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William Howard Taft

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William Howard Taft
William Howard Taft as Chief Justice SCOTUS.jpg
27th President of the United States
In office
March 4, 1909 – March 4, 1913
Vice President James Sherman (1909-1912)
None (1912-1913)
Preceded by Theodore Roosevelt
Succeeded by Woodrow Wilson
10th Chief Justice of the United States
In office
July 11, 1921 – February 3, 1930
Nominated by Warren Harding
Preceded by Edward White
Succeeded by Charles Hughes
Provisional Governor of Cuba
In office
September 29, 1906 – October 13, 1906
Appointed by Theodore Roosevelt
Preceded by Tomás Estrada Palma ( President)
Succeeded by Charles Magoon
42nd United States Secretary of War
In office
February 1, 1904 – June 30, 1908
President Theodore Roosevelt
Preceded by Elihu Root
Succeeded by Luke Wright
Governor-General of the Philippines
In office
July 4, 1901 – December 23, 1903
Appointed by William McKinley
Preceded by Arthur MacArthur
Succeeded by Luke Wright
Judge of the United States Court of Appeals for the Sixth Circuit
In office
March 17, 1892 – March 15, 1900
Nominated by Benjamin Harrison
Preceded by Seat established
Succeeded by Henry Severens
5th United States Solicitor General
In office
February 1890 – March 1892
President Benjamin Harrison
Preceded by Orlow Chapman
Succeeded by Charles Aldrich
Personal details
Born (1857-09-15)September 15, 1857
Cincinnati, Ohio, U.S.
Died March 8, 1930(1930-03-08) (aged 72)
Washington, D.C., U.S.
Resting place Arlington National Cemetery
Arlington, Virginia
Political party Republican
Spouse(s) Helen Herron
(1886-1930; his death)
Children Robert
Alma mater Yale University
Cincinnati Law School
Profession Lawyer
Religion Unitarian
Signature Cursive signature in ink

William Howard Taft (September 15, 1857 – March 8, 1930) was the 27th President of the United States (1909–1913) and later the tenth Chief Justice of the United States (1921–1930). He is the only person to have served in both of these offices.

Before becoming President, Taft, a Republican, was selected to serve on the Superior Court of Cincinnati in 1887. In 1890, Taft was appointed Solicitor General of the United States and in 1891 a judge on the United States Court of Appeals for the Sixth Circuit. In 1900, President William McKinley appointed Taft Governor-General of the Philippines. In 1904, President Theodore Roosevelt appointed Taft Secretary of War in an effort to groom Taft, then his close political ally, into his handpicked presidential successor. Taft assumed a prominent role in problem solving, assuming on some occasions the role of acting Secretary of State, while declining repeated offers from Roosevelt to serve on the Supreme Court.

Riding a wave of popular support for fellow Republican Roosevelt, Taft won an easy victory in his 1908 bid for the presidency. In his only term, Taft's domestic agenda emphasized trust-busting, civil service reform, strengthening the Interstate Commerce Commission, improving the performance of the postal service, and passage of the Sixteenth Amendment. Abroad, Taft sought to further the economic development of nations in Latin America and Asia through " Dollar Diplomacy", and showed decisiveness and restraint in response to revolution in Mexico. The task-oriented Taft was oblivious to the political ramifications of his decisions, often alienated his own key constituencies, and was overwhelmingly defeated in his bid for a second term in the presidential election of 1912. In surveys of presidential scholars, Taft is usually ranked near the middle of lists of all American Presidents.

After leaving office, Taft spent his time in academia, arbitration, and the search for world peace through his self-founded League to Enforce Peace. In 1921, after the First World War, President Warren G. Harding appointed Taft Chief Justice of the United States. Taft served in this capacity until shortly before his death in 1930.

Early life and education

Yale College photograph of Taft

William Howard Taft was born into the powerful Taft family September 15, 1857, near Cincinnati, Ohio as the son of Louisa Torrey and Alphonso Taft. His paternal grandfather was Peter Rawson Taft, a descendant of Robert Taft I, the first Taft in America, who settled in Colonial Mendon and later Uxbridge Massachusetts. Alphonso Taft went to Cincinnati in 1839 to open a law practice, and was a prominent Republican who served as Secretary of War and Attorney General under President Ulysses S. Grant.

Young William attended Cincinnati's First Congregational-Unitarian Church with his parents; he joined the congregation at an early age and was an enthusiastic participant. As he rose in the government, he spent little time in Cincinnati. He attended the church much less frequently than he had but worshiped there when he could.

Taft attended Woodward High School in Cincinnati, and laid the cornerstone of the new Woodward High School, now the site of the School for Creative and Performing Arts (SCPA). Like others in his family, he attended Yale College in New Haven, Connecticut. At Yale, he was a member of the Linonian Society, a literary and debating society; Skull and Bones, the secret society co-founded by his father in 1832; and the Beta chapter of the Psi Upsilon fraternity. He was given the nickname "Big Lub" because of his size, but his college friends knew him by the nickname "Old Bill". Taft received comments, sometimes humorous, about his weight. Making positive use of his stature, Taft was Yale's intramural heavyweight wrestling champion. In 1878, Taft graduated, ranking second in his class out of 121. After college, he attended Cincinnati Law School, graduating with a Bachelor of Laws in 1880. While in law school, he worked on the area newspaper The Cincinnati Commercial.

Legal career and early politics

After admission to the Ohio bar, Taft was appointed Assistant Prosecutor of Hamilton County, Ohio, based in Cincinnati. In 1882, he was appointed local Collector of Internal Revenue. Taft married his longtime sweetheart, Helen Herron, in Cincinnati in 1886. In 1887, he was appointed a judge of the Superior Court of Cincinnati. In 1890, President Benjamin Harrison appointed him Solicitor General of the United States; at age 32, he was the youngest-ever Solicitor General. Taft then began serving on the newly created United States Court of Appeals for the Sixth Circuit in 1891; he was confirmed by the Senate on March 17, 1892, and received his commission that same day. In about 1893, Taft decided in favour of the processing aluminium patents belonging to the Pittsburgh Reduction Company, now known as Alcoa. Along with his judgeship, between 1896 and 1900 Taft also served as the first dean and a professor of constitutional law at the University of Cincinnati.

In 1900, President William McKinley appointed Taft chairman of a commission to organize a civilian government in the Philippines which had been ceded to the United States by Spain following the Spanish–American War and the 1898 Treaty of Paris. Although Taft had been opposed to the annexation of the islands, and had told McKinley his real ambition was to become a justice of the Supreme Court of the United States, he reluctantly accepted the appointment.

From 1901 to 1903, Taft served as the first civilian Governor-General of the Philippines, a position in which he was very popular with both Americans and Filipinos. In 1902, Taft visited Rome to negotiate with Pope Leo XIII for the purchase of Philippine lands owned by the Roman Catholic Church. Taft then persuaded Congress to appropriate more than $7 million to purchase these lands, which he sold to Filipinos on easy terms. In 1903, President Theodore Roosevelt offered Taft the seat on the Supreme Court to which he had for so long aspired, but he reluctantly declined since he viewed the Filipinos as not yet being capable of governing themselves and because of his popularity among them. This decision was one among many in Taft's career which demonstrated a compulsive dedication to the job at hand, without regard to his self-interest. (Roosevelt actually made the offer of a seat on the Court on several different occasions, being met with a decline every time.) This dedication to the task at hand was the source of much frustration of his political colleagues. According to biographer Anderson, contrary to the belief of Roosevelt and other allies, Taft's role as Governor-General in the Philippines did not serve to equip him with the political skills essential for the White House.

Secretary of War (1904–1908)

William Howard Taft addressing the audience at the Philippine Assembly in the Manila Grand Opera House.

In 1904, Roosevelt appointed Taft as Secretary of War. This appointment allowed Taft to remain involved in the Philippines and Roosevelt also assured Taft he would support his later appointment to the Court, while Taft agreed to support Roosevelt in the Presidential election of 1904. Roosevelt made the basic policy decisions regarding military affairs, using Taft as a well-traveled spokesman who campaigned for Roosevelt's reelection in 1904. Of Taft's appointment, Roosevelt said, "If only there were three of you; I could appoint one of you to the Court, one to the War Department and one to the Philippines." Taft met with the Emperor of Japan who alerted him of the probability of war with Russia. In 1905, Taft met with Japanese Prime Minister Katsura Tarō. At that meeting, the two signed a secret diplomatic memorandum now called the Taft–Katsura Agreement. Contrary to rumor, the memorandum did not establish any new policies but instead repeated the public positions of both nations.

In 1906, President Roosevelt sent troops to restore order in Cuba during the revolt led by General Enrique Loynaz del Castillo, and Taft temporarily became the Civil Governor of Cuba, personally negotiating with Castillo for a peaceful end to the revolt. Also in that year Roosevelt made his third offer to Taft of a position on the Court which he again declined out of a sense of duty to resolve pending issues in the Philippines. Had it been for the Chief Justice seat, a different result may well have ensued.

Taft indicated to Roosevelt he wanted to be Chief Justice of the Supreme Court, not President, but there was no vacancy and Roosevelt had other plans – in 1907 he began touting Taft as the best choice for the Presidential nomination by the party. Taft's spouse was determined to gain the White House and pressured him not to accept a court appointment; other family members also strongly favored the Presidency for him. He gave Taft more responsibilities along with the Philippines and the Panama Canal. For a while, Taft was Acting Secretary of State. When Roosevelt was away, Taft was, in effect, the Acting President. While serving as the War Secretary Taft generally concentrated on major developments, including the Philippines and the Panama Canal, to the detriment of departmental housekeeping problems, including factionalism within the Department, of which Roosevelt was aware. In 1907 the Hay-Bunau-Varilla Treaty granted the U.S. construction rights for the Panama Canal, which Roosevelt delegated to the War Department, and Taft thereby supervised the beginning of construction on the Canal. Taft promoted a reduction in the tariffs on sugar and tobacco in the Philippines, a position with which Roosevelt disagreed; Taft offered to resign but this was refused by Roosevelt. Taft also had a disagreement with Roosevelt over the latter's conclusion of an executive agreement with the Dominican Republic, in lieu of what Taft thought should have been a treaty, requiring ratification by the Senate. Roosevelt dismissed the complaint as "trifling", and Taft, in his usual style, let it go.

Presidential election of 1908

Electoral votes by state, 1908.
1909 inauguration

Theodore Roosevelt became president after William McKinley was assassinated in 1901. After getting elected president in his own right in 1904, on election night on the lawn of the White House, Roosevelt publicly declared he would not run for reelection in 1908, a decision that he immediately regretted. But he felt bound by his word. Taft was the logical successor, but he was initially reluctant to run, as he had been earlier. As a member of Roosevelt's cabinet, he had declared that his future ambition was to serve on the Supreme Court, not the White House. Taft's efforts in stumping for the party in the 1906 mid-term elections made him aware of his deficiencies as an effective campaigner. Mrs. Taft even commented during this time, "never did he cease to regard a Supreme Court appointment as more desirable than the presidency." But,Taft conceded, with his extensive involvement as the most prominent member of the cabinet, that he was the most "available" man; thus he agreed that were he to be nominated for president, he would put his personal convictions aside and run a vigorous campaign.

At the time, Roosevelt was convinced that Taft was a genuine " progressive" and helped push through the nomination of his Secretary of War onto the Republican ticket on the first ballot at the party convention. His opponent in the general election was William Jennings Bryan, who had run for president twice before, in 1896 and in 1900 against William McKinley. During the campaign, Taft undercut Bryan's liberal support by accepting some of his reformist ideas, and Roosevelt's progressive policies blurred the distinctions between the parties. Bryan, on the other hand, ran an aggressive campaign against the nation's business elite. The democrats referred to Taft's nomination and potential election, pre-determined by the powerful Roosevelt, as a possible "forced succession to the presidency."

It did not take long for Taft's markedly different style, and lack of political acumen, to emerge. Joseph B. Foraker of Ohio, seeking Taft's support in his senatorial re-election, made an appearance with Taft, creating the impression Taft was allied with the big business trusts. And when Taft failed to follow the Hearst papers in denouncing Foraker's association with them, Roosevelt became incensed. Taft also showed his political ineptness by choosing Frank Hitchcock to be Chairman of the Republican Party. Hitchcock was quick to bring in men closely allied with big business, which further alienated the progressive wing of the party. Despite the difference in styles, Taft had demonstrated for the most part that the substance of his policies echoed those of Roosevelt. In the end, Taft won by a comfortable electoral margin, giving Bryan his worst loss in three presidential campaigns. Taft defeated Bryan by 159 electoral votes; however, he garnered just 51% of the popular vote. Mrs. Taft was quoted quite prophetically, saying that, "There was nothing to criticize, except his not knowing or caring about the way the game of politics is played."

Presidency, 1909 – 1913

Taft did not enjoy the easy relationship with the press that Roosevelt had, choosing not to offer himself for interviews or photo opportunities as often as the previous president had done. When a reporter informed him he was no Teddy Roosevelt, Taft replied that his main goal was to "try to accomplish just as much without any noise". Taft even made executive decisions (see below) demonstrating his indifference with the press. Indeed, Taft's administration marked a change in style from the political charisma of Roosevelt to the passion of Taft for the rule of law. Taft, in fashioning his cabinet, showed also that he was not unwilling to depart to some degree from Roosevelt's progressivism; he named an anti-progressive, Philander Chase Knox Secretary of State, who had primary influence over other appointments.

Taft considered himself a progressive, in part from his belief in an expansive use of the rule of law, as the prevailing device that should be actively used by judges and others in authority to solve society's, and even the world's, problems. But his devotion to the law also often made Taft a slave to precedent, and less adroit in politics than Roosevelt; he therefore lacked the flexibility, creativity and personal magnetism of his mentor, not to mention the publicity devices, the dedicated supporters, and the broad base of public support that made Roosevelt so formidable.

The divergent views of the two men over the powers of the executive is well articulated in their respective memoirs. In summary, Roosevelt for his part believed 'the President has not just a right but a duty to do anything demanded by the needs of the nation, unless such action is forbidden by the Constitution or federal law." Taft's general opinion on the other hand was that "the President can exercise no power which cannot fairly be traced to some specific grant of power in the Constitution or act of Congress."

Domestic policies and politics

Official White House portrait of William Howard Taft (1911)

When Roosevelt realized that lowering the tariff would divide the Republican Party, he assumed a low profile on that issue. Taft ignored the political effects and kept the tariff rates on his agenda (he had raised expectations of lower rates in the campaign); he passively encouraged congressional reformers to draft bills including lower rates, while broadcasting a willingness to compromise with conservative leaders in the Congress, who wanted to keep tariff rates high. Taft described this approach as his "policy of harmony" with the Congress. The President displayed a more aggressive role early in the drafting of tariff legislation as it regarded the Philippines. He also assumed a similar role in pushing for a corporate income tax. On other matters, he was content to wait until legislation reached its final stage in a joint House–Senate conference committee. Once there, however, he jumped in with both feet, calling each and every member of the committee for a one-on-one meeting at the White House. The resulting tariff rates in the Payne–Aldrich Tariff Act of 1909 were too high for the progressives, based in part on Taft's campaign promises; but instead of blaming the act's shortcomings on Senator Nelson W. Aldrich and big business, Taft claimed the responsibility, calling it the best bill to come from the Republican Party. Again, due to his results-oriented style, politically he had managed to alienate all sides. The Bureau of Trade Relations later concluded the act overall was moderately successful in lowering rates. Congress refused however to fund the Tariff Board which the President included in the Payne–Aldrich Bill, which would have removed the setting of rates from direct continual Congressional manipulation.

Taft was less likely to speak critically of big business than Roosevelt. Nevertheless, his rule of law orientation resulted in the filing of 90 antitrust suits during his administration, compared to 54 such suits by Roosevelt's two-term Justice Department. Taft's efforts included one suit against the country's largest corporation, U.S. Steel, for the acquisition of a Tennessee company during Roosevelt's tenure. The lawsuit even named Roosevelt personally without Taft's knowledge. This was responsible for a complete break with Roosevelt. Progressives within the Republican Party began to actively oppose against Taft. Senator Robert LaFollette of Wisconsin created the National Progressive Republican League to replace Taft on the national level; although, his campaign crashed after a disastrous speech. Most of LaFollette's supporters went over to Roosevelt. The business community and the conservative wing of the party were also alienated from Taft and contributions to the GOP dried up.

Taft's administration got a political boost after 25 western railroads announced an intent to raise rates by 20%, and Taft responded, first with a threat to enforce the Sherman Antitrust Act against them; he then negotiated a settlement whereby they agreed to submit delayed rate requests to a new Interstate Commerce Commission having authority over rate requests.

In late 1911, President Taft called for a “central organization in touch with associations and chambers of commerce throughout the country.” Just four months later, on April 12, 1912, Taft created the United States Chamber of Commerce as a counterbalance to the rise of the labor movement at the time.

Taft's obsession with the law over politics created more trouble for him in the well noted dispute between his Interior Secretary, Richard Achilles Ballinger, and the Chief of the Forestry Service, Gifford Pinchot. Ballinger's job was to assure the proper legal form of land withdrawals made from the private sector as part of Roosevelt's conservation policy. Ballinger's review in many instances concluded that the legalities were lacking and lands had to be returned to private owners. Pinchot led the objections to these returns, and even convinced an Interior Department subordinate, Louis Glavis, to bring an accusation against Ballinger for fraud and collusion with corporate timber interests. Taft refused to intervene until the resulting discord in the cabinet forced him to act. The President reviewed the matter, then fired Glavis and Pinchot; Ballinger also tendered his resignation, which would have further served to end the matter were it not for Taft's refusal to accept it. By that time the political damage had been done, with further alienation of the Progressives from the administration.

Taft, ever reluctant to dismiss cabinet members, nevertheless used the resignations of Ballinger and War Secretary Dickinson to modify the complexion of the cabinet by appointing more progressive Republicans. Walter L. Fisher, from the National Conservation League and an ally of Pinchot, replaced Ballinger. Henry L. Stimson, another progressive, replaced Dickinson. Taft's overriding concern in making most appointments, however, was ability and experience, not party or faction alignment. This was particularly the case with respect to judiciary appointments, specifically in the south, where Taft felt the courts were the weakest. Taft's high standards, which reduced the influence of Senatorial courtesy in the selection process, resulted in the placement of over one hundred well qualified federal judges. Nevertheless, in the process Taft passed up yet another opportunity to embolden himself politically through the use of patronage.

In the area of federal spending, Taft initiated reforms which would revolutionize the Executive's role in the federal government's budget process. Previously, each executive department presented to the Treasury Dept. its own expense estimates, which were then forwarded to the Congress. Taft ordered each department to begin submitting its requests to the cabinet for review. The first such round of requests and cabinet reviews resulted in a reduction of $92 million, representing the first actual presidential budget in modern history. Taft then requested, and received, approval and funding to create the Commission on Economy and Efficiency to study the budgeting process. The study recommended the President be required early in the Congressional session to present the legislature with a comprehensive budget. This recommendation ultimately became law with passage of the Budget and Accounting Act of 1921.

Taft's "policy of harmony" with Congress facilitated passage of most of his legislative program. Nevertheless, in the 1910 midterm elections, the Democrats assumed control of the House for the first time in 16 years. At the same time, in the Senate, while the Republicans retained their majority, they lost 8 seats.

Corporate income tax

To solve an impasse during the 1909 tariff debate, Taft proposed income taxes for corporations and a constitutional amendment to remove the apportionment requirement for taxes on incomes from property (taxes on dividends, interest, and rents), on June 16, 1909. His proposed tax on corporate net income was 1% on net profits over $5,000. It was designated an excise on the privilege of doing business as a corporation whose stockholders enjoyed the privilege of limited liability, and not a tax on incomes as such. In 1911, the Supreme Court, in Flint v. Stone Tracy Co., upheld the tax. Receipts grew from $21 million in the fiscal year 1910 to $34.8 million in 1912.

In July 1909, a proposed amendment to allow the federal government to tax incomes was passed unanimously in the Senate and by a vote of 318 to 14 in the House. It was quickly ratified by the states, and on February 3, 1913, it became a part of the Constitution as the Sixteenth Amendment.

Blacks and immigrants

Taft met with and publicly endorsed Booker T. Washington's program for uplifting the African American race, advising them to stay out of politics at the time and emphasize education and entrepreneurship. A supporter of free immigration, Taft vetoed a law passed by Congress and supported by labor unions that would have restricted unskilled laborers by imposing a literacy test.

Foreign policy

President William Howard Taft

The President surprised the diplomatic arena with his early dismissal of one of the State Department's most experienced diplomats, Henry White, the Ambassador to France. The only suspected reason for this decision was that White was thought to have somehow slighted the President and his wife 25 years earlier on their honeymoon in Europe. Taft was oblivious to the serious damage that this decision caused his political reputation. (The following year White accepted Taft's appointment to head a delegation to the Pan-American Conference in Buenos Aires.)

The President made it a top priority to reorganize the State Department, saying, "It is organized on the basis of the needs of the government in 1800 instead of 1900." The Department was for the first time organized into geographical divisions, including the Far East, the Near East, Latin America and Western Europe. This reorganization was engineered in large part by Secretary of State Knox's First Assistant Secretary, Huntington Wilson, who served as de facto Secretary of State due to the frequent absence of Knox. Again displaying his inept administrative leadership, Taft, while not sharing any of Knox's respect for Wilson's ability, deferred to much of Wilson's policy making.

The President personally engaged in talks with the Chinese to provide American assistance in the expansion of the Chinese railroad industry; this was accomplished through participation in the multi-national Hukuang Loan. The effort was dubbed "shirt sleeves diplomacy". Initial success in China led to an extended effort by the President to effect the Open Door Policy, particularly in Manchuria; this was not successful due in large part to the President's reliance on the inexperienced Knox, who failed to properly assess the objections of Japan and Russia.

Taft actively promoted the nation's role in the economic development of Latin America, specifically through the Honduras and Nicaragua conventions. The concept, referred to as " Dollar Diplomacy", called for the State Department to coordinate loans to the countries for infrastructure improvement from the largest banks in the U.S. Strategically, this was designed to strengthen security for the Panama Canal, increase American trade, and diminish the presence of European nations in the area. Progressives and Insurgent Republicans in the Senate opposed the Wall Street connection, so the effort was largely a failure. The President was more successful in Argentina, where agreements were reached whereby the U.S. provided loans to enable Argentina to acquire battleships; some naval construction and design secrets were sacrificed in the arrangement.

Another of Taft's goals was the furtherance of world peace. He believed that international arbitration between adversarial nations could be utilized as the best means to avoid armed conflict. This was a logical extension of his boundless faith in the rule of law as a Progressive, and it therefore even superseded U.S nationalism as embodied in the Constitution. Hence, he found no objection to surrendering to an international body jurisdiction over the nation's rights in international affairs. As a result, he championed arbitration treaties with Britain and France. The Senate was not prepared to make such a surrender of the nation's interests, and approved the treaties but only with modifications that provided the Senate with a veto over any decisions made in arbitration.

In the 1911 Congressional session Taft's most potentially notable achievement was approval of a reciprocity agreement with Canada which proposed to drastically lower trade barriers. The passage was accomplished with the cooperation of some Democrats, and at a considerable cost of Republican unity. The President confessed to Roosevelt "I think it may break the Republican party for a while." Taft also responded to criticism from party leaders, saying, "I do not give a tinker's damn whether it injures my political prospects or not." Despite the potential benefits of the agreement to the country, which Roosevelt as well understood and anticipated, all was for naught when the Canadian legislature refused to approve it.

No foreign affairs controversy tested Taft's statesmanship and commitment to peace more than the uprising in Mexico against the authoritarian regime of the aging Porfirio Diaz, which had attracted billions in capital investment for economic development, much of it from the U.S. Anti-regime (and anti-American) riots began in 1910 and were reported by Ambassador Henry Lane Wilson to Knox, who failed to pass the information on to the President. Some months later Wilson met with Taft (Knox was out of town on vacation), and upon hearing the information, the President immediately and unilaterally ordered a mobilization of 25,000 troops to the Mexican border as well as naval maneuvers in the Gulf of Mexico. Taft publicly directed that no intervention of troops into Mexico was to occur without Congressional authorization. The President's restraint in the name of peace was difficult to maintain; in Arizona two citizens were killed and almost a dozen injured as a result of the uprising; but Taft would not be goaded into fighting and so instructed the Arizona governor.

1912 presidential campaign and election

Taft and Roosevelt – political enemies in 1912

The results of the 1910 elections made it clear to the President that Roosevelt had departed his camp, and that he might even contend for the party nomination in 1912. On his return from Europe, Roosevelt openly broke with Taft in one of the notable political feuds of the 20th century. To the surprise of observers who thought Roosevelt had unstoppable momentum, Taft determined he would not simply step aside for the popular ex-President, despite the diminished support he had in the party. Taft acknowledged this, saying, "the longer I am President, the less of a party man I seem to become." Roosevelt declared his candidacy for the Republican nomination in February 1912; Taft soon decided that he would focus on canvassing for delegates and not attempt at the outset to take on the more able campaigner one on one. As Roosevelt became more radical in his progressivism, Taft was hardened in his resolve to achieve re-nomination, as he was convinced that the Progressives threatened the very foundation of the government. Taft ultimately outmaneuvered Roosevelt and Senator Robert M. La Follette, Sr. in delegate count, regained control of the GOP convention; and defeated Roosevelt for the nomination.

Roosevelt and his group of disgruntled party delegates and members bolted from the party to create the Progressive Party (or " Bull Moose") ticket, splitting the Republican vote in the 1912 election. Taft thought that, despite probable defeat, the party had been preserved as "the defender of conservative government and conservative institutions." He also felt that the expected defeat would remind the party of the need for self-discipline in the face of populist rancor. Woodrow Wilson, the Democrat, was elected with 41% of the popular vote; Roosevelt got 27%, and Taft garnered 25%. Taft won a mere eight electoral votes, in Utah and Vermont, making it the worst defeat in American history of an incumbent President seeking reelection.

The defeated President had long ago acknowledged his weakness as a campaigner and as well his failure to do the necessary political housekeeping when decisions were made. He also refused to recognize the need to publicize his policies and decisions, saying "After I have made a definite statement, I have to let it go at that until the time for action arises." Taft's indifference towards the press even extended to legislation, where he failed to recognize the press' need for reduced tariffs on print paper and wood pulp. He further alienated the press when recommending that a deficit in the post office be reduced by eliminating the lower second class rates afforded to magazines and newspapers. Taft commented as follows on the state of his party after the election, " behooves the Republicans to gather again to the party standard and pledge anew their faith in their party's principles and to organize again to defend the constitutional government handed down to us by our fathers. Without compromising our principles, we must convince and win back former Republicans, and we must reinforce our ranks with Constitution-loving Democrats."

In spite of his failure to be re-elected, Taft achieved what he felt were his main goals as President: keeping permanent control of the party and keeping the courts sacrosanct until they were next threatened. While the strife during the election of 1912 devastated the once very close friendship between Taft and Theodore Roosevelt, the two eventually did reconcile not long before Roosevelt's death in 1919.

Administration and cabinet

The Taft Cabinet
Office Name Term
President William Howard Taft 1909–1913
Vice President James S. Sherman 1909–1912
none 1912–1913
Secretary of State Philander C. Knox 1909–1913
Secretary of Treasury Franklin MacVeagh 1909–1913
Secretary of War Jacob M. Dickinson 1909–1911
Henry L. Stimson 1911–1913
Attorney General George W. Wickersham 1909–1913
Postmaster General Frank H. Hitchcock 1909–1913
Secretary of the Navy George von L. Meyer 1909–1913
Secretary of the Interior Richard A. Ballinger 1909–1911
Walter L. Fisher 1911–1913
Secretary of Agriculture James Wilson 1909–1913
Secretary of Commerce & Labor Charles Nagel 1909–1913
President William H. Taft's first cabinet, 1910
President William H. Taft's second cabinet, 1912
(photographed by Harris & Ewing photo studio)

Judicial appointments

Taft picked Edward Douglass White to be Chief Justice of the Supreme Court.

Supreme Court

Taft appointed the following justices to the Supreme Court of the United States:

  • Horace Harmon Lurton – 1910
  • Charles Evans Hughes – 1910
  • Edward Douglass White – Chief Justice – 1910
  • Willis Van Devanter – 1911
  • Joseph Rucker Lamar – 1911
  • Mahlon Pitney – 1912

Taft's six appointments to the Court rank below only those of George Washington (who appointed all six justices to the first Court), and of Franklin D. Roosevelt (who was president for just over twelve years). Taft's appointment of five new justices tied the number appointed by both Andrew Jackson and Abraham Lincoln. Four of Taft's appointees were relatively young, aged 48, 51, 53, and 54.

The appointments of Edward Douglass White and Charles Evans Hughes also are notable because Taft essentially appointed both his predecessor and successor Chief Justices, respectively. Already on the Court as an associate justice since 1894, White was the first Chief Justice to be elevated from an associate justiceship since President George Washington appointed John Rutledge to Chief Justice in 1795. Hughes initially was appointed an Associate Justice, but later resigned to run for the Republican Party's presidential candidate in the 1916 election, which he would lose. President Herbert Hoover renominated Hughes to the Supreme Court as Chief Justice following Taft's retirement.

Other judicial appointments

Besides his Supreme Court appointments, Taft appointed 13 judges to the United States Courts of Appeals, and 38 judges to the United States district courts. Taft also appointed judges to various specialty courts, including the first five appointees each to the United States Commerce Court and the United States Court of Customs Appeals. The Commerce Court was abolished in 1913; Taft was thus the only President to appoint judges to that body.

States admitted to the Union

  • New Mexico: January 6, 1912
  • Arizona: Taft insisted that the recall provision for judges be removed from the state constitution before he would approve it. After it was removed, Taft signed the statehood bill on February 14, 1912, and state residents promptly put the provision back in.


Upon leaving the White House in 1913, Taft was appointed the Chancellor Kent Professor of Law and Legal History at Yale Law School. While at Yale, Taft was initiated as an honorary member of the Acacia Fraternity. At the same time, Taft was elected president of the American Bar Association. He spent much of his time writing newspaper articles and books, most notably his series on American legal philosophy. He was a vigorous opponent of prohibition in the United States, predicting the undesirable situation that the Eighteenth Amendment would create. He also continued to advocate world peace through international arbitration, urging nations to enter into arbitration treaties with each other and promoting the idea of a League of Nations even before the First World War began. Taft was elected a Fellow of the American Academy of Arts and Sciences in 1914.

When World War I did break out in Europe in 1914, however, Taft founded the League to Enforce Peace. He was a co-chairman of the powerful National War Labor Board between 1917 and 1918. Although he continually advocated peace, he strongly favored conscription once the United States entered the War, pleading publicly that the United States not fight a "finicky" war. He feared the war would be long, but was for fighting it out to a finish, given what he viewed as "Germany's brutality."

Chief Justice, 1921–1930


On June 30, 1921, following the death of Chief Justice Edward Douglass White, President Warren G. Harding nominated Taft to take his place. For a man who had once remarked, "there is nothing I would have loved more than being chief justice of the United States" the nomination to oversee the highest court in the land was like a dream come true. There was little opposition to the nomination, and the Senate approved him 60-4 in a secret session on the day of his nomination, but the roll call of the vote has never been made public. Taft received his commission immediately and readily took up the position, taking the oath of office on July 11, and serving until 1930. As such, he became the only President to serve as Chief Justice, and thus the only former President to swear in subsequent Presidents, giving the oath of office to both Calvin Coolidge (in 1925) and Herbert Hoover (in 1929).

Taft enjoyed his years on the court and was respected by his peers. Justice Felix Frankfurter once remarked to Justice Louis Brandeis that it was "difficult for me to understand why a man who is so good a Chief Justice...could have been so bad as President." Taft remains the only person to have led both the Executive and Judicial branches of the United States government. He considered his time as Chief Justice to be the highest point of his career; allegedly, he once remarked "I do not remember that I was ever President".

Chief Justice Taft with President Warren G. Harding and former Secretary of War Robert Todd Lincoln, May, 1922


In 1922, Taft traveled to Great Britain to study the procedural structure of the English courts and to learn how they dropped such a large number of cases quickly. During the trip, King George V and Queen Mary received Taft and his wife as state visitors.

With what he had learned in England, Taft decided to advocate the introduction and passage of the Judiciary Act of 1925, which shifts the Supreme Court's appellate jurisdiction to be largely discretionary upon review of litigants' petitioning to be granted an appeal (see also writ of certiorari). This allowed the Supreme Court to give preference to what they believed to be cases of national importance and allowed the Court to work more efficiently.

Besides giving the Supreme Court more control over its docket, supporting new legislation, and organizing the Judicial Conference, Taft gave the Supreme Court and the Chief Justice general supervisory power over the scattered and disorganized federal courts.

The legislation also brought the courts of the District of Columbia and of the Territories (and soon, the Commonwealths of the Philippines and Puerto Rico) into the Federal Court system. This united the courts for the first time as an independent third branch of government under the administrative supervision of the Chief Justice. Taft was also the first Justice to employ two full-time law clerks to assist him.

In 1929, Taft successfully argued in favour of the construction of the first separate and spacious United States Supreme Court building (the one that is still in use now), reasoning that the Supreme Court needed to distance itself from the Congress as a separate branch of the Federal Government. Until then, the Court had heard cases in the Old Senate Chamber of the Capitol Building. The Justices had no private chambers there, and their conferences were held in a room in the Capitol's basement. The building was completed in 1935, five years after Taft's death.


While Chief Justice, Taft wrote the opinion for the Court in 256 cases out of the Court's ever-growing caseload. His philosophy of constitutional interpretation was essentially historical contextualism. Some of his more notable opinions include:

The U.S. Supreme Court in 1925. Taft is seated in the bottom row, middle.
  • Balzac v. Porto Rico, 258 U.S. 298 (1922) (opinion for the Court)
    • Ruling that the Fourteenth Amendment did not apply the criminal provisions of the Bill of Rights to overseas territories. This was one of the more famous of the Insular Cases.
  • Bailey v. Drexel Furniture Co., 259 U.S. 20 (1922) (opinion for the Court)
    • Holding the 1919 Child Labor Tax Law unconstitutional.
  • Hill v. Wallace, 259 U.S. 44 (1922) (opinion for the Court)
    • Holding the Future Trading Act an unconstitutional use of Congress's taxing power
  • Adkins v. Children's Hospital, 261 U.S. 525 (1923) (dissenting opinion)
    • Disapproving of the Court's upholding of Lochner v. New York. In 1937, the Supreme Court agreed with Taft and overruled this decision permanently.
  • Board of Trade of City of Chicago v. Olsen, 262 U.S. 1 (1923) (opinion for the Court)
    • Upholding the constitutionality of the Grain Futures Act under the Commerce Clause
  • Ex Parte Grossman, 267 U.S. 87 (1925) (opinion for the Court)
    • Holding that the President's pardon power extends to pardoning people held for criminal contempt. While the Supreme Court rules provide for issuing writs of habeas corpus within the Court's original jurisdiction, Taft's opinion in Grossman was the last time the Court did so.
  • Carroll v. United States, 267 U.S. 132 (1925) (opinion for the Court)
    • Holding that police searches of automobiles without a warrant do not violate the Fourth Amendment when the police have probable cause to believe that contraband would be found in the automobile
  • Myers v. United States, 272 U.S. 52 (1926) (opinion for the Court)
    • Ruling that the President of the United States had the power to unilaterally dismiss Executive Branch appointees who had been confirmed by the Senate.
  • United States v. General Electric Co., 272 U.S. 476 (1926) (opinion for the Court)
    • Ruling that a patentee who has granted a single license to a competitor to manufacture the patented product may lawfully fix the price at which the licensee may sell the product.
  • Lum v. Rice, 275 U.S. 78 (1927) (opinion for the Court)
    • Ruling that the Fourteenth Amendment did not prohibit Mississippi's prevention of Asian children attending white schools during racial segregation. The Supreme Court overruled this opinion in 1954.
  • Olmstead v. United States, 277 U.S. 438 (1928) (opinion for the Court)
    • Ruling that the judicial practice of excluding evidence obtained without a warrant was based on the Fourth Amendment's proscription on unreasonable search and seizure but did not apply to telephone wiretapping.
  • Wisconsin v. Illinois, 278 U.S. 367 (1929) (opinion for the Court)
    • Holding that the equitable power of the United States can be used to impose positive action on the states in a situation where non-action would result in damage to the interests of other states.
  • Old Colony Trust Co. v. Commissioner, 279 U.S. 716 (1929) (opinion for the Court)
    • Holding that where a third party pays the income tax owed by an individual, the amount of tax paid constitutes additional income to the taxpayer.

Medical conditions and weight

Taft is often remembered as being the most obese president. He was 5 feet, 11.5 inches tall; his weight peaked at 335-340 pounds toward the end of his Presidency. The truth of the often-told story of Taft getting stuck in a White House bathtub is unclear.

Evidence from eyewitnesses, and from Taft himself, strongly suggests that during his presidency he had severe obstructive sleep apnea. His chief symptom was somnolence. While President, he fell asleep during conversations, and at the dinner table, and even while standing. He was also strikingly hypertensive, with a systolic blood pressure over 200.

Within a year of leaving the presidency, Taft lost approximately 80 pounds (36 kg). His somnolence problem resolved and, less obviously, his systolic blood pressure dropped 40–50 mmHg (from 210 mmHg). Undoubtedly, this weight loss extended his life.

Soon after his weight loss, he had a revival of interest in the outdoors; this led him to explore Alaska. Beginning in 1920, Taft used a cane; this was a gift from Professor of Geology W. S. Foster, and was made of 250,000-year-old petrified wood.

Death and legacy

Taft's headstone at Arlington National Cemetery

Taft retired as Chief Justice on February 3, 1930, because of ill health. Charles Evans Hughes, whom he had appointed as an Associate Justice while President, succeeded him as Chief Justice.

Five weeks following his retirement, Taft died on March 8, 1930, the same date as Associate Justice Edward Terry Sanford's unexpected death. As it was customary for members of the court to attend the funeral of deceased members, this posed a "logistical nightmare", necessitating cross-country travel. The house at which Taft died is now the diplomatic mission of the Syrian Arab Republic to the United States.

Three days following his death, on March 11, he became the first president to be buried at Arlington National Cemetery. James Earle Fraser sculpted his grave marker out of Stony Creek granite. Taft is one of two presidents buried at Arlington National Cemetery, and is one of four Chief Justices buried there. Taft was the only Chief Justice to have had a state funeral.

In 1938, a third generation of the Taft family entered the national political stage with the election of the former President's oldest son Robert A. Taft I to the Senate, where he became a leader of the conservative Republicans. President Taft's other son, Charles Phelps Taft II, served as the mayor of Cincinnati from 1955 to 1957.

Two more generations of the Taft family later entered politics. The President's grandson, Robert Taft, Jr., served a term as a Senator from Ohio from 1971 to 1977, and the President's great-grandson, Robert A. "Bob" Taft II, served as the Governor of Ohio from 1999 to 2007. William Howard Taft III was the U.S. ambassador to Ireland from 1953 to 1957.

William Howard Taft IV, currently in private law practice, was the general counsel in the former United States Department of Health, Education, and Welfare in the 1970s, was the Deputy Secretary of Defense under Caspar Weinberger and Frank Carlucci in the 1980s, and acted as the United States Secretary of Defense during its vacancy from January to March 1989. In addition, he served as Legal Adviser at the Department of State from 2000 to 2006.

President Taft's enduring legacy includes many things named after him. The William Howard Taft National Historic Site is the Taft boyhood home. The house in which he was born has been restored to its original appearance. It includes four period rooms reflecting family life during Taft's boyhood, and second-floor exhibits highlighting Taft's life. Others include the courthouse of the Ohio Court of Appeals for the First District in Cincinnati; streets in Cincinnati, Arlington, Virginia; and Manila, Philippines; a law school in Santa Ana, California; and high schools in San Antonio, Texas; Woodland Hills, California; Chicago, Illinois; and The Bronx. Taft, Eastern Samar, a town in the Philippines was named after him. After a fire burned much of the town of Moron, California, in the 1920s, it was renamed Taft, California, in his honour.

George Burroughs Torrey painted a portrait of him. Taft is the last President to have sported facial hair while in office.

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