|Born||Sept. 15, 1857, Cincinnati, Ohio|
|Education||Yale College, B.A., 1878; University of Cincinnati Law School, LL.B., 1880|
|Previous public office|| ♦ assist. prosecuting attorney, Hamilton County, Ohio, 1881-82|
♦ collector of internal revenue for Cincinnati, 1882-83
♦ assist. county solicitor, Hamilton County, 1885-87
♦ justice, Superior Court of Cincinnati, 1887-90
♦ U.S. solicitor general, 1890-92
♦ president, Philippine Commission, 1900-1901
♦ Governor of the Philippines, 1901-4
♦ U.S. secretary of war, 1904-8
|Subsequent public office|| ♦ joint chairman, National War Labor Board, 1917-18|
♦ Appointed to Supreme Court by President Warren G. Harding. 1921
|Died||March 8, 1930, Washington, D.C.|
William Howard Taft was born in Cincinnati, Ohio, on Sept. 15, 1857, into a family of old New England stock. Both his father and grandfather had served terms as judges, and young Taft aspired to a judicial career. A bright but unimaginative youngster, he attended high school in Cincinnati, and at Yale University he finished second in a graduating class of 121 in 1878. Two years later he graduated from the Cincinnati Law School.
Taft took an active interest in Republican politics. He was rewarded with appointments to various offices. Between 1880 and 1890 he served successively as assistant prosecuting attorney for Hamilton County, Ohio, collector of internal revenue for Cincinnati, and judge of the Superior Court of Ohio. Named solicitor general of the United States in 1890, he distinguished himself for his thorough preparation and won 15 of the first 18 cases he argued in the Supreme Court.
Meanwhile, in 1886, Taft had married Helen Herron of Cincinnati. Eventually they had three children. A driving, ambitious woman, she wanted her husband to follow a political rather than a legal career. When a Federal judgeship opened in 1891, she protested that his appointment would "put and end to all your opportunities … of being thrown with bigwigs." And she twice influenced him to reject offers of a Supreme Court seat during Theodore Roosevelt's first administration in order to maintain his availability for the presidency.
Disregarding his wife's objections, Taft accepted appointment to the Sixth Circuit Court in 1892. Though he again distinguished himself for thoroughness and technical command of the law, he was inhibited by his lack of imagination. Yet he was in no sense a reactionary and in some respects not even a conservative. He broke new ground in employers' liability cases and revitalized the Sherman Antitrust Act. He also upheld labor's right to strike. He disapproved of secondary boycotts, however, and by insisting on enforcing the injunctive power he acquired a somewhat exaggerated reputation as an antilabor judge. His written opinions, like his oral arguments, were learned but verbose.
In 1899 Taft turned down the presidency of Yale University, partly because he believed his Unitarianism would offend traditionalists. Then, in March 1900, he reluctantly acceded to President William McKinley's request that he become president of the Philippine Commission. The 4 most creative years of his life followed. Overriding the will of the autocratic military governor, Gen. Arthur MacArthur, he instituted civil government and became in 1901 the archipelago's first civil governor.
In the Philippines, Taft established an educational system, built roads and harbors, and negotiated the purchase of 400, 000 acres from the Dominican friars for resale on generous terms to the Filipinos. He also pushed limited self-government rapidly. Taft's conviction that the Philippines should be administered in the interests of its citizens, coupled with his open, conciliatory presence, won him respect and affection. And though he failed to prevent the islands from entering into an economic relationship with the United States which adversely affected their development in the long run, his tenure was probably the most enlightened colonial administration to that time.
On Feb. 1, 1904, Taft succeeded Elihu Root as U.S. secretary of war. The duties again proved surprisingly congenial, largely because he became one of President Roosevelt's most intimate advisers and his principal troubleshooter. Continuing to supervise administration of the Philippines, he assumed responsibility for starting construction of the Panama Canal and represented the President on various missions. His most important mission was to Japan; it culminated in the secret recognition of Japan's suzerainty over Korea. He also helped suppress a threatened revolution in Cuba in 1906.
Although Taft still yearned to join the Supreme Court, he allowed his wife and brothers to kindle presidential aspirations. Impressed by Taft's "absolutely unflinching rectitude" and "literally dauntless courage and willingness to bear responsibility, " as he phrased it, Roosevelt decided in 1907 to make Taft his successor as president. Both men believed mistakenly at the time that they agreed totally on public policy. Yet by February 1908, after several thunderous messages to Congress had revealed the real depth of Roosevelt's progressivism, his wife urged him not to "make any more speeches on the Roosevelt policies."
Nevertheless, the presidential campaign of 1908 was waged mainly on the "Roosevelt policies." Though Taft defeated William Jennings Bryan handily, his plurality dropped about 1, 500, 000 votes below Roosevelt's in 1904. Moreover, the election of numerous Progressive Republicans and Democrats shifted the balance in Congress.
When Taft was inaugurated, it was the first time since 1837 that a President had successfully transferred power to his preferred successor. But Taft soon disappointed Roosevelt with his inability to provide effective leadership. He held as few press conferences as he could and was unable to rally public opinion behind him. While Roosevelt spent a year in Africa hunting big game, Taft allied himself with Republican conservatives and signed the Payne-Aldrich Tariff, which made only minor cuts in the high taxes on imports that had been set in 1897 by the Dingley Tariff Act. By accepting a high tariff he alienated himself from the progressive wing of the party.
Not all Taft's policies were conservative, however. The tariff act contained the first federal tax on corporate profits. Taft enforced the Sherman Anti-Trust Act to a greater extent than the “trust buster” Roosevelt had, winning lawsuits against the Standard Oil Company of New Jersey, American Tobacco Company, Du Pont de Nemours, and the American Sugar Refining Company.
He limited the workday of federal employees to eight hours and created a commission to consider workmen's compensation legislation, which would provide money to injured workers.
He got Congress to approve a new department of labor, enlarge the national park system, and create a bureau of mines. Congress extended the jurisdiction of the Interstate Commerce Commission to cover telephones, telegraph lines, underwater cable lines, and radio. A new campaign finance law proposed by Taft required candidates for Congress to make public their campaign expenditures.
He instituted a foreign policy of “dollar diplomacy,” which he defined as “substituting dollars for bullets” in an attempt to increase U.S. trade and influence abroad. The government worked with commercial banks to dominate the finances of Caribbean and Central American governments: it ran their customs houses (which collected duties on imported goods), helped establish local banks, floated loans for development, and secured contracts and markets for U.S. businesses.
Taft abandoned dollar diplomacy for more forceful intervention when he landed 2,500 marines in Nicaragua to take control of the country, and he also sent troops into Honduras, Cuba, and China to end threats to U.S. property. “Peaceful Bill” did keep U.S. troops out of Mexico during a revolution that erupted in 1910.
Taft upset foreign nations by signing a 1912 law that exempted U.S. shipping companies from paying tolls for use of the Panama Canal. This law seemed to violate the Hay-Pauncefote Treaty, which established that all nations would pay the same tolls; Taft construed it to mean all nations except the United States. The law was repealed in 1913 after Taft left office.
Theodore Roosevelt split with his protégé in 1910 after Taft fired Gifford Pinchot, chief of the Division of Forestry and a defender of Roosevelt's conservation policies. Taft sided with his secretary of the interior, Richard Ballinger, who had opened for sale a tract of public land in Alaska that Roosevelt had previously designated not for sale. (Within a year, after a public outcry, Ballinger was forced to resign and the sale was canceled.)
In the fall of 1910 ex-President Theodore Roosevelt made a nationwide tour to 20 cities, where he articulated a progressive program of government regulation known as the New Nationalism. Meanwhile, Congress passed a series of bills providing for low tariffs on wool, cotton, and other goods, which Taft vetoed, further reducing his popularity in the Middle West.
By February 1912, Roosevelt was openly campaigning for the Republican Presidential nomination, reversing his pledge not to seek a third term by claiming he had meant he would not seek three consecutive terms. Taft became the first sitting President to campaign for his own renomination. Roosevelt defeated him in most of the 15 Presidential primaries, even in Ohio. But Taft managed to secure the Republican nomination in 1912, in part through his control of Southern delegations. Roosevelt then ran as a third-party candidate.
It was a bitter campaign. Taft called Roosevelt an egotist and a demagogue; Roosevelt called Taft a weakling and a fathead with the brains of a guinea pig. With the Republican vote split, Democrat Woodrow Wilson won the election while Taft ran a poor third. After four years of Taft, his party was divided and in shambles. “I am glad to be going,” he said as he left office. “This is the lonesomest place in the world.”
After leaving the White House, Taft taught constitutional law at Yale Law School and was elected president of the American Bar Association. He served on the National War Labor Board during World War I.
Finally, in 1921, he achieved his goal in life: President Warren Harding appointed him to the Supreme Court.
Chief Justice Taft was a great judicial administrator. He influenced Congress to pass the Judiciary Act of 1925, which gave the Court almost total authority to choose what cases it would decide. And Taft influenced Congress to appropriate money for construction of the magnificent Supreme Court Building in which the Court conducts its work today.
His most significant opinion was in Myers v. United States (1926). The Court ruled that the President had the power to remove an executive appointee, a postmaster, without the consent of the Senate. Taft said: “I never wrote an opinion I felt to be so important in its effect.”
By 1928, Taft's health was failing. Although he sat in his accustomed chair for the opening of the 1929 October term, illness forced him to resign in February 1930. He died barely a month later and was the first president to be buried in Arlington National Cemetery.
Taft's reputation among contemporary historians is somewhat higher than it was in his lifetime. He was not successful although he did not make serious mistakes. He was a good administrator but without exceptional political and leadership skills. He failed to rise adequately to the challenges of the times, despite his many strong qualities.
In surveys of presidential scholars, Taft is usually ranked near the middle of lists of all American Presidents.