Robert Alphonso Taft (1889-1953) was a conservative politician who served three terms in the U.S. Senate, where he was recognized as "Mr. Republican."
Robert Alphonso Taft was born September 8, 1889, in Cincinnati, Ohio, to William Howard Taft and Helen Herron Taft. His grandfather Alphonso had been President Grant's secretary of war and attorney general and his father was to be in turn solicitor general, a federal appeals judge, civil governor of the Philippines, and ultimately the only person ever to serve as president of the United States and afterward as Chief Justice of the Supreme Court.
At the age of ten Robert left Cincinnati with his family for Manila for three years. In 1903 he was sent to Taft School in Connecticut which his uncle Horace had founded and which placed a premium on academic achievement. He then enrolled at Yale as his father and grandfather had done before him. While he was a junior at Yale, his father entered the White House, but Robert never lived there for any extended periods. Robert Taft's adult personality reflected his upbringing as the first-born son of prosperous, ambitious, talented parents who constantly demanded excellence. Although he was proud of his father's accomplishments, he wanted to have his own identity and was abrupt to those who played up his family ties. Even as a young person he was decidedly cool to all those outside his inner circle and to anyone he believed was wasting his time.
After completing his studies at Yale in 1910, he attended Harvard Law School and, as he had at both Taft School and at Yale, graduated first in his class. He declined a clerkship with Supreme Court Justice Oliver Wendell Holmes and moved in 1913 to Cincinnati where his father had arranged a place for him in a prestigious law firm. In October 1914 he married Martha Bowers, sister of a Yale classmate and the daughter of a solicitor general in President Taft's administration. They had four sons. Disqualified by nearsightedness from military service in World War I, Taft leaped at the chance to join Herbert Hoover's Food Administration in Washington as an assistant counsel. His experiences with the Food Administration helped confirm the philosophy he had absorbed from his father. "Whatever price we fixed, everybody howled, " he recalled in commenting upon the futility of government regulation of the economy. With the armistice in 1918 he accompanied Hoover to Paris to work on postwar relief problems, and his stay there did much to fix his views on foreign relations. He was horrified at what he saw as the amorality of European realpolitik and vowed to always work to keep American diplomacy untainted by cynicism and free of corrupting alliances. These years of government service seem to have developed his maturity and intellectual and personal independence from his father.
Upon his return home in 1919 he settled in Cincinnati and established a law practice with his younger brother Charles, specializing in corporate clients. Robert Taft was also a civic leader. He was active in the planning of the Union Station in Cincinnati and helped his uncle develop the Dixie Terminal Building, an interurban streetcar terminus with professional and business offices and shops, still a much-used architectural landmark in the 1980s. He participated in the protracted struggle over reform of the municipal government.
Republican Party regularity was always to be his gospel, for he was mindful of how factionalism had marred his father's administration and destroyed his chances for a second term as president. Robert Taft served six years in the lower house of the Ohio legislature, attaining the speakership in his final term in 1926. While in the legislature he worked for tax reform and opposed the Ku Klux Klan at a time when it was a significant force in Ohio politics. In 1931 he returned to Columbus, serving in the state senate for one term, but he was defeated for re-election for the only time in his career in 1932, a landslide year for Democrats.
The Senate Years
Coming to national attention in the late 1930s when he was elected to the U.S. Senate for the first of three terms, Taft earned a reputation as an opponent of the New Deal and as an isolationist in foreign affairs. He did his political homework, soon gained the respect of Senate colleagues, and from the start of his career served on such important committees as appropriations, banking and currency, and education and labor. He was superbly organized and had absolute command of statistical analyses of the problems he wanted to investigate. Although he had accepted such New Deal measures as unemployment insurance and oldage pensions during his campaign, he disliked much about the New Deal's approach, which he regarded as too often representing wasteful spending, careless administration, and excessive interference with private enterprise.
Taft was a bright man, but his interests outside politics were narrow. He played golf avidly each Sunday in nice weather but otherwise proved himself one of the hardest-working senators of any era. He was uncomfortable with such traditional political activities as working a crowd, wearing fraternal regalia, kissing babies, or flattering local worthies. A poor public speaker, he was given to dry recitations of facts. Martha Taft, on the other hand, was an excellent speaker and an important figure in the national League of Women Voters. Delighting in campaigning for her husband, she impressed crowds with her forceful and witty style. "To err is Truman" was her most famous oneliner.
As early as 1940 Taft was regarded as a serious Republican presidential contender. While the nomination that year went to Wendell Willkie, Taft was the favorite of conservative Republicans and remained so for the rest of his career. His quick rise to prominence made him a quotable figure, and at times he did the expedient—for instance, when he backed Joseph McCarthy's witch hunt for Communists in the early 1950s, hoping to gain for his presidential candidacy the endorsement of the then-powerful Wisconsin senator. But by and large he remained consistent to the best of his conservative principles. For instance, his reverence for strict construction of the Constitution even led him in 1946 to take the highly unpopular step of denouncing the Nuremberg war crimes trials. He thought that the Nazis deserved punishment but would have favored a military tribunal, rather than the civilian proceeding, which in his belief was ex post facto.
Taft is best remembered for co-sponsoring the Taft-Hartley Act of 1947, which modified a number of provisions in New Deal labor law. He was widely and unjustly hated for it by organized labor, but it did not stifle unionism as had been feared. On many occasions since, Taft-Hartley's "cooling-off period" has been invoked when major strikes have threatened, buying time for settlements to be arranged. Taft worked for mildly reformist measures including the Taft-Wagner-Ellender housing bill, modest federal aid to education, and a plan for federal grants to the states to improve health care. Although Taft's support seemed puzzling to conservatives and liberals alike, the bills were actually in keeping with his conservative philosophy that America's opportunity, available to all, should begin with a fair start.
Presidential Ambitions Never Fulfilled
In foreign affairs Taft could also be flexible. He backed American entry into the United Nations and was a supporter of Zionism. His attitude toward these major postwar issues revealed that Taft was not the rigid isolationist he had been reputed to be ever since his pre-Pearl Harbor opposition to Lend-Lease and other measures that had tied the United States to the support of Great Britain. Particularly with the death of Senator Arthur Vandenberg of Michigan, the GOP's (Grand Old Party's) most influential voice on international affairs, Taft became a spokesman for his party on matters of foreign policy. He voted against joining the North Atlantic Treaty Organization, but once the United States had entered it felt American commitments to the alliance should be honored. Although he was reluctant to see American ground forces stationed in Europe, he berated the Truman administration for "losing" China and advocated a stronger U.S. effort during the Korean War, endorsing many of the views of General Douglas MacArthur.
While Taft's opinions were generally logically stated and formulated, at times he did speak with an unflattering shrillness—as on Korea—for, after failing again to win the GOP's nomination in 1948, there is clear evidence that he badly wanted his party's nomination in 1952 and felt he could win the presidency. Prominent figures in his party, however, perceived him as a loser and backed Dwight Eisenhower, who handily won the nomination after a bitterly contested primary season in which the Taft forces at times overreached themselves. After some months of estrangement, Taft and Eisenhower reconciled. Aware that if the immensely popular Eisenhower were elected in 1952 he would certainly seek to succeed himself, Taft mellowed as he came to realize that he would never be president.
Taft was a tall and large-framed man who possessed exceptional physical stamina and good health until April 1953. Family and colleagues were stunned when tests revealed that soreness after a round of golf was the first symptom of a widespread and rapidly advancing cancer that would claim his life by the end of July.
Three times he had sought his party's presidential nomination; each time other leaders recognized that he would not make a viable national candidate. His failures shed light upon the nature of the American political system, which in the modern era often rewards charisma and electability more than experience and understanding. Although Taft held several positions of public responsibility, he will always be identified with the U.S. Senate where he achieved prompt recognition as "Mr. Republican." Two of his sons would also enter government service, extending the family's record as one of the most effective and prominent political dynasties in American history.
Further Reading on Robert Alphonso Taft
Studies of Taft are legion and include innumerable magazine and newspaper articles covering not only his own long career in Cincinnati and Washington but also much about his youth and family heritage. The student of Taft, however, should be directed to the large collection of his papers in the Manuscripts Division of the Library of Congress and to these studies: William S. White, The Taft Story (1954); Russell Kirk and James McClellan, The Political Principles of Robert A. Taft (1967); and particularly James T. Patterson, Mr. Republican: A Biography of Robert A. Taft (1972). Taft himself authored two books, A Foreign Policy for Americans (1951) and (with Congressman T. V. Smith of Illinois) Foundations of Democracy: A Series of Debates (1939), which provide insights into his thinking.