The wedding took place at the Herron home on June 19, 1886. Taft remained devoted to his wife during their nearly 44 years of marriage. Nellie encouraged her husband as much as his parents did, being very outspoken with her criticism. The couple had three children: Robert, Helen, and Charles.
A vacancy on the United States Supreme Court opened up in 1889, and Foraker suggested that President Benjamin Harrison appoint Taft to the position. He was 32 years old, and his professional goal had always been to take a seat on the Supreme Court. Taft actively went after the nomination, writing to the governor to make his case, while at the same time stating to others that he would be unlikely to get the job. Instead, Harrison appointed him in 1890 as Attorney General of the United States. Taft arrived in Washington, D.C. in February, finding that work was piling up because the position had been vacant for two months. He worked to clear the backlog while simultaneously studying federal law and procedure, since he had not needed them as a state judge in Ohio.
Senator William M. Evarts of New York, former Secretary of State under Rutherford B. Hayes, had been a classmate of Alphonso Taft at Yale. Evarts asked to see his former friend’s son as soon as Taft took office, with the latter and his wife being introduced to the social life of Washington. Nellie was ambitious for both her husband and herself, becoming irritated that the people Taft socialized with were mainly Supreme Court justices rather than the capital’s leading society figures such as Theodore Roosevelt, John Hay, Henry Cabot Lodge and their respective wives.
Although Taft was successful as Solicitor General, winning fifteen of the eighteen cases he argued before the Supreme Court, he was happy in March 1891 when the United States Congress created a new judicial vacancy for every Court of Appeals in the country, and Harrison appointed him to the Sixth Circuit, based in Cincinnati. Taft resigned as Attorney General in March 1892 and returned to his judicial career.
Taft’s appointment as a federal judge was for life and one that could possibly pave the way to a position on the Supreme Court. His older half-brother. Charles P. Taft, was successful in business, supplementing Taft’s government salary and allowing the family to live in comfort. His duties involved hearing trials in the circuit, which included the states of Ohio, Michigan, Kentucky, and Tennessee, and participating in the trial of appeals along with the other justices of the Sixth Circuit and also with John Marshall Harlan, Associate Justice of the Supreme Court and also a circuit judge.
According to historian Louis L. Gould, “Although Taft shared the fears that dominated the middle class during the 1880s about social unrest, he was not as conservative as his critics believed. He supported the right of workers to organize and strike, and he judged against employers in several malpractice cases.” Among these was Voight v. Southwest Baltimore & Ohio Railroad Company. Taft’s decision for a worker injured in a railroad accident violated the contemporary doctrine of freedom of contract, but was later reversed by the Supreme Court. On the other hand, his decision in United States v. Addyston Pipe and Metal Company was unanimously upheld by the Supreme. His opinion, that the pipe manufacturers had violated the Sherman Antitrust Act, was described by his biographer Henry F. Pringle as having “definitely and especially” revived that legislation.
Taft became in 1896 dean and professor at his alma mater the Cincinnati Law School, a post that required him to prepare and administer two hour-long classes each week. He was dedicated to his law school and was deeply committed to legal education, introducing grammatical case to the curriculum. Taft could not engage in politics because he was a federal judge, yet he followed it closely and remained a Republican supporter. He watched in disbelief as the presidential campaign of Governor William McKinley of Ohio developed in 1894 and 1895, writing “I cannot find in Washington anyone who wants him.” Taft realized in March 1896 that McKinley was likely to be the Republican candidate, giving his lukewarm support. He switched to supporting McKinley fully in July after former Representative William Jennings Bryan of Nebraska rubber-stamped the Democratic National Convention with a speech against the gold standard. Bryan, both in the speech and in his campaign, strongly advocated the silver standard, a policy that Taft saw as economic radicalism. He feared that people would hoard and hide gold in anticipation of a possible Bryan victory, but there was nothing he could do but worry. McKinley ended up winning the election of 1896; a vacancy on the Supreme Court opened up in 1898 and the president appointed Joseph McKenna, the only such appointment of his presidency.
Taft was called to Washington in January 1900 in order to meet with McKinley. He hoped that an appointment to the Supreme Court would be forthcoming, but instead the president placed him on a commission to organize a civil government for the Philippines. The appointment required Taft to resign from his position as a judge; McKinley assured him that if he fulfilled his task, he would appoint him to the next vacancy on the Supreme Court. Taft accepted on the condition that he would be the head of the commission, assuming responsibility for its success or failure; the president agreed, and Taft left for the islands in April.
The American takeover caused the Philippine Revolution to become part of the Philippine-American War, in which the Filipinos were fighting for their independence, however the United States forces led by General Arthur MacArthur Jr. had the upper hand by 1900. MacArthur felt that the commission was a nuisance and that its mission was a quixotic attempt to impose self-government on an unprepared people. The general was forced to cooperate because McKinley had given control of the islands’ military budget to the commission. The commission assumed its executive powers on September 1, 1900, with Taft becoming civilian governor-general on July 4, 1901. MacArthur, until then also the military governor, was replaced by General Adna Chaffee, who was designated only as commander of the American forces.
Taft sought to make the Filipinos his political partners in a project that could in the future lead to their self-government; he saw Philippine independence as a long way off. Many Americans in the Philippines saw the natives as racially inferior, yet Taft wrote shortly after his arrival that “we propose to banish this idea from their heads.” He did not impose racial segregation at official events and treated Filipinos as social equals. Nellie stated that “neither politics nor race should in any way influence our hospitality.”
McKinley was assassinated in September 1901 and was succeeded by Theodore Roosevelt. Taft and Roosevelt had become friends around 1890 while the former was Attorney General and the latter a member of the Civil Service Commission. Taft had asked McKinley to appoint Roosevelt as Assistant Secretary of the Navy, watching as the latter became a war hero, Governor of New York and then Vice President of the United States. The two met again in January 1902 when Taft went to Washington to recover from two operations caused by an infection. There, Taft testified before a Senate committee on the Philippines. He wanted Filipino farmers to have a stake in the new government through land ownership, but much of the arable land was held by Catholic religious orders made up mainly of Spanish priests, who were often resented by the local people. Roosevelt sent Taft to Rome with the goal of negotiating with Pope Leo XIII to buy the land and arrange for the removal of the Spanish priests, with Americans replacing them and training the locals as clerics. He was unsuccessful in resolving these issues, however an agreement was reached in 1903.
Taft heard from Roosevelt in late 1902 that a seat on the Supreme Court would soon be vacant because of the resignation of Associate Justice George Shiras Jr. The latter declined the position, even though it was his professional goal, because he felt his job as governor-general was not yet complete. One of the reasons for Roosevelt’s action was to neutralize a potential rival for the presidency: Taft’s success in the Philippines had not gone unnoticed by the American press. The following year the President asked Taft to become the new Secretary of War. As the War Department was responsible for the Philippines, he would remain responsible for the islands, with then Secretary Elihu Root being willing to delay his departure from office until 1904 to allow Taft to finish his work in Manila. Taft consulted with his family and agreed, leaving for the United States in December 1903.
Secretary of War
Taft took over as Secretary of War in February 1904, but he was not required to spend much time managing the army, something the president was happy to do himself – Roosevelt wanted Taft to act as troubleshooter in difficult situations and legal advisor, as well as being able to deliver campaign speeches in his 1904 election attempt. Taft defended Roosevelt’s record in these speeches and wrote of the president’s successful but exhausting efforts to win the election: “I would not run for president if you would secure the office. It is terrible to be afraid of somebody’s shadow.”
Taft accepted between 1905 and 1907 that he would probably be the next Republican candidate for the presidency, however he made no plans to actually campaign for it. Associate Justice Henry Billings Brown resigned in 1905, however Taft did not accept the seat even though Roosevelt offered it, also refusing another vacancy that opened up the following year. Edith Roosevelt, the First Lady, did not like the increasing closeness of the two men, feeling that they were both too similar and that her husband did not gain much from advice coming from someone who rarely contradicted him.
On the other hand, Taft wanted to be Chief Justice and kept an eye on the health of the then incumbent Melville Fuller, who was 75 years old in 1908. Taft believed that Fuller would live for many years to come. Roosevelt indicated that he would probably appoint Taft to the position if the opportunity arose, however, some considered Philander C. Knox, the then Attorney General of the United States, to be a better candidate. In any case, Fuller continued as Chief Judge throughout Roosevelt’s presidency.
The United States had managed to acquire the rights to build a canal on the Isthmus of Panama through the Hay-Bunau-Varilla Treaty in 1903 during Panama’s separation from Colombia. The legislation authorizing the construction did not specify which government department would be responsible, with Roosevelt thus designating the War Department. Taft went to Panama in 1904, learning about the canal site and meeting with Panamanian officials. The Isthmic Canal Commission had problems retaining a chief engineer, with Taft recommending in 1907 military engineer George Washington Goethals after the resignation of John D. Stevens. The project proceeded smoothly under Goethals.
Another colony taken from Spain in 1898 in the Spanish-American War was Cuba, but since its freedom had been a major motive in the war, it was not annexed by the United States but instead received its independence in 1902 after a period of occupation. Electoral fraud and corruption followed, as did factional conflicts. President Tomás Estrada Palma called for American intervention. Taft traveled to the country with a small military force and, under the terms of the 1903 Cuban-North American Treaty, declared himself on September 29, 1906 as the provisional governor of Cuba, a post he held for two weeks until succeeded by Charles Edward Magoon. Taft tried to persuade the Cubans during this time that the United States intended stability, not occupation.
Taft remained involved in Philippine affairs. He advocated during Roosevelt’s 1904 campaign that Filipino agricultural products should be accepted into the United States duty-free. This caused American sugar and tobacco producers to complain to the president, who rebuked his Secretary of War. Taft was unwilling to change his position and threatened to resign, with Roosevelt quickly dropping the matter. Taft returned to the islands in 1905 leading a delegation of congressmen, returning again in 1907 in order to open the first Philippine Assembly.
He also went to Japan on his two trips to the Philippines as Secretary of War, meeting with various government officials. The July 1905 meeting occurred one month before the conference that would end the Russo-Japanese War through the Treaty of Portsmouth. Taft met with the Japanese prime minister Katsura Tarō. After the meeting the two signed a memorandum, with Japan indicating that it had no desires to invade the Philippines as long as the United States did not oppose Japanese control of Korea. There were concerns in the United States about the number of Japanese workers immigrating to the West Coast, with Foreign Minister Hayashi Tadasu informally agreeing in September 1907 to issue fewer passports.
Roosevelt served for nearly three and a half years of McKinley’s term. He publicly declared on the night of his own election in 1904 that he would not run for re-election in 1908, a promise he quickly regretted. Still he felt bound by his word. Roosevelt believed that Taft was his logical successor, although the Secretary of War was initially reluctant to run. The president used his control of the party’s political machinery in order to aid his heir apparent. Political appointments were forced to support Taft or remain silent at the risk of losing their jobs.
Several Republican politicians, such as George B. Cortelyou, the Secretary of the Treasury, scanned the climate to see if they could run but ultimately decided to stay out of the race. Governor Charles Evans Hughes of New York did run, however when he gave a major policy speech, Roosevelt sent a special message to Congress the same day warning in strong terms against corporate corruption. The resulting coverage of the presidential message threw Hughes onto the back pages of the newspapers. Roosevelt also reluctantly dissuaded repeated attempts to have him run for another term.
Frank Harris Hitchcock, the Assistant Postmaster General, resigned in February 1908 in order to lead Taft’s campaign efforts. The latter made a speaking tour beginning in April, going as far west as Omaha, Nebraska, before being recalled to return to Panama and straighten out a contested election. The Republican National Convention was held in June in Chicago, Illinois, where there was no serious opposition against and he was nominated on the very first ballot. Still Taft didn’t get everything the way he wanted it: he wanted his running mate to be a Midwestern progressive like Senator Jonathan P. Dolliver of Iowa, however instead the convention appointed Representative James S. Sherman of New York, a conservative, as vice president. Taft resigned on June 30 as Secretary of War so that he could devote himself full time to the campaign.
Taft’s Democratic opponent in the election was Bryan, nominated to run for the third time in four presidential elections. Because many of Roosevelt’s reforms had their roots in proposals originally undertaken by Bryan, Democrats even claimed that he was actually the heir to Roosevelt’s mantle. Corporate contributions to election campaigns had been banned by the Tillman Act of 1907, with Bryan proposing that contributions coming from company officers and directors be similarly banned or at least publicly disclosed when made. Taft was willing to only disclose contributions at the end of election cycles, thus trying to ensure that officers and directors of corporations litigating with the federal government were not among their contributors.
Taft started the campaign off on the wrong foot, fueling the arguments of those who said he was not master of himself by traveling to Roosevelt’s Sagamore Hill home for advice on his acceptance speech, saying he needed the President’s “judgment and criticism.” Taft supported most of Roosevelt’s policies. He argued that workers had the right to organize, but not to boycott, and that corporations and the wealthy should obey the laws. Bryan wanted the railroads to be government property, but Taft preferred that they remain in the private sector and with their maximum rates being set by the Interstate Commerce Commission, subject to judicial review. He attributed the recent Panic recession of 1907 to stock speculation and other abuses, feeling that monetary reform was needed to relax government responses in bad economic times, that specific trust legislation was needed to supplement the Sherman Antitrust Act, and that the constitution should be amended to allow income tax, thus overruling Supreme Court decisions that cut such a tax. Roosevelt’s heavy use of executive power had come in for criticism; Taft proposed to continue his policies, but put them on a legal foundation by passing legislation.
Taft disappointed many progressives by choosing Hitchcock as chairman of the Republican National Committee, leaving him in charge of the campaign. Hitchcock was quick to bring in men who were close to big business. Taft took an August vacation in Hot Springs, Virginia, where he irritated political advisors by spending his time golfing instead of strategizing. Roosevelt, after seeing in a newspaper a picture of Taft playing golf, advised his successor against taking such types of pictures.
Roosevelt was frustrated by his relative lack of action and so he poured advice on Taft, thinking that the electorate would dislike the qualities of his chosen candidate and that Bryan would ultimately emerge as the winner. The president’s supporters spread false rumors that it was Roosevelt who was really running the campaign. This greatly angered Nellie, who never fully trusted Roosevelt. Still, the president supported the Republican candidate so enthusiastically that humorists suggested that “TAFT” was an acronym that stood for “Take advice from Theodore” (“Take advice from Theodore”).
Bryan called for a system of bank guarantees so that depositors could be compensated if banks failed, however Taft was against it and instead offered a postal savings system. The issue of alcohol prohibition entered the campaign in September when Carrie Nation demanded to know from Taft about his position. Roosevelt and Taft had agreed that the party platform would not take a position on the issue, something that left Nation outraged and caused her to attack Taft as someone without religion and against temperance. The candidate, following the president’s advice, ignored the issue.
The election took place on November 3, and Taft ended up winning the race by a comfortable margin, defeating Bryan by 321 electoral votes to 162. However, he received only 51.6% of the popular vote. Nellie said of the campaign that “There was nothing to criticize except that he didn’t know or care about the way the game of politics is played.” Irwin H. Hoover, long-time White House valet, commented that Taft visited Roosevelt frequently during the campaign season, but rarely appeared between the election period and his inauguration day the following year.
Induction and office
Taft was sworn in as president on March 4, 1909. He took his oath of office inside the Senate instead of outside the Capitol because a blizzard had covered Washington with ice. The new president stated in his speech that he was honored to have been “one of the advisors of my distinguished predecessor” and to have been part of “the reforms he initiated. I would be false to myself, to my promises, and to the platform statements of the party on which I was elected if I do not make one of the most important features of my government the maintenance and enforcement of those reforms.” He vowed to make these reforms lasting things, ensuring that honest entrepreneurs would not suffer from uncertainty due to policy changes. Taft talked about a reduction of the 1897 Dingley Tariff, antitrust reform, and the Philippines’ continued progress toward self-government. Roosevelt left office regretting that he had reached the end of his term in a position he liked so much, arranging a year-long trip to Africa in order to stay out of the way of his successor.
Taft and Roosevelt argued shortly after the Republican National Convention over which cabinet members should remain. Taft kept only James Wilson as his Secretary of Agriculture, while George von Lengerke Meyer went from Director General of the Post Office to Secretary of the Navy, and Philander C. Knox went to the position of Secretary of State after having served as Attorney General under McKinley and Roosevelt.
Taft did not have the same good relationship that Roosevelt enjoyed with the press, choosing not to make himself available for interviews and photo opportunities as often as his predecessor. His administration marked a change in style between Roosevelt’s charismatic leadership and his quiet passion for the law.
Taft made restructuring the State Department one of his priorities, commenting that it “Is organized on the basis of the needs of government in 1800 rather than 1900.” The department was first organized into geographic divisions, including offices for the Far East, Latin America, and Western Europe. The department’s first in-service training program was established and appointees spent a month in Washington before going to their posts. Taft and Knox had a strong relationship and the president listened to the secretary’s advice on both domestic and foreign issues. According to historian Paolo Enrico Coletta, Knox was not a good diplomat and had poor relations with the Senate, the press, and many foreign leaders, especially those from Latin America.
There was an agreement between Taft and Knox about the main objectives of American foreign policy: the United States would not interfere in European affairs and would use force if necessary to enforce the Monroe Doctrine in the Americas. The defense of the Panama Canal, which was still under construction throughout Taft’s tenure, guided foreign policy in the Caribbean and Central America. Previous governments had made efforts in order to promote American business abroad, but Taft went further and used the country’s network of diplomats and consuls to encourage trade. He hoped this would lead to world peace. The president went after arbitration treaties with Britain and France, but the Senate was unwilling to surrender its constitutional prerogative to approve such treaties.
Protectionism through taxation was a key Republican position during Taft’s presidency. The Dingley Tariff had been created in order to protect American industry from outside competitors. The party’s 1908 platform had supported unspecified revisions to this law, with the president interpreting this as reductions. Taft called a special session of Congress to meet on March 15, 1908 for the purpose of debating the tax issue.
Representative Sereno E. Payne of New York, chairman of the Ways and Means Committee, held hearings in 1908 and sponsored the resulting bill. It lowered taxes slightly and passed the House of Representatives in April 1909, but Senator Nelson W. Aldrich of Rhode Island, chairman of the Finance Committee, added several amendments raising the rates. Progressives were outraged, with Senator Robert M. La Follette, Sr. of Wisconsin asking Taft to state that the bill was not in line with the party platform. The chairman refused, and this angered them even more. Taft insisted that most imports from the Philippines be tax free, demonstrating according to historian Donald F. Anderson effective leadership on a subject he knew and cared about.
Opponents of the bill attempted to amend it to allow an income tax, but Taft was against it on the grounds that the Supreme Court would probably strike it down as unconstitutional, as it had done in other cases before. Instead, a constitutional amendment was proposed and passed in early July by the House and Senate, and ratified in 1913 as the Sixteenth Amendment. Taft scored some victories in the conference committee, such as limiting taxes on lumber. The conference report was approved by both chambers and the president signed it on August 6, 1909. The resulting Payne-Aldrich Tariff was immediately controversial. According to Coletta, “Taft lost the initiative and the wounds inflicted in the scathing debate over the tariff never healed.”
Taft called for a free trade agreement with Canada in his annual message to Congress in 1910. The United Kingdom was still in charge of Canadian foreign relations at the time, with the president thinking that the government of the two other countries were interested. Many in Canada were against an agreement, fearing that the United States would pull out of it when convenient as they had done in 1866 with the Elgin-Marcy Treaty, with American farmers and fishermen also opposing it. Talks with Canadian officials took place in January 1911, with Taft presenting Congress with the agreement, which was not a treaty, that was approved in July. Canada’s Parliament, led by Prime Minister Sir Wilfrid Laurier, reached an impasse on the issue. The Canadians removed Laurier from power in the September elections and Robert Borden became the new prime minister. No agreement between the two countries was concluded and the debate increased divisions within the Republican Party.
Taft and Knox instituted Dollar Diplomacy in Latin America, believing that American investments would benefit all involved, while keeping European influence away from areas subject to the Monroe Doctrine. Although exports increased greatly during Taft’s administration, the policy was unpopular among Latin American countries that did not wish to become financial protectorates of the United States, as well as the U.S. Senate itself, whose members believed that the country should not interfere too much abroad. No foreign affairs controversy challenged Taft’s statesmanship and commitment to peace as much as the fall of Mexico’s dictatorial regime and the subsequent turmoil caused by the outbreak of the Mexican Revolution in 1910.
Mexico was increasingly uneasy under the rule of longtime dictator Porfirio Díaz when Taft came to the presidency, with many Mexicans supporting his opponent Francisco I. Madero. There were several incidents where Mexican rebels crossed the border into the United States in order to acquire horses and weapons; Taft sought to prevent this by sending the army to the border areas to conduct maneuvers. The president told his aide Archibald Butt that “I will sit on the lid and it will take a lot to get me up.” He demonstrated his support for Díaz by meeting with the Mexican president in El Paso, Texas, and then in Ciudad Juárez, Chihuahua, the first meeting in history between presidents of both countries and the first time a U.S. president has visited Mexico. On the day of the meeting, Scout Frederick Russell Burnham and Private C. R. Moore of the Texas Division of the Guard captured and disarmed a pistol-wielding assassin just a few feet away from the two presidents. Díaz arrested Madero before the 1910 presidential election, with the opposition taking up arms, something that resulted in the removal of Díaz from power and a revolution that would last for ten years. Two US citizens were killed in the Arizona Territory and nearly a dozen wounded because of a border shootout. Taft did not want to be provoked into a fight and instructed the territorial governor to do the same.
President Jose Santos Zelaya of Nicaragua wanted to revoke trade concessions given to U.S. companies, with U.S. diplomats quietly moving to support Nicaraguan rebel forces under the leadership of General Juan J. Estrada. Nicaragua owed major foreign powers, and the United States did not want a possible alternative route to the Panama Canal to fall into European hands. Jose Madriz, Zelaya’s elected successor, failed to put down the internal rebellion and so Estrada’s forces took the capital Managua in August 1910. The Americans made Nicaragua accept a loan and sent officers to ensure that the amount was paid back from government revenues. The country remained unstable, with Taft sending troops after another coup in 1911 and more unrest in 1912; although most forces were soon withdrawn, some remained in place until 1933.
Treaties between Panama, Colombia and the United States in order to resolve disputes arising from the Panamanian Revolution of 1903 were signed by the Roosevelt administration in early 1909, and were approved by the Senate and ratified by Panama. However, Colombia refused to ratify the treaties, with Knox offering ten million dollars to the Colombians, later raised to 25 million after the 1912 US elections. Colombia felt the amount was insufficient and asked for international arbitration; the issue could not be resolved during the four years of Taft’s administration.
Taft was very interested in East Asian affairs due to his time in the Philippines. He considered relations with Europe to be relatively unimportant, placing the post of ambassador to China as the most important in the Foreign Service due to the potential for investment and trade. Knox disagreed and rejected the suggestion to travel to Beijing to assess the facts first hand. Taft replaced William W. Rockhill, the ambassador appointed by Roosevelt, because he found him uninterested in trade, putting in his place William J. Calhoun, whom McKinley and Roosevelt had already sent on several diplomatic missions. Knox did not listen to Calhoun’s policies, and there were frequent conflicts. The president and his secretary tried unsuccessfully to extend John Hay’s Open Door Policy to Manchuria.
An American company had secured in 1898 the concession for a railroad between Hankou and Sichuan, but the Chinese revoked the agreement in 1904 after the company (which was indemnified for the revocation) broke the contract by selling a majority portion outside the United States. The imperial government got the compensation money from the British government in Hong Kong on the condition that British subjects would have priority if foreign capital was needed to build the railway, with a British consortium opening negotiations in 1909. Knox learned of this in May and demanded that US banks be given permission to participate. Taft personally appealed to the Zaifeng prince-regent, Prince Chun, getting the United States to participate, however the agreements were not signed until May 1911. However, the Chinese decree authorizing the agreement also required the nationalization of local railway companies in the affected provinces. Inadequate compensation was paid to the shareholders and these complaints were among those that helped trigger the Xinhai Revolution of 1911.
Chinese rebel leaders chose Sun Yat-sen as provisional president in what became the Republic of China, overthrowing the emperor and thus the Qing Dynasty. Taft was reluctant to recognize the new government, even though American public opinion was predominantly in favor. The House of Representatives passed a resolution in February 1912 recognizing the Chinese republic, however Taft and Knox felt that recognition should be a joint action of the Western powers. The president indicated in his last annual message to Congress in December 1912 that he was inclined to recognize the republic once it was fully established, but by this time he had lost reelection and never touched the subject again.
Taft continued Roosevelt’s policy against immigration from China and Japan. A revised treaty of friendship put into effect 1911 by the United States and Japan guaranteed broad reciprocal rights for Japanese in the United States and Americans in Japan, but was based on the continuation of an informal agreement made in 1907. There was objection on the West Coast when the treaty went to the Senate, but the president told politicians that there would be no change in immigration policy.
Taft was against a traditional practice of rewarding wealthy supporters with important ambassadorial posts, preferring that his diplomats not possess a lavish lifestyle and selecting men who, he said, could recognize an American as soon as they saw one. High on the discharge list was Henry White, ambassador to France, whom Taft knew and disliked from his previous stints in Europe. White’s forced departure caused other career State Department officials to become fearful that their jobs would be lost because of politics and the president’s views. Taft also wanted to remove Whitelaw Reid, Roosevelt’s appointed ambassador to the United Kingdom, however Reid owned the New-York Tribune newspaper and had supported Taft during the presidential campaign, with both the president and first lady enjoying his gossip-filled stories. Reid would remain in his post until he died in late 1912.
Taft supported the settlement of international disputes through arbitration, negotiating treaties with Britain and France on the condition that differences be arbitrated. These were signed in August 1911. Both Taft and Knox, a former senator, did not consult members of the Senate during these negotiation processes. By this time many Republicans were already opposing the president and Taft felt that asking too much for the treaties might cause them to be rejected. He made some speeches in October supporting the agreements, however the Senate added amendments that Taft felt he could not accept, ending the treaties.
Although the United States was not called into any treaty of arbitration, the Taft government peacefully settled several disputes with the United Kingdom, often with arbitration. These included an agreement on the boundary between the state of Maine and the Canadian province of New Brunswick, a long-standing dispute over seal hunting in the Bering Sea that also involved Japan, and a similar agreement on fishing with the British colony of Newfoundland. The seal convention remained in effect until revoked by Japan in 1940.
Taft continued to expand Roosevelt’s efforts to break up business combinations through cases initiated under the Sherman Antitrust Act, bringing seventy cases in four years while his predecessor had initiated forty in seven. Cases against Standard Oil and American Tobacco, initiated under Roosevelt, were decided in 1911 in favor of the government by the Supreme Court. The Democrat-controlled House of Representatives began holding hearings on United States Steel (U.S. Steel) in June of the same year. The company had expanded under Roosevelt, who supported its acquisition of the Tennessee Coal, Iron, and Railroad Company as a means of not worsening the Panic of 1907, a decision the former president defended when testifying at the hearings. Taft had praised the acquisition while he was Secretary of War. Historian Louis L. Gould has suggested that Roosevelt was probably fooled into believing that U.S. Steel did not want to buy the Tennessee company, thinking it was actually a bargain. For the former president, questioning the issue was something that affected his personal honesty.
The Justice Department sued U.S. Steel in October 1911, demanding that more than a hundred subsidiaries be granted corporate independence and naming many of its executives and financiers as defendants in the suit. The arguments in the case were not reviewed by Taft himself and alleged that Roosevelt “had fostered monopoly and had been duped by clever industrialists. The former president was deeply offended by the references against him and his administration, feeling that his successor could not escape blame by claiming that he knew nothing about the allegations.
Taft sent a special message to Congress in December 1911 about the need for a renewed antitrust statute, but no action was taken. Another case that had political repercussions for Taft was a lawsuit filed in early 1912 against the International Harvester Company, a producer of farm equipment. Because Roosevelt’s administration had investigated the company without taking any action (something Taft supported), the lawsuit became a talking point during Roosevelt’s challenge for the Republican presidential nomination. Taft’s supporters claimed that the former president had acted improperly; he attacked his successor for waiting three and a half years and a time when he was being challenged to reverse a decision he had originally supported.
Roosevelt was an ardent conservative and was aided by like-minded appointments such as James Rudolph Garfield and Gifford Pinchot, respectively the Secretary of the Interior and Chief of the Forest Service. Taft agreed with the need for conservatism, however he felt that it should be accomplished through legislation rather than executive orders. He did not keep Garfield in his cabinet, choosing former Mayor Richard A. Ballinger of Seattle in his place. Roosevelt was surprised, believing that Taft had promised to keep Garfield, with this change being one of the events that made the former president realize that his successor would choose different policies.
Roosevelt had taken many lands out of the public domain, including some in Alaska that were rich in coal. Clarence Cunningham, an Idaho businessman, had discovered coal deposits in Alaska in 1902 and claimed the mining rights, with the government investigating their legality. This dragged on through the remainder of the Roosevelt administration, including during 1907 while Ballinger served as commissioner of the General Land Office. Louis Glavis, a special agent in the Department of the Interior, investigated Cunningham’s claims and broke government protocol in 1909 by asking for outside help for Pinchot after Ballinger had approved the issue.
Glavis made his allegations publicly in a September 1909 magazine article revealing that Ballinger had served as a prosecutor for Cunningham between his two periods of government service. This violated conflict of interest rules prohibiting a former government official from working on a matter for which he had been responsible. Taft fired Glavis on September 13 based on a report from Attorney General George W. Wickersham dated two days earlier. Pinchot was determined to dramatize the situation by forcing his own resignation, something the president tried to avoid for fear it might cause a rift with Roosevelt (who was still out of the country). Taft commissioned Elihu Root, now a senator, to investigate the matter, with Root calling for Pinchot to be fired.
Taft ordered government officials not to comment on the case. Pinchot forced the issue in January 1910 by sending a letter to Senator Jonathan Dolliver of Iowa alleging that the president had approved fraudulent claims on public lands. According to Pringle, this “was a wholly inappropriate appeal from an executive subordinate to the legislative branch of government and an unhappy president prepared to separate Pinchot from public office.” Pinchot was fired, to his delight, traveling to Europe to tell his side of the story to Roosevelt. A Congressional investigation followed which cleared Ballinger, however the government was embarrassed when Louis Brandeis, Glavis’ lawyer, proved that Wickersham’s report had been backdated, something Taft belatedly admitted. The Ballinger-Pinchot case made progressive Republicans and Roosevelt loyalists feel that Taft had turned his back on the former president’s policies.
Taft announced in his inaugural speech that he would not appoint African Americans to federal positions, such as Postmaster General, which could cause social tensions in certain parts of the country. This differed from Roosevelt, who would not remove or replace black civil servants that local whites could not handle. This position was called Taft’s “Southern Policy” and effectively invited protests by whites against black appointments. The president caved in to many and removed several black civil servants in the south, also making few such appointments in the north.
How blacks could advance in life was debated by their leaders. Booker T. Washington felt that most should be trained for industrial work, with only a few seeking higher education. W. E. B. Du Bois, on the other hand, took a more militant position for equality. The president tended toward Washington’s discourse. According to Coletta, Taft let African Americans “be ‘kept in their places’ … In this way he failed to follow the humanitarian mission historically associated with the Republican Party, with the result being that blacks from both North and South began to move toward the Democratic Party.”
Taft was also an advocate of free immigration, supporting labor unions and having vetoed a bill passed in Congress that would have restricted unskilled workers by imposing a literacy test.
Taft made six appointments to the Supreme Court, the most by any president with the exception of George Washington and Franklin D. Roosevelt. The death of Associate Justice Rufus Wheeler Peckham in October 1909 gave the president his first opportunity. He chose Horace Harmon Lurton, his friend and former colleague from the Sixth Circuit; Taft had previously tried in vain to get Theodore Roosevelt to appoint Lurton. Wickersham was against the choice as Lurton was a former Confederate soldier and was 65 years old. The president nominated him anyway on December 13, 1909, with the Senate confirming the choice a week later. Lurton remains to this day the oldest associate justice in history. Historian Jonathan Lurie has suggested that Taft, by then already harried by tax controversies and conservatism, wanted to perform an official act that gave him pleasure, especially since he thought Lurton deserved it.
The death of Associate Justice David Josiah Brewer in March 1910 gave Taft his second chance to fill a seat on the Supreme Court, choosing Governor Charles Evans Hughes of New York. The President told Hughes that he would probably be his choice for Chief Justice should the position become vacant during his term. The Senate quickly confirmed Hughes, but Chief Justice Fuller died on July 4. Taft took five months to fill the vacancy and did so with Edward Douglass White, the first associate justice to be elevated to the position of Chief Justice. According to Lurie, the president still had hopes of being Chief Justice and might have been more willing to appoint an older man (White), who might die before himself, rather than a younger one (Hughes), who might live longer, as in fact occurred with both. Taft appointed Willis Van Devanter, a federal appeals judge, to fill the vacancy of associate justice left by White. There was already another vacancy on the Supreme Court in December 1910 caused by the retirement of William Henry Moody when the president appointed Van Devanter; Taft appointed Joseph Rucker Lamar, a Democrat whom he had met playing golf and later found out about his good reputation as a judge.
Taft could choose his sixth associate justice after the death of John Marshall Harlan in October 1911. Knox declined the vacancy and so the president appointed Mahlon Pitney, Chancellor of New Jersey, the last associate justice in history not to have attended law school. Pitney had a much stronger anti-labor record than Taft’s other appointments and was the only one who faced major opposition, being confirmed by the Senate by fifty votes to 26.
Taft also appointed thirteen judges to federal courts and 38 to district courts. The president additionally appointed judges to several specialized courts, including the first five to the Court of Commerce and the Court of Customs and Patent Appeals. The Court of Commerce was established in 1910 and came from a proposal by Taft for a specialized court to hear appeals from the Interstate Commerce Commission. There was considerable opposition to its implementation, something that grew when its judge Robert Wodrow Archbald was impeached for corruption and removed from office in January of the following year by the Senate. Taft vetoed a bill to abolish the court, but it was nevertheless closed by similar legislation in October 1913 passed by Woodrow Wilson.
Taft and Roosevelt wrote little to each other between March 1909 and June 1910, at which time the former president was traveling abroad. Lurie suggested that each waited for the other to make the first move to reestablish the relationship in a different way. Taft invited Roosevelt to stay at the White House when the latter returned triumphantly. The former president declined and expressed dissatisfaction with his successful performance in private letters to friends. He nevertheless wrote that he hoped Taft would be nominated again by the Republicans for the 1912 election, not talking about himself as a candidate.
Both men met twice in 1910; although the meetings were cordial, they did not demonstrate the former closeness of the two. Roosevelt made a series of speeches in the west in late summer and early fall. He attacked the Supreme Court’s decision in the 1905 labor case Lochner v. New York and accused the federal courts of undermining democracy, also calling for them to be deprived of the right to determine legislation as unconstitutional. This attack horrified Taft, who particularly agreed that Lochner had been judged wrong. Roosevelt called for the “elimination of corporate expenditures for political purposes, physical appraisals of railroad property, regulation of industrial combinations, establishment of an export tax commission, a graduated income tax,” in addition to “workers’ compensation laws, state and national legislation to regulate that of women and children, and full publicity of campaign expenditures.” According to John Murphy, “While Roosevelt was beginning to move to the left, Taft was veering to the right.”
Roosevelt became involved in politics in New York during the 1910 legislative elections, while Taft tried through donations and influence to secure the election of Warren G. Harding, the Republican candidate, in the Ohio governor’s race. The party ultimately suffered defeats in the 1910 election and the Democrats took control of the House of Representatives and reduced the Republican majority in the Senate. Woodrow Wilson of the Democratic Party won the governor’s election in New Jersey while Harding lost in Ohio.
The former president continued after the election to promote progressive ideals, called New Nationalism, much to Taft’s chagrin. Roosevelt attacked his successor’s administration, claiming that its principles were not those of Abraham Lincoln’s party, but those of the Gilded Age. The feud between the two continued occasionally during the course of 1911, a year in which few major elections occurred. Senator Robert M. La Follette, Sr. announced his presidential candidacy as a Republican and was supported by a convention of progressives. Roosevelt began later in the year to make moves to get a candidacy of his own launched, writing that the tradition of presidents not running for a third term applied only to consecutive terms.
Roosevelt was receiving many letters from supporters urging him to run, with Republican civil servants organizing on his behalf. With many of his policies having been barred by a reluctant Congress and courts during his time in the White House, he saw the outpourings of public support and believed they would bring him back to the presidency with a mandate for progressive policies that would face no opposition. Roosevelt announced in February 1912 that he would accept the Republican nomination if it was offered to him. Taft felt that it would be a repudiation of the party if they lost the November election, however it would be a rejection of himself if he lost the nomination for candidate. He was reluctant to oppose Roosevelt, who had helped him become president, however being the president, Taft was determined to remain as such and this meant not standing aside and allowing Roosevelt to win the nomination.
As Roosevelt grew more radical in his progressivism, Taft strengthened his resolve to achieve the nomination because he was convinced that progressives threatened the foundations of government. A major blow to Taft was the loss of his aide Archibald Butt, one of the last links between the president and the former president, since Butt had also worked with Roosevelt. Butt was ambivalent in his loyalty and had gone to Europe on vacation in early 1912. He returned to the United States in April aboard the RMS Titanic and eventually died in the wreck, a loss that Taft had a hard time accepting as his body was never found.
Roosevelt dominated the primaries, winning 278 of the 362 delegates decided this way for the Republican National Convention in Chicago. Taft had control over the party machinery and it was no surprise when he won most of the delegates decided by district or state conventions. The president still did not have a majority, however he was likely to get one once the southern delegates committed themselves to him. The former president objected to the election of these delegates, however the Republican Convention overruled most of his objections. The only remaining chance for Roosevelt was a friendly convention chairman who could create rules favoring the delegates on his side. Taft kept his custom and remained in Washington, but Roosevelt went to Chicago to run his campaign and told his supporters in a speech that “we stand at Armageddon and fight for the Lord.
Taft was able to bring Root to his side, who agreed to run for convention president, with the delegates electing Root over Roosevelt’s candidate. The latter’s forces then moved to replace the delegates they supported with those they argued should not be seated. Root crucially ruled that although the challenged delegates could not vote for themselves, they could vote for other challenged delegates, which thus gave Taft the nomination, as the motion made by Roosevelt’s forces was defeated by 567 to 507. As it became clear that Roosevelt would leave the party if he was not nominated, some Republicans sought a mid-term candidate to avoid the electoral disaster that was to come; however, they were unsuccessful. Taft’s name was put forward for the nomination by Harding, whose attempts to praise the president and unify the party faced angry interruptions from the progressives. Taft was nominated on the very first ballot, however many of Roosevelt’s delegates refused to vote.
Roosevelt and his supporters founded the Progressive Party claiming that Taft had stolen the nomination. The president knew that he would almost certainly be defeated in the election, but concluded that the Republican Party had been preserved as “the defender of conservative government and conservative institutions” through Roosevelt’s defeat. He made his doomed candidacy in order to preserve the party. Governor Woodrow Wilson of Ohio ran as the Democratic candidate. He spent little time attacking Taft for seeing Roosevelt as his greatest threat, arguing that the former president had been lukewarm in his opposition to the trusts and that Wilson was the real reformer. Taft contrasted what he called his “progressive conservatism” with Roosevelt’s progressive democracy, claiming that the latter represented the “establishment of a benevolent despotism.”
Taft reverted to the pre-Roosevelt custom of candidates seeking election not campaigning, speaking publicly only once when he held his acceptance speech for the nomination on August 1. He had difficulty financing his campaign as many industrialists had concluded that he could not win, thus supporting Wilson to block Roosevelt. The president in September issued a confident statement after the Republicans won the Vermont state election by a small margin, but he had illusions of winning the race. Taft hoped to send his cabinet members to campaign, but all were reluctant. Root agreed to hold a single speech in his favor.
Vice President James S. Sherman had also been renominated at the Chicago convention; he was seriously ill during the campaign and eventually died on October 30, six days before the election on November 5, being replaced on the slate at short notice by Nicholas Murray Butler, the president of Columbia University. Few voters chose Taft and Butler, who won only in the states of Utah and Vermont for a total of eight electoral votes. Roosevelt won 88 and Wilson 435. Wilson won despite having a smaller electoral plurality in the popular vote than Taft and Roosevelt combined. Taft expected to do better than Roosevelt in the popular vote, yet he finished with just under 3.5 million, more than six hundred thousand less than the former president. Taft was not on the ballot in California because of action by local progressives, just as he was in South Dakota.
Taft contemplated returning to the practice of law, which he had long since not practiced, since he had no pension or other government compensation after leaving the White House. Given that he had appointed many federal judges, including most of the Supreme Court, this would raise questions about conflicts of interest in any federal court that came along, with Taft being saved by an offer to become a professor of law and legal history at Yale Law School. He accepted and, after a month’s vacation in Georgia, arrived in New Haven on April 1, 1913 to a large reception. It was too late in the semester for Taft to hold an academic course, so he prepared eight lectures on “Issues in Modern Government,” which took place in May. He made money from paid speeches and magazine articles, ending his eight years away from public office with great savings. At Yale he also wrote a treatise, Our Chief Magistrate and His Powers.
Taft had been appointed chairman of the Lincoln Memorial commission while he was still president; when the Democrats proposed removing him from the position and putting one of his supporters in his place, he commented that unlike losing the presidency such a removal would hurt him. Architect Henry Bacon wanted to use Colorado-Yule marble, but the southern Democrats wanted Georgia marble. Taft favored the first option, with the issue being sent to the Fine Arts Commission, which ultimately supported the former president and the architect. The project went forward and Taft would dedicate it in 1922 as Chief Judge. He was elected in 1913 to a one-year term as president of the American College of Lawyers, a trade group of lawyers. Taft removed from committees opponents such as Louis Brandeis and William Draper Lewis, dean of the University of Pennsylvania Law School and a supporter of the Progressive Party.
Wilson and Taft maintained a cordial relationship. The former president privately criticized his successor on various issues, but only made his views on Philippine politics public knowledge. Taft was appalled in January 1916 when Wilson appointed Brandeis to fill the vacancy left by Lamar’s death on the Supreme Court, as the former president had never forgiven him for his role in the Ballinger-Pinchot case. The Senate hearings led to nothing discreditable about Brandeis, with Taft intervening by writing a letter signed by himself and other members of the American College of Lawyers stating that the nominee was not qualified. Nevertheless, the Democrats controlled the Senate and confirmed Brandeis. Taft and Roosevelt remained bitter; they met only once in the first three years of Wilson’s presidency during a funeral at Yale. The two talked only for a moment, politely but formally.
As president of the League to Strengthen Peace, Taft hoped to prevent wars through an international association of nations. He sent a letter to Wilson in 1915 during World War I supporting American foreign policy. The president accepted the invitation to address the league, speaking in May 1916 about a post-war international organization that could prevent a repeat of what was being seen. Taft supported the effort to get Hughes to resign his post as associate justice and accept the Republican nomination in the 1916 presidential election. When this was done, Hughes tried to get Taft and Roosevelt to reconcile as a united front in order to defeat Wilson. This took place in New York on October 3, however Roosevelt allowed only a handshake and no words were spoken. This was one of several difficulties the Republicans faced in the campaign, with Wilson being re-elected by a small margin.
Taft was an enthusiastic supporter when Wilson called for Congress to declare war against the German Empire; he was chairman of the executive committee of the American Red Cross, something that occupied much of his time. He took a leave of absence from Yale so that he could be co-chairman of the National War Effort Council charged with securing industrial peace. William H. Hays, the new chairman of the National Republican Congress, approached Taft in February 1918 seeking a reconciliation of the latter with Roosevelt. Taft was in Chicago in May at the Blackstone Hotel, finding that Roosevelt and colleagues were dining at the same place and decided to meet them. The two embraced amid applause from all present, but the new relationship was nothing more than sympathy before Roosevelt’s death in January 1919. Taft later wrote: “Had he died in a hostile mental state against me, I would have mourned the fact all my life. I have always loved him and cherish his memory.”
The former president expressed his public support when Wilson proposed the establishment of the League of Nations, with its deed being part of the Treaty of Versailles that ended the First War. He differed in view with his party, whose senators were not inclined to ratify the treaty. His subsequent back and forth on the question of whether provisos should be part of the treaty infuriated both parties, destroying any remaining influence he had with the Wilson administration and causing some Republicans to accuse him of being a Democratic supporter and a party traitor. The Senate refused to ratify the Treaty of Versailles.
Taft supported the Republican slate during the 1920 presidential election, made up of then-Senator Harding and Calvin Coolidge, the governor of Massachusetts; they were elected. Taft was among those called to the president-elect’s home in Marion, Ohio, to advise him on nominations, with the two men talking on December 24, 1920. According to Taft’s account, after a few conversations, Harding casually asked him if he would accept a possible appointment to the Supreme Court, because if so, the president would put him there. Taft had only one condition: having been president, appointed two of the then-Justice associates, and being against Brandeis, he could only accept the vacancy if it was the Chief Justice’s seat. Harding did not respond, and Taft later reiterated the condition in a thank-you note, saying that Edward Douglass White had often told him that he was holding the position for the former president until a Republican occupied the White House. Taft heard in January 1921 through intermediaries that Harding planned to appoint him to the position if he had the chance.
White’s health was deteriorating at the time, but he made no moves to retire when Harding took office on March 4, 1921. Taft spoke with the Chief Judge on March 26, finding him ill but still performing his duties and not talking about retiring. White did not retire and eventually died in office on May 19. Taft published a tribute to the man he had appointed to the post, waiting in concern about whether he would be his successor. Harding made no quick announcement despite wide speculation that the former president would be the chosen one. Taft was working behind the scenes on his own, especially with the Ohio politicians who formed the president’s close circle.
It turned out that Harding had also promised a Supreme Court vacancy to Senator George Sutherland of Utah, and was waiting in anticipation for another vacancy to open up. The president was also considering a proposal by Associate Justice William R. Day to crown his career by serving as Chief Justice for six months before retiring. Taft found out about this plan and felt that such a short appointment would not serve the office well, plus Day’s memory would be in the dark should he be confirmed by the Senate. Harding rejected this plan and his attorney general Harry M. Daugherty, a Taft supporter, insisted that he fill the vacancy, with the president finally nominating Taft on June 30, 1921. The Senate confirmed the nomination the same day by 61 votes to four, with no hearing and after a brief debate in executive session. Taft was objected to by three progressive Republicans and one southern Democrat. He was sworn into office on July 11, becoming the first and to date only person in the history of the United States to hold both the office of President and Chief Justice.
McKinley’s appointment Roosevelt’s appointment Taft’s appointment Wilson’s appointment Harding’s appointment Coolidge’s appointment
The Supreme Court under Taft compiled a conservative record in Commerce Clause jurisprudence. This had the practical effect of making it difficult for the federal government to regulate industry, with the court also striking down many state laws. The few liberals on the court – Brandeis, Oliver Wendell Holmes, Jr. and Harlan F. Stone as of 1925 – sometimes protested believing that orderly progress was essential, yet often joined the majority opinion.
The court under White had struck down in 1918 an attempt by Congress to regulate child labor in Hammer v. Dagenhart. In this way Congress attempted to end child labor by imposing taxes on certain companies that hired children. This law was struck down in 1922 by the Supreme Court in Bailey v. Drexel Furniture Company, with Taft writing the opinion for a majority of eight votes to one. He maintained that the tax was not intended to raise rents, but to attempt to regulate matters reserved to the states through the Tenth Amendment of the Constitution, and furthermore that allowing such a tax would eliminate state powers. One case in which Taft and his colleagues upheld a federal regulation was Stafford v. Wallace. The Chief Judge ruled with a seven to one majority that the processing of animals in pens was closely related to interstate commerce, thus falling within the power of Congress to regulate it.
One case in which the Supreme Court struck down a regulation that generated a dissent by the Chief Justice was Adkins v. Children’s Hospital of 1923. Congress had lowered the minimum wage for women in the District of Columbia. A majority of five to three in the Supreme Court overturned that decision. Associate Justice George Sutherland wrote the opinion that the newly ratified Nineteenth Amendment, guaranteeing voting rights to women, meant that the sexes were equal when it came to bargaining power over working conditions; Taft considered this unrealistic. His dissent in the case was rare in that it was one of the few occasions when he stood with the minority and also because it was one of the few times he took an expansive view of the government’s police power.
Taft handed down a unanimous decision in 1922 in Balzac v. Puerto Rico. This involved a Puerto Rican newspaper editor who was being charged with libel but had been denied a jury trial, a protection guaranteed by the Sixth Amendment to the Constitution. Taft took the view that since Puerto Rico was not a territory designated to become a state, the constitutional protections enacted by Congress did not apply to its citizens.
Taft wrote in 1926 by a majority of six to three in Myers v. United States that Congress could not require the president to get Senate approval before removing some appointee. The Chief Judge pointed out that there are no restrictions in the Constitution on the president’s power to remove public officials. Although the case involved the removal of a postal director, Taft’s opinion stated that the nullified Term of Office Ordinance was invalid because it violated that for which President Andrew Johnson had suffered impeachment proceedings, even if later cleared by the Senate. Taft considered Myers v. United States to be his most important opinion.
The following year the court decided the case of McGrain v. Daugherty. A congressional committee investigating the possible complicity of former Attorney General Harry M. Daugherty in the Teapot Dome scandal subpoenaed records from Mally Daugherty, his brother, who refused to turn them over, claiming that Congress had no power to obtain documents from him. Van Devanter ruled for a unanimous court against Daugherty, stating that Congress had the authority to conduct investigations as an adjunct to its legislative function.
The Supreme Court laid the foundation in 1925 for incorporating many of the guarantees of the Bill of Rights enforced against the states by the Fourteenth Amendment. The Court with Taft in the majority voted six to two in Gitlow v. New York, upholding the conviction of Benjamin Gitlow on charges of criminal anarchy for advocating the overthrow of the government; his defense was based on free speech. Associate Justice Edward Terry Sanford wrote the opinion that both the majority and the minority presumed that the free speech and freedom of the press clauses in the First Amendment were protected from violation by the states.
Pierce v. Society of Sisters was a 1925 decision striking down an Oregon law banning private schools. In a decision written by Associate Justice James Clark McReynolds, the court unanimously ruled that the state of Oregon could regulate private schools, but not eliminate them. The result supported the right of parents to control their children’s education, but also struck a blow against religious freedom since the lead plaintiff ran Catholic schools.
United States v. Lanza of 1922 was one of a series of cases involving dry law. Vito Lanza had committed acts allegedly in violation of both federal and state laws, and was initially convicted by a Washington state court and then prosecuted in a federal district court. He claimed that second prosecution was a violation of the Double Jeopardy Clause present in the Fifth Amendment. Taft and all associated justice allowed the second prosecution, stating that the state and federal governments were two sovereignties, each empowered to prosecute the conduct in question.
Taft used the power of his position in order to influence the decisions of his colleagues, always calling for unanimity and discouraging dissent. Alpheus Mason, in his article on Taft as Chief Justice, contrasted Taft’s expansive view of the Chief Justice position with his narrow view of presidential power while he was President. He had no problem making his views on possible court appointments reach the White House, getting annoyed at being criticized by the press. He was initially a big supporter of Calvin Coolidge after Harding’s death in 1923, but was disappointed by the new president’s appointments to the cabinet and federal courts; Taft had similar reservations with Herbert Hoover, Coolidge’s successor. The Chief Justice advised presidents in office to avoid “outside” appointments like Brandeis and Holmes. Even so, Taft was writing in 1923 about being fond of Brandeis, whom he considered a dedicated worker, and that Holmes accompanied him walking to work until age and health necessitated the use of a car.
He believed that the Chief Judge should be responsible for the federal courts, thus feeling that he should have an administrative team around him to assist him, and that the Chief Judge should have the power to temporarily reassign judges. Taft also had the opinion that the federal courts were poorly run. Many of the lower courts had huge backlogs of cases, as did the Supreme Court. He immediately upon taking office made it a priority to talk to the attorney general about new legislation, stating his views before congressional hearings, in local newspapers, and in speeches around the country. A bill introduced in December 1921 proposed that 24 new judgeships be created, that the Chief Judge be empowered to reassign judges temporarily to eliminate backlogs, and that he be the chairman of a body made up of the senior appellate judges from each circuit. Congress objected to certain aspects, forcing Taft to get the agreement of the senior judge of each circuit before reassigning a judge, but the bill passed in September 1922 and the Judicial Conference of Senior Circuit Judges held its first meeting the following December.
The Supreme Court docket was congested, bloated by litigation wars and laws that allowed someone defeated in the court of appeals to have their case decided in the nation’s highest court if a constitutional issue was somehow involved. Taft believed that an appeal should generally be resolved by the circuit courts, with only high-profile cases being decided by the associate justices. He and his colleagues proposed legislation to optimize the Supreme Court’s discretionary docket, with cases receiving full consideration by the associates of justice only if they received a certiorari mandate. Congress took three years to consider the issue, much to Taft’s frustration. He and other members of the Supreme Court defended the bill in Congress and the Judiciary Act became law in February 1925. Taft was able to show by the end of the following year that the registry was already shrinking.
The Supreme Court did not have its own building when Taft became Chief Justice, instead performing its functions within the Capitol itself. Its offices were cluttered and overcrowded, but both Fuller and White had faced opposition over proposals to move the Court into its own building. Taft began a new struggle in 1925 to get a building of his own, with Congress two years later finally appropriating money to buy land on the south side of the Capitol. Architect Cass Gilbert had prepared plans for the building and was hired by the government to work on the project. Taft hoped to live long enough to be able to see the new building completed, however it was not completed until 1935, five years after his death.
Taft is remembered as the heaviest president in history; he was six feet tall and weighed between 152 and 154 kilograms at the end of his presidency, but this number later dropped, with him weighing as much as 111 kilograms in 1929. Taft’s health was beginning to deteriorate by the time he became Chief Justice, so he carefully planned a regimen, walking the nearly two miles between his home and the Capitol every day. He also walked back and usually took Connecticut Avenue; the intersection over Angra Rock that he often passed was posthumously named the William Howard Taft Bridge.
Taft incorrectly recited part of the oath of office during Herbert Hoover’s swearing-in ceremony on March 4, 1929, later writing that “my memory is not always accurate and sometimes becomes uncertain,” misquoting the oath again in the letter, this time differently. His health gradually worsened during his period as Chief Judge, writing in 1929 that “I am older and slower and less perceptive and more confused. However, as long as things continue as they are, and I am able to attend to my seat, I must remain in court to prevent the Bolsheviks from taking control.”
Taft insisted on going to Cincinnati to attend the funeral of his brother Charles, who had died on December 31, 1929; the strain of the trip did not improve his health. The Supreme Court returned from its year-end recess on January 6, 1930, but he had not returned to Washington, and two opinions were filed by Van Devanter based on drafts that Taft had been unable to complete because of his health. The Chief Judge went to Asheville in North Carolina in order to rest, but he could barely speak and was suffering from hallucinations by the end of January. Taft feared that Stone would be appointed Chief Judge, not resigning until he received assurances from Hoover that Hughes would be chosen. He resigned on February 3 and returned to the capital, but barely had the strength to answer a tribute letter signed by the eight justice associates. William Howard Taft died at his home in Washington, D.C. on March 8, 1930.
He was buried on March 11 at Arlington National Cemetery, the first president of the United States and first member of the Supreme Court to be buried there. James Earle Fraser carved the grave marker with granite from Connecticut.
Biographer Jonathan Lurie argues that Taft did not receive the public credit he should for his policies and accomplishments as president. Few trusts had been broken up under the Roosevelt administration although the cases drew a lot of media attention. Taft, by contrast far more discreet, initiated many more cases and rejected his predecessor’s view that there was such a thing as a “good” trust. This lack of nose tarnished his presidency; according to Lurie, Taft “was boring – honest and nice, but boring.” Scott Bomboy of the National Constitution Center wrote that despite being “one of the most interesting, intellectual, and versatile presidents … a Chief Justice of the United States, a fighter at Yale, a reformer, a peace activist, and a baseball fan … today, Taft is best remembered as the president who was so big he got stuck in a White House bathtub,” a false story. Taft similarly remains known to the public for another physical characteristic: the last president with facial hair.
Alpheus Thomas Mason stated that Taft’s years in the White House were “without distinction.” Paolo Enrico Coletta felt that he had a good record in passing bills in Congress, however felt that he could have achieved more with political skill. Donald F. Anderson pointed out that Taft’s pre-presidential federal service had been entirely in appointed positions and that he never had to run for an important executive or legislative policy position, something that would have helped him develop skills in manipulating public opinion, “the presidency is no place for on-the-job training.” Coletta also wrote that “in troubled times when people demanded progressive change, he saw the existing order as good.”
Taft is inevitably linked to Roosevelt, usually standing in the shadow of his flamboyant predecessor who chose him for the presidency and then took it away. Even so, a portrayal of Taft as a victim of betrayal by his best friend is incomplete; according to Coletta, “Was he a poor politician because he was victimized or because he lacked foresight and imagination to perceive the storm brewing in the political sky until it came and swamped him?” Roosevelt was adept at using the levers of power in ways that his successor could not, usually achieving what was politically possible in a situation. Taft was often slow to act and when he did, his actions often generated enemies as in the Ballinger-Pinchot affair. Roosevelt was skilled at getting positive coverage in the newspapers, whereas Taft had a judge’s reticence to talk to reporters, with hostile journalists supplying the demand created by the lack of commentary coming from the White House by using quotes from the president’s opponents. It was Roosevelt who etched into the public’s memory the image of Taft as a James Buchanan-like figure with a narrow view of the presidency that made him unwilling to act for the public good. Anderson pointed out that Roosevelt’s autobiography was published after they both left the presidency and was intended to justify his departure from the Republican Party, containing not a single positive reference to the man he had personally admired and chosen as his successor. Although Roosevelt was biased, he was not alone: all the great newspaper reporters of the time who left reminiscences about Taft were quite critical. He responded to his predecessor’s criticism by writing his constitutional treatise on the powers of the president.
Taft was convinced that he would be redeemed by history. He estimated upon leaving office to be among the American presidents in greatness, with most subsequent assessments by historians upholding that verdict. Coletta commented that this puts Taft in good company, along with James Madison, John Quincy Adams, and McKinley. Lurie catalogued the progressive innovations that occurred in his period in office, arguing that historians have forgotten them because Taft was not a great orator or political writer. According to Louis L. Gould, “the clichés about Taft’s weight, his malingering in the White House, and his conservative thinking and doctrine have an element of truth, yet they fail to do justice to an insightful commentator on the political scene, a man of consummate ambition, and a practically ingenious of his party’s internal politics.” Anderson considered Taft’s success in becoming President and Chief Justice as “an astonishing feat of judicial and Republican Party internal politics played out over the years, something we are unlikely to see again in American history.”
He was considered one of the best chief justices in history; Associate Justice Antonin Scalia commented that this was “not so much based on his opinions, perhaps because many have run counter to the course of history.” Chief Justice Earl Warren agreed: “In Taft’s case, the symbol, the label, the seal generally attached to him is ‘conservative.’ It is certainly not a term in itself opprobrious even when used by critics, but its use is often confused with ‘reactionary.'” Most commentators agree that Taft’s most significant contribution as Chief Justice was his advocacy of Supreme Court reform, urging and ultimately succeeding in improving the court’s processes and facilities. Mason cited the passage of the Judiciary Act of 1925 as Taft’s greatest accomplishment in office. Anderson believes that as Chief Justice, he “was as aggressive in pursuing his goals in the judicial sphere as Theodore Roosevelt had been in the presidential.”
The house in Cincinnati where Taft was born and lived as a child is now on the National Register of Historic Places. His son Robert A. Taft was an important political figure, becoming Senate Majority Leader and a leading contender for the Republican nomination for President on three occasions. Robert was also a conservative and on each occasion was defeated by a candidate supported by the more liberal wing of the party.
Lurie concluded his account of William Howard Taft’s career by writing:
- William Howard Taft
- William Howard Taft
- Lurie 2011, pp. 4–5
- Lurie 2011, pp. 4–7
- Jan Willem Schulte Noordholt (1990). Woodrow Wilson: Een leven voor de wereldvrede. Een biografie. Amsterdam: Meulenhoff, p.100
- Coletta 1973, p. 6 et 7.
- Carnegie Hall linked open data (англ.) — 2017.
- 1 2 3 4 5 Gould, Louis L. Taft, William Howard. — February 2000. — ISBN 978-0-679-80358-4.
- 1 2 3 4 5 6 7 Lurie, Jonathan. William Howard Taft: Progressive Conservative. — Cambridge : Cambridge University Press, 2011. — ISBN 978-0-521-51421-7.
- 1 2 3 4 5 6 7 8 9 10 11 12 13 14 15 16 17 18 Pringle, Henry F. The Life and Times of William Howard Taft: A Biography. — 1939. — Vol. 1.