William Howard Taft

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William Howard Taft


William Howard Taft was born in Cincinnati, Ohio, on September 15, 1857. From a prominent political family, he followed his forebears into law and was on track to be a career jurist, well on his way to his dream job of sitting on the Supreme Court, when he was sidetracked for a term as the 27th U.S. president by his wife and Theodore Roosevelt. Taft finally achieved his dream of being elected chief justice of the U.S. Supreme Court in 1921, becoming the only person to have served both as a chief justice and president. Taft died in Washington, D.C., on March 8, 1930.

Public Service

Taft did evince some political aspirations, joking that if he ever made it to Washington, it would be because his wife was secretary of the treasury, but he had always said his lifelong dream was to sit on the Supreme Court. Nellie, however, who had visited the Hayes White House with her family as a child, expressed a keen interest in living there.
As a young lawyer from a politically prominent family, Taft rose swiftly through the ranks, as county prosecutor, state judge, then at 32, in 1890, he became the youngest appointee as U.S. Solicitor General by President Benjamin Harrison, which moved the family to Washington for two years, to Nellie’s delight; there they met Theodore and Edith Roosevelt.
Several other posts followed back in Cincinnati, but a decade later, President William McKinley appointed Taft governor general of the Philippines. The portly judge then took his wife and three children to Southeast Asia, where they lived for four years, visiting China, Japan and the Vatican. Taft improved the Filipino economy and infrastructure, and expanded opportunities for governmental participation for Filipinos.
Back in Washington, D.C. by 1904, Taft became President Theodore Roosevelt's secretary of war. Two years later, when Roosevelt offered him the choice to serve as either president or chief justice, Taft naturally chose his dream job. However, following a private meeting between Nellie and Roosevelt, Taft was swayed into running for the U.S. presidency instead.

U.S. Presidency

Taft had an easy victory in the November 1908 election, sliding in on the popularity and endorsement of predecessor Theodore Roosevelt. He assumed the office of president on March 4, 1909, but the rest of his single-term presidency was not as easy.

A stickler for the law, Taft was less inclined to push the envelope of presidential power as Roosevelt had done; he was more of a jovial academic than a savvy party politician, and did not easily curry favor with possible political allies.

Taft created a "policy of harmony" with Congress, which helped him move though much of his legislative agenda, but misunderstandings about his stance on big business, and a murky approach to tariff proposals on goods entering the United States—resulting in the Payne-Aldrich Act—frustrated both supporters and opponents of the policy. It also further fractured the rift within the Republican Party between conservatives and progressives. In the midterm elections, he lost the Republican majority in Congress.

Taft did impose a corporate income tax, however, which raised national revenue more than $13 million. Under the Taft Administration, the terms "shirt sleeve diplomacy," "open door policy" and dollar diplomacy" were created in regard to negotiations with China and Latin America—the latter involving guaranteed loans to stimulate growth, trade and stability. Taft's wife, Nellie, did her part for foreign relations as well, initiating the planting of Japan's gift of thousands of cherry trees that still grace the avenues and banks of the Tidal Basin, changing the face of Washington, D.C. each spring.

On civil rights, Taft's record includes support for Booker T. Washington's initiative to "uplift" African-American citizens, endorsing free immigration as well as a presidential veto on a congressional law imposing a literacy test on unskilled laborers.

Taft left office on March 4, 1913, defeated by Democrat Woodrow Wilson. He had also been challenged by his predecessor, Theodore Roosevelt, who initiated a third party, Bull Moose, because he felt Taft had broken their covenant on progressive principles. Roosevelt came in second.

Death and Legacy William Howard Taft died on March 8, 1930, at his home in Washington, D.C. He was the first president to be buried in Arlington Cemetery, and the first to have a funeral broadcast on the radio. In fact, President Taft's presidential career included a broad range of "firsts": He was the first president to have a presidential automobile, converting the White House stables into garages; the first to occupy the Oval Office, which was operational as of October 1909; the first to throw the ceremonial first pitch at a baseball game; and the first to play golf as a hobby. Along with all of his "firsts," Taft was the last American president to have facial hair.

Taft's presidency is often thought of as lackluster, but following a flashy personality like Theodore Roosevelt is no easy feat. Few are aware that Taft, the 27th U.S. president, actually busted more trusts over his four years in office than Roosevelt did during his eight-year administration (Taft and Roosevelt eventually reconciled not long before Roosevelt's death in 1919). Of his presidential term, Taft once wrote, "I don't remember that I ever was president."

Understanding President Taft

Taft’s Public Service Before Presidency

County prosecutor, state judge, US Solicitor General, Governor General of the Philippines, Secretary of War

What was the problem with Taft’s “Policy of Harmony?”

Too many misunderstandings about his stance on big business, “murky approach to tariff proposals on goods entering the US

Taft’s Stance on Immigration


Taft’s Legacy & Significance

  • Known as a President who never wanted to be President

  • Was more passionate about law than the Presidency

  • Often thought of as having a “lackluster” Presidency

  • Busted more trusts in 4 years than TR did in 8 years

Putting T. Roosevelt & W. H. Taft into Context:
William Howard Taft (1857-1930) was the 27th president of the United States and Theodore Roosevelt's hand-picked successor. Taft supported Teddy Roosevelt's "Square Deal" policy of attempting to strike a balance between employers and employees and conservatives and Progressives, but it soon proved impossible to please everyone. Taft simply did not have Roosevelt's personal charisma. Over time, he wound up satisfying conservatives more often than Progressives. His administration nonetheless pursued more antitrust suits than Roosevelt.

Taft appointed conservatives to several key government posts, which embroiled him in controversy almost immediately. His secretary of the interior, Richard A. Ballinger, was accused of colluding with private business to release valuable Alaskan coal fields for development. Taft's refusal to fire Ballinger and his firm position against Gifford Pinchot (head of the Forest Service) forever alienated him from Roosevelt supporters. Taft also betrayed a platform pledge by going along with the Payne-Aldrich Act, which not only failed to substantially reduce duties (as Progressives had promised), but actually raised several of them. An outraged Roosevelt challenged Taft for the Republican nomination in 1912, and though Taft won the primary, in the general election he received an even smaller percentage of the popular vote than Roosevelt, who ran as third-party candidate.

Main ideas from this overview (background/ conflicts/ etc.):

  • Originally, TR supported Taft and encouraged him to run for President, as he thought that Taft would carry on TR’s agenda/legacy

  • Upon entering the White House, Taft simply did not live up to TR’s expectations/hopes

  • Taft was more concerned with satisfying conservatives rather than progressives

  • Taft appointed cabinet members which would eventually bring him under serious scrutiny

  • He delegated a lot of his responsibilities as President to his cabinet members as he did not like making big decisions

  • TR is so fed up with Taft, he runs against him in the election of 1912 (won by Woodrow Wilson who is a democrat)

EXCERPT – How Taft Responded to “tr”

William Howard Taft to George Lorimer, October 10, 1922

I count myself very fortunate that my letter reached you as it did, and I thank you sincerely for doing what you have done. The public discussion of my relations with Roosevelt has always been a painful one for me. I have felt deeply that Mr. Roosevelt’s friends, whether with his consent or not, have been exceedingly unjust to me in their representations and inferences, and these letters I think repel practically all that they have said; but I think it better not to revive the discussion, and to leave to my children the discretion to publish what I may say to them, together with this correspondence, when the subject becomes ripe for the political history of the time. I now cherish no ill will at all toward Theodore Roosevelt. There were times when I could perhaps not have said so, especially when his action seemed to require me to leave the White House to go out onto the stump to rebut his charges. But all that has gone into the past, and in his silence and inability to answer, I do not wish to appear to be reviving the discussion, and that is what would have been the result had the letters been published, because the public would have assumed, what you assumed, that the letters were given to Mr. Kohlsaat, with permission to publish them.

QUESTIONS FOR DISCUSSION: Read the introduction and study the letter. Then apply your knowledge of American history to answer the following questions:

  1. Describe the political issues that divided the former president Theodore Roosevelt and his successor, William H. Taft.

Taft was not as aggressively progressive as TR was, so when TR saw that Taft was not pursuing reform efforts in the way he thought Taft would, a rift occurred in their relationship. Taft was more concerned with appeasing conservatives rather than progressives.

  1. Why was Taft reluctant to reveal the content of the letters sent to him by Roosevelt?

He didn’t want their conversations or arguments, as he felt that TR’s friends/supporters have been “exceedingly unjust to me in their representations and inferences…”

  1. At what time and under what conditions did Taft believe it would be proper to publicly publish the Roosevelt letters?

He said that he would give his children the opportunity to decide whether or not to eventually publish the letters. He said they could publish them at a time when “the subject becomes ripe for the political history of the time.”

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