William Taft

William Howard Taft (1857-1930), as twenty-seventh president of the United States and a chief justice, failed to rise adequately to the challenges of the times, despite his many strong qualities.

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.

An outsize, congenial young man with a tendency to procrastinate, 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.


Federal Service

Disregarding his wife's admonitions, 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.


Secretary of War

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.


The Presidency

Whatever Taft thought about Roosevelt's objectives, he never had approved of his freewheeling, often extralegal, procedures. This was especially true of conservation, a field in which Roosevelt and his subordinates had consistently interpreted the law loosely in order to protect the public interest. Taft decided, accordingly, that his mission was to consolidate rather than push forward—to give the Roosevelt reforms, as he privately said, "the sanction of law." To this end he surrounded himself with lawyers. At the same time, he underestimated both the temper of the times and the zeal of the Progressive Republicans in Congress. Worse still, he proved incapable of giving the nation the kind of moral, intellectual, and political leadership it had grown accustomed to under Roosevelt.

Taft's troubles started early. True at first to his campaign promises, he called a special session of Congress to revise the tariff. The resultant bill was not a bad measure by Republican standards, but it failed abysmally to meet expectations. Disguising his disappointment, Taft called it "the best bill that the party has ever passed" and signed it into law. This alienated many insurgent Republicans, most of whom were already seething over his refusal to support their effort to reduce the powers of Joseph "Uncle Joe" Cannon, the czarlike Speaker of the House.

Taft's replacement of Roosevelt's secretary of the interior contributed to the polarization of the party. The new secretary, Richard A. Ballinger, was a moderate conservationist and a strict legal constructionist in the manner of Taft himself." I do not hesitate to say, " the President wrote, that the presidential power to withdraw public lands from private use "was exercised far beyond legal limitation under Secretary Garfield." With Taft's endorsement, Ballinger insisted on opening much valuable land to private entry while the Geological Survey completed surveys. Angered by this and other inhibiting policies, Roosevelt's intimate friend, Chief Forester Gifford Pinchot, finally charged Ballinger with a "giveaway" of Alaskan mineral lands to the Guggenheim-Morgan financial interests. Taft thereupon removed Pinchot from office. Although Ballinger was eventually exonerated, Taft was fatally, and somewhat unfairly, stamped as anticonservationist.

Ironically, Taft's relentless prosecution of trusts further exacerbated his relations with Roosevelt. Unlike the former president, he believed that dissolution rather than regulation was the preferred solution. He gave Attorney General George W. Wickersham free rein to institute proceedings, and by the end of 4 years almost twice as many actions had been initiated as in 7½ years under Roosevelt. Among these were proceedings against the U.S. Steel Corporation, which had absorbed the Tennessee Coal and Iron Company during the Panic of 1907 with Roosevelt's tacit approval.

In Congress, meanwhile, a coalition of Progressive Republicans and Democrats drove through half a dozen reform measures. Some were supported warmly by Taft, some halfheartedly, and others not at all. But all owed their passage to the Progressive ferment Roosevelt had done so much to create during his presidency and after his return from abroad in 1910. They included amendments for an income tax and the direct election of senators, the Mann-Elkins Act to increase the powers of the Interstate Commerce Commission, creation of the Children's Bureau, a corporation tax, safety standards for mines, Postal Savings and Parcel Post, and workmen's compensation legislation.


Foreign Affairs

Taft's conduct of foreign policy was governed by an uncritical extension of the concepts behind the Open-Door Notes of 1899 and 1900. Disregarding Roosevelt's warning that the United States should accept Japanese preeminence in eastern Asia and abandon commercial aspirations in Manchuria and North China, he pursued a policy of "active intervention to secure for our merchandise and our capitalists opportunity for profitable investment."

In the Caribbean, Taft was even more ingenious than Roosevelt in devising means to protect the Panama Canal. He put American troops into Nicaragua in 1912 to install and maintain in power a conservative, pro-United States party. And in what came to be termed "dollar diplomacy, " he encouraged American capital to displace European capital elsewhere in the region. The end result was security for the canal and ultraconservative and often repressive government for the Caribbean peoples.

By 1912 Taft had so isolated himself from his party's Progressive and was under such heavy fire from Roosevelt and Senator Robert M. La Follette that the Progressives were prepared to support either Roosevelt or La Follette for the presidential nomination. Taft lost to the former president by more than 2 to 1 in the 13 state primaries that winter and spring. However, his control of Republican party machinery gave him enough delegates to win renomination in convention. Embittered further by Roosevelt's decision to run on the Progressive ticket, Taft waged an angry, defensive, and ineffectual campaign. He finished behind Woodrow Wilson and Roosevelt.

Taft's best qualities, especially his capacity for disinterested public service, again became dominant after he left the White House and accepted the Kent chair of constitutional law at Yale. His views on World War I were closer to President Wilson's than to those of interventionist Republicans like Roosevelt and Lodge, and he generously backed the President during the period of neutrality. His work as joint chairman of the War Labor Board contributed greatly to the relatively smooth course of labor-management relations during the war. He afterward gave broad support to Wilson's plan for the League of Nations Covenant.


Chief Justice

On June 30, 1921, President Warren G. Harding fulfilled Taft's "heart's desire" by appointing him chief justice. Taft brought to his new position a consuming belief in the rule of law, an unshakable conviction that the protection of property rights was crucial to orderly government, and a driving determination to perfect the administration of justice. He further brought a fierce resolve to mold the Court in his own moderately conservative image. In 1916 he had bitterly opposed Wilson's nomination of Louis D. Brandeis. Now, as chief justice, he discouraged Harding from considering men like Benjamin Cardozo, Learned Hand, and Henry Stimson because they might "herd" with the liberals, Holmes and Brandeis. Yet, he also said, it would be equally unwise to have too many men as reactionary as James McReynolds. He was largely responsible for the selection of Pierce Butler in 1922.

As chief justice, Taft compiled a mixed record. Although he succeeded in massing the Court along generally conservative lines, few of his opinions ring down through the years. One exception was his dissent in 1923 from the majority finding in the Adkins case that a minimum-wage act interfered with freedom of contract. Otherwise, as a careful student of Taft's chief justiceship writes, "Taft endorsed decisions, sometimes writing the majority opinion, that seemed to fasten both the national government and the states in a strait jacket." He wrote the majority opinion in the second child-labor case. He ruled, again for the majority, that a Kansas statute for compulsory arbitration of wage disputes was unconstitutional. And he declared, once more for the conservative majority, that an Arizona limitation on the use of injunctions against labor violated due process. He also held in the famous Coronado case that labor unions could be sued under the antitrust laws.

Conversely, Taft sanctioned the exercise of broad regulatory powers by the Federal government under the commerce clause. He also sustained the presidential power to remove executive officers.

As an administrator, Taft ranks with Melville W. Fuller and Charles Evans Hughes; he was notably successful in effecting administrative reforms. He wrote more opinions than any other member of his Court, expedited the hearing of cases, and won congressional authorization to create a conference of senior circuit judges. He also shaped and influenced passage of the Judge's Bill of 1925, which gave the Court wide discretionary power and enabled it to reduce the number of unimportant cases that came before it. In addition, Taft was preeminently responsible for the decision to construct the Supreme Court Building. However, he made little enduring impression upon constitutional law. He retired in February 1930 and died in Washington on March 30.

Taft's reputation among contemporary historians is somewhat higher as president and somewhat lower as chief justice than it was in his lifetime. More than any other major figure of his times, perhaps, he exemplified the conservative virtues and weaknesses. Yearning always "for the absolute"—for a system of law devoid of vagueness—he failed in the end to find or to fashion it. He also failed in the main to adjust creatively to the social and economic changes induced by the industrialization of the nation.

Further Reading on William Howard Taft

The standard work on Taft is Henry F. Pringle, The Life and Times of William Howard Taft (2 vols., 1939). A brief account of Taft's presidential years is in George E. Mowry, The Era of Theodore Roosevelt, 1900-1912 (1958). Alpheus Thomas Mason's penetrating study William Howard Taft: Chief Justice (1965) offers a revealing account of Taft's chief justiceship. Taft's relations with Roosevelt are related in detail in William H. Harbaugh, Power and Responsibility: The Life and Times of Theodore Roosevelt (1961; new rev. ed. 1963), and William Manners, TR and Will: A Friendship That Split the Republican Party (1969). See also Archie Butt, Taft and Roosevelt: The Intimate Letters of Archie Butt (2 vols., 1930). James Penick, Jr., Progressive Politics and Conservation: The Ballinger-Pinchot Affair (1968), sheds new light on that episode.