Early Life and Education
Another Ohio-born president (one of seven in U.S. history), William H. Taft, was born in the Mt. Auburn section of Cincinnatti in 1857. A baseball stalwart, Taft was a solid power-hitting 2nd baseman while at Woodward Highschool, where he also excelled academically, graduating 2nd overall in his graduating class of 1874. Taft then moved to prestigious Yale, where he again graduated 2nd overall in his class. After Yale, Taft attended the University of Cincinnati’s law school. He passed the Ohio bar exam in spring 1880.
Early Political Career
William H. Taft’s father Alphonso served as inspiration for his son. During his illustrious life, Alphonso served as the secretary of war and then the attorney general under President Ulysses S. Grant.
Under president Chester A. Arthur, Alphonso served as the minister (ambassador) to Austria-Hungary and Russia. Despite being a stalwart Republican, Alphonso shared some progressive liberal views that were passed on to William, especially regarding women’s rights and education.
Through his father’s political connections, Taft entered politics in 1881 as the assistant prosecutor of Hamilton, County, Ohio. Eventually. Taft was appointed the position of Judge on the Cincinnatti Superior Court in 1887, one year after marrying Helen “Nellie” Herron.
Taft’s overall goal was to be made a member of the supreme court, to which he made significant strides in 1890 when he was named U.S. Solicitor General (the third-highest position in the Department of Justice).
During his time in D.C. as Solicitor, General Taft became close friends with future president Theodore “Teddy” Roosevelt, who worked as a civil service commissioner.
In 1892 against Nellie’s wishes, William H. Taft accepted the appointment as a judge of the Sixth U.S. circular court, which placed him with jurisdiction over the states of Ohio, Michigan, Tennessee, and Kentucky.
While serving on the sixth court, Taft also served as a professor and dean at the Cincinnati Law School from 1896 to 1900.
Governor-General of the Philippines
Taft’s wife, Nellie, was extremely ambitious and did not hide her frustrations with Taft’s judicial ambitions. She desired to see him and, more importantly, herself in the White House. Thus when William H. Taft received a telegram from President McKinley to meet with him in Washington, she was delighted with the possibilities.
It turned out that McKinley wished to send Taft to the Phillippines, which the U.S., by virtue of winning the Spanish-American war, had taken from Spain. Taft was charged with setting up a civilian government. In its own way, this was a compelling and consuming position. Taft would be required to draft and implement laws and a constitution as well as to establish an administration and civil service department.
Despite Job’s difficult nature, Taft, propelled by the opportunity to rise within the Republican party, eagerly accepted McKinley’s offer.
At the time of his arrival, the Philippines were in chaos, in the midst of a war. 70,000 US troops were on the islands attempting to put down a nationalist rebellion led by Emilio Aguinaldo. The rebels’ tenacity was only outmatched by the American campaign’s brutality and bloodiness, which ironically was very similar to the Spanish campaign against Cuba that the US had just gone to war over.
Critics began to come out in numbers criticizing the US policy towards “intersection” in the Phillippines and what was viewed as McKinley’s imperialistic agenda.
Upon arrival, Taft clashed with Arthur MacArthur, the father of legendary general Douglass MacArthur, whom Taft placed as being responsible for the brutality against the Filipinos.
After Aguinaldo was captured, he dismissed MacArthur.
Taft’s constitution for the Phillippines was nearly identical to the US constitution, with the only notable absence being the right to trial by jury.
During his tenure, which he spent with his wife and their three children, Taft established a civil service, a judicial system, the building of English schools, a transportation network, and improved healthcare facilities.
In time, Taft and his Filipino denizens began to respect each other, though Taft still believed that the Filipinos would be incapable of self-governance for some time.
Secretary of War
In 1904 Taft returned to the United States after being appointed Secretary of War by his old friend and current president Teddy Roosevelt. Over the span of his tenure, 1904-1908, Taft became Roosevelt’s confidant and chief “fixer” in foreign affairs issues.
Taft helped supervise the construction of the momentous Panama Canal, revisited and supervised affairs in the Phillippines, and functioned as the provisional governor of Cuba.
Taft was so infrequently in D.C. that the press began to question his absences and huge travel expenses. At that point, Roosevelt asked Taft to privately pay for expenses to ease the pressure. Luckily for Taft, his brother Charles was extremely wealthy and had no problem footing the bill.
Election of 1908
After vowing not to seek reelection in 1908, Teddy Roosevelt vigorously promoted his Secretary of War for the position. Despite the opportunity to become the most powerful man in the land, Taft was still seeking appointment as US Supreme court Chief Justice. However, after much persuading from his wife Nellie and Roosevelt, he agreed to run.
At the Republican convention in Chicago, the fervor for Roosevelt to run again was evident. Only after Teddy sent word via Henry Cabot Lodge that he would not be available did the balloting shift towards Taft. In the end, Taft received 471 votes, by far the most of the seven potential Republican nominees. His opponent would be William Jennings Bryan, who had been defeated twice by William McKinley in his bids for the presidency.
Taft’s campaign was heavily dependent on Roosevelt for advice and speechmaking, and it was clear that William H. Taft himself abhorred this aspect of politics. In the end, Taft dominated the election by promising to continue Roosevelt’s policies forward. After the final tallying of the votes, Taft carried all but three states and won an astonishing 321 electoral votes to Bryan’s 162.
Entering the White House, William H. Taft was determined to continue the program implemented by Roosevelt during his term.
According to the University of Notre Dame Political Science professor, Peri A. Arnold Taft’s primary ambition regarding reform was to create an orderly framework for administering a reform agenda. Peri goes on to note that executive leadership was about focusing on administration rather than legislative agenda-setting for Taft.
Among the significant pieces of legislation passed during Taft’s tenure was the reform of the tariff laws through reduced rates.
The Mann-Elkins act of 1910 empowered the Interstate Commerce Commission (ICC) to set standard rates for the railroads abolishing railroad rate hikes. The same act also placed the ICC in charge of new technology- radios, telegraphs, and telephones.
Taft placed a large portion of postal workers and skilled Navy workers under civil service protection. Taft vetoed Arizona and New Mexico’s admission into statehood because of their state’s constitutional provision for the recalling of judges. After the recall clauses were removed, Taft fully supported their admission to statehood.
Taft was an effective trust-buster and, in fact, many more trust prosecutions were brought about during Taft’s administration than during Roosevelt’s administration despite Roosevelt’s title of “Great Trust-buster.”
Two of the most famous antitrust cases of all time occurred during the Taft administration against corporate behemoths, the Standard Oil Company and the American Tabacco Company, though these cases were actually begun during Roosevelt’s administration.
Taft broke up the sugar trust, which manipulated prices taking on The American Sugar Refining Company. When he considered bringing suit against US Steel, Roosevelt roundly criticized him for being unable to tell between “good” and “bad” trusts.
As his presidential term progressed, Taft increasingly removed himself from the cause of “trust-busting.” He found himself being criticized more and more frequently and was surrounded in the White House by rich conservative businessmen, further removed from reality.
Two significant controversies affected Taft’s presidency and overall legacy. The first occurred when Taft signed a tariff bill pushed by Republican members of congress that Taft had previously said he would never sign. This hypocrisy greatly damaged his “reformer” reputation.
The second his replacement of Chief Forrstor of the United States- Gifford Pinchot, with businessman Richard Ballinger, resulted in Ballinger opening up previously closed tracts of government lands for business, including rich coal lands in Alaska.
This controversy tore the Republican party apart and gravely damaged Roosevelt and Taft’s once strong friendship.
Taft’s foreign policy was directed around economic investment and building foreign trade. As President, he pursued a program known as “dollar diplomacy,” which advocated and encouraged US investment in South and Central America, the Caribbean, and the Far East.
During his tenure, he sent US troops to Nicaragua in an effort to stabilize the Central American country and invited (deplored) US banks to help rescue debt-ridden Honduras.
Unfortunately for Taft, many of his new foreign policy efforts actually failed. During his tenure, trade with China decreased. He created further ill will in Central America with his military intervention, the third in a decade as Roosevelt’s administration intervened in Panama and the Dominican Republic.
Election of 1912
In the buildup to the 1912 election, two former friends Roosevelt and Taft felt the need to run due to the criticisms and actions of one another, which resulted in many nasty and relentless attacks on both sides. The 1912 election was the first in which a sitting president campaigned in state primaries which Roosevelt dominated, carrying all but three of the primary states.
At the Republican convention once again held in Chicago, it seemed evident that Roosevelt would win the nomination. However, due to Taft’s standing as incumbent president and the benefits associated with that, the Republican National Committee and its delegates were dominated by “Taft-Republicans.”
With the party bosses handling the nomination process, Taft dominated the vote- 561 votes to Roosevelt’s 187.
Losing the convention, Roosevelt quickly formed his own party, the progressive party, nicknamed the Bull-Moose party. The democrats who were foaming at the mouth due to the split in the Republican Party nominated Woodrow Wilson, then the Governor of New Jersey.
In the presidential campaign that ensured, Taft quickly became the conservative candidate surrounded by Wilson and Roosevelt’s progressive views. Taft, always weary of campaigning and the smear tactics involved, chose to retreat to the golf course and let Wilson and Roosevelt duke it out.
On election day, Wilson dominated the split- Republicans winning the electoral college vote 435 to 88 for Roosevelt and only 8 for Taft, who won the small states of Vermont and Utah.
Later Life and Death
After losing his reelection bid, Taft became a professor at the Yale University Law School until President Warren G. Harding appointed him to his lifelong dream of chief justice of the US Supreme Court in 1921. Taft would serve as chief justice for nine years until his death in 1930.
While the head of the supreme court Taft, wrote 253 decisions, most of these decisions were conservative in nature and limited/constrained government. Taft stuck down a provision allowing for even peaceful picketing and actually ruled against Congress’s right to deter child labor with his placement of an excise tax on goods manufactured by children.
On March 8th, 1930, William H. Taft, at the age of 73 (quite remarkable due to Taft’s heavy frame throughout life), died of heart disease complications, high blood pressure, and inflammation of the bladder. His funeral was the first to be broadcast nationally over the radio.
Taft was buried at Arlington National Cemetery, one of only two presidents (John F. Kennedy the other) to be buried at Arlington. His wife Nellie survived her husband living on for a further 13 years. She achieved her goal of becoming the first lady and, in fact, is the only woman to be both first lady and the wife of the chief of justice.