Distinguished jurist, effective administrator, but poor politician, William Howard Taft spent four uncomfortable years as the 27th President of the United States. Large, jovial, conscientious, he was caught in the intense battles between Progressives and conservatives, and got scant credit for the achievements of his administration. He is the only man who has served as both a president and later as a Chief Justice of the United States.
Born in 1857, the son of a distinguished judge, William Howard Taft graduated from Yale, and then returned to Cincinnati to study and practice law. He rose in politics through Republican judiciary appointments, through his own competence and availability, and because, as he once wrote facetiously, he always had his “plate the right side up when offices were falling.”
Path to the White House
William Howard Taft much preferred law to politics. He was appointed a Federal circuit judge at 34. His goal was to be a member of the Supreme Court, but his wife, Helen Herron Taft, held other ambitions for him.
His route to the White House was via administrative posts. President McKinley sent him to the Philippines in 1900 as chief civil administrator. Sympathetic toward the Filipinos, he helped to improve the economy, built roads and schools, and gave the people at least some participation in government.
President Roosevelt made him Secretary of War, and by 1907, he had decided that Taft should be his successor. The Republican Convention nominated him the following year.
Taft disliked the campaign–“one of the most uncomfortable four months of my life.” But he pledged his loyalty to the Roosevelt program, popular in the West, while his brother Charles reassured eastern Republicans. William Jennings Bryan, running on the Democratic ticket for a third time, complained that he was opposing two different candidates, a western progressive Taft and an eastern conservative Taft.
Progressives were quite pleased with Taft’s election as American President. “Roosevelt has cut enough hay,” they said; “Taft is the man to put it into the barn.” Conservatives were delighted to be rid of Roosevelt–who they referred to as the “mad messiah.”
Taft recognized that his techniques would differ from those of his predecessor. Unlike Roosevelt, Taft did not believe in the stretching of Presidential powers. He once commented that Roosevelt “ought more often to have admitted the legal way of reaching the same ends.”
William Howard Taft alienated many liberal Republicans who later formed the Progressive Party, by defending the Payne-Aldrich Act which unexpectedly continued high tariff rates. Taft used his power as American President to push a trade agreement with Canada through Congress in order to please the eastern advocates of a low tariff, but the Canadians rejected the plan. He further antagonized Progressives by upholding his Secretary of the Interior, accused of failing to carry out Roosevelt’s conservation policies.
In the onslaught by the unhappy Progressives against him, little attention was paid to the fact that his administration initiated 80 antitrust suits and that Congress submitted to the states amendments for a Federal income tax and the direct election of Senators. A postal savings system was established, and the Interstate Commerce Commission was also directed to set railroad rates.
In 1912, when the Republicans re-nominated Taft, Roosevelt left the party to lead the Progressives, guaranteeing the election of Woodrow Wilson.
William Howard Taft, retired from the office of the American President, served as Professor of Law at Yale until President Harding appointed him Chief Justice of the United States, a position he held until just before his death in 1930. To Taft, the position was his greatest honor; he wrote: “I don’t remember that I ever was President.”
The accompanying graphic highlights the achievements and notable moments of William Howard Taft: