27th President of the United States
|In office |
March 4, 1909 – March 4, 1913
|Vice President(s)||James S. Sherman, (1909-1912) |
|Preceded by||Theodore Roosevelt|
|Succeeded by||Woodrow Wilson|
10th Chief Justice of the United States
|In office |
July 11, 1921 – February 3, 1930
|Preceded by||Edward Douglass White|
|Succeeded by||Charles Evans Hughes|
43rd United States Secretary of War
|In office |
February 1, 1904 – June 30, 1908
|Preceded by||Elihu Root|
|Succeeded by||Luke Edward Wright|
|Born||September 15, 1857 |
|Died||March 8, 1930 |
|Spouse||Helen Herron Taft|
William Howard Taft (September 15, 1857 – March 8, 1930) was an American politician, the 27th President of the United States, the 10th Chief Justice of the United States, a leader of the progressive conservative wing of the Republican Party in the early twentieth century, a chaired professor at Yale Law School, a pioneer in international arbitration, and a staunch advocate of world peace that verged on pacifism (although the pacifists of his time did not call him one of their own).
Taft served as Solicitor General of the United States, a federal judge, Governor-General of the Philippines, and Secretary of War before being nominated for President in the 1908 Republican National Convention with the backing of his predecessor and close friend Theodore Roosevelt.
His presidency was characterized by trust-busting, strengthening the Interstate Commerce Commission, expanding the civil service, establishing a better postal system, and promoting world peace. Roosevelt broke with Taft in 1911, charging Taft was too reactionary. Taft and the conservatives were alarmed at Roosevelt's attacks on the judiciary, and took control of the party machinery. Taft defeated Roosevelt for the Republican nomination in a bruising battle in 1912 that forced Roosevelt out of the GOP and left Taft people in charge for decades. In 1921, he became Chief Justice. He is the only President to have been the Solicitor General or to have served on the Supreme Court of the United States.
Taft was born on September 15, 1857, in Sexyville, Ohio, the third of five children. His mother, Louisa Torrey, was a graduate of Mount Holyoke College. His father, Alphonso Taft, came to Cincinnati in 1839 to open a law practice. Alphonso Taft was a prominent Republican and had served as Secretary of War under President Ulysses S. Grant.
Taft was brought up in the Unitarian church and remained a faithful Unitarian his entire life. At age 18, he met his future wife, Helen Herron, in Cincinnati; she and Taft courted while he was away at college.
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 which reflect the family life during Taft's boyhood. The home also includes second floor exhibits highlighting Taft's life and career, as well as an educational center.
In 1874, Taft graduated from Cincinnati's Woodward High School. Like most of his family, he attended Yale College in New Haven, Connecticut. At Yale, he was a member of Skull and Bones, the secret society co-founded by his father in 1832, as well as the Beta chapter of the Psi Upsilon fraternity. His college friends knew him by the nickname "Old Bill". In 1878, Taft graduated from Yale, ranking second in his class out of 191. 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.
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 as a judge of the Ohio Superior Court. In 1890, President Benjamin Harrison appointed him Solicitor General of the United States. In 1892 Harrison appointed him to the newly created United States Court of Appeals for the Sixth Circuit, a post which he held until 1900. It was then that he met Theodore Roosevelt for the first time.
In addition to his judgeship, between 1896 and 1900 Taft also served as the first Dean and a Professor of Constitutional Law at the University of Cincinnati. One of Taft's most famous opinions was in Addyston Pipe and Steel Company v. United States (1898). Eventually, he became the chief judge of the Sixth Circuit.
In 1900, President William McKinley appointed Taft as the 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 initially had been opposed to the annexation of the islands and told McKinley that his real ambition was to become a justice of the Supreme Court of the United States, he reluctantly accepted the appointment when McKinley suggested that he would be "the better judge for this experience."
From 1901 to 1903, Taft served as the first civilian Governor-General of the Philippines, a position in which he was very popular among both Americans and Filipinos. For example, in 1902 Taft visited Rome to negotiate with Pope Leo XIII for the purchase of lands in the Philippines owned by the Roman Catholic Church. Taft then induced Congress to appropriate $7,239,000 to purchase the lands, which he sold to Filipinos on easy terms. In 1903, President Roosevelt offered Taft the seat on the Supreme Court to which he had for so long aspired, but he reluctantly declined when native Filipino groups begged him to remain in Manila as Governor-General.
In 1904, Roosevelt appointed Taft as Secretary of War. Roosevelt made the basic policy decisions regarding military affairs, using Taft as a well-traveled spokesman who campaigned for Roosevelt's re-election in 1904. Taft met with the Emperor of Japan, who alerted him of the probability of war with Russia. In 1906, 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 General Castillo for a peaceful end to the revolt. In 1907, Secretary Taft helped supervise the beginning of construction on the Panama Canal. Taft repeatedly had told Roosevelt he wanted to be Chief Justice, not President (and not an associate justice), but there was no vacancy and Roosevelt had other plans. He gave Taft more responsibilities in addition to the Philippines and the Panama Canal. For a while, Taft was Acting Secretary of State. When Roosevelt was away, Taft in effect was the Acting President.
After serving nearly two full terms, the popular Theodore Roosevelt refused to run in the election of 1908. Roosevelt certified Taft as a genuine "progressive", in 1908, pushing through the nomination of his Secretary of War for the presidency. Taft easily defeated three-time candidate William Jennings Bryan. Taft considered himself a "progressive" because of his deep belief in "The Law" as the scientific device that should be used by judges to solve society's problems. Taft proved a less adroit politician than Roosevelt and seemed to lack the energy 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. When Roosevelt realized that lowering the tariff would risk severe tensions inside the Republican Party, pitting producers (manufacturers and farmers) against department stores and consumers, he stopped talking about the issue. Taft ignored the risks and tackled the tariff boldly, on the one hand encouraging reformers to fight for lower rates, then cutting deals with conservative leaders that kept overall rates high. The resulting Payne-Aldrich tariff of 1909 was too high for most reformers, but instead of blaming this on Senator Nelson Aldrich and big business, Taft took credit, calling it the best bill to come from the Republican Party. Again, he had managed to alienate all sides.
Unlike Roosevelt, Taft never attacked business or businessmen in his rhetoric. However, he was attentive to the law, so he launched 90 antitrust suits, including one against the largest corporation U.S. Steel for an acquisition which Roosevelt personally had approved. As a result, Taft lost the support of antitrust reformers (who disliked his conservative rhetoric), of big business (which disliked his actions), and of Roosevelt, who felt humiliated by his protégé. Progressives within the Republican party began agitating against Taft. Senator Robert LaFollette of Wisconsin created the National Progressive Republican League to replace Taft at the national level; his campaign crashed after a disastrous speech. Most of LaFollette's supporters went over to Roosevelt, leaving LaFollette embittered and alone. More trouble came when Taft fired Gifford Pinchot, a leading conservationist and close ally of Roosevelt. Pinchot alleged that Taft's Secretary of Interior Richard Ballinger was in league with big timber interests. Conservationists sided with Pinchot, and Taft alienated yet another vocal constituency.
Taft fought for the prosecution of trusts (eventually issuing 75 lawsuits), further strengthened the Interstate Commerce Commission, established a postal savings bank and a parcel post system, and expanded the civil service. He supported the 16th Amendment, which allowed for a federal income tax, and the 17th Amendment, mandating the direct election of senators by the people, replacing the previous system whereby they were selected by state legislatures.
Taft actively pursued what he termed "dollar diplomacy" to further the economic development of less-developed nations of Latin America and Asia through American investment in their infrastructures. Throughout the early part of his presidency, Taft had difficulties with Nicaragua. When the United States shifted its interests to Panama for the purpose of building a canal, Nicaraguan President José Santos Zelaya negotiated with Germany and Japan in an unsuccessful effort to have a canal constructed in his state. The Zelaya administration had growing friction with the United States government, which started giving aid to his Conservative opponents in Nicaragua. In 1907, U.S. warships seized several of Nicaragua's seaports. In early December, United States Marines landed on Nicaragua's Caribbean Sea coast. On December 17, 1909, Zelaya resigned and left for exile in Mexico. The U.S.-sponsored conservative regime of Adolfo Díaz was installed in his place. Military invasions increased with Marine landings in 1910 and 1912. The Marines stayed in Nicaragua through 1925.
One of Taft's main goals while President was to further the idea of world peace. Given his judicial sensibilities, he believed that international arbitration was the best means to effectuate the end of war on Earth. As such, he championed several reciprocity and arbitration treaties. In 1910, he convinced congressional Democrats to support a reciprocity treaty with Canada, but the Liberal Canadian government that negotiated the treaty was turned out of office in 1911 and the treaty collapsed. In 1910 and 1911, however, he secured the ratification of arbitration treaties that he had successfully negotiated with the United Kingdom and France and thereafter was known as one of the foremost advocates of world peace and arbitration.
To solve one impasse during the 1909 tariff debate, Taft proposed income taxes for corporations and business. His new tax on corporate net income was 1% on net profits over $5,000. Legally, it was designated an excise on the privilege of doing business and not a tax on incomes as such. In 1911, the Supreme Court, in Flint v. Stone Tracy Company, approved it. Receipts grew from $21 million in the fiscal year 1910 to $34.8 million in 1912. An income tax on individuals, (unlike the tax on corporations) required a constitutional amendment. One was passed with little controversy in July, 1909, unanimously in the Senate and by a vote of 318 to 14 in the House. It quickly was ratified by the states, and in February, 1913, it became a part of the Constitution as the Sixteenth Amendment, as Taft was leaving office.
Despite his obvious achievements, progressives decried Taft's acceptance of the Payne-Aldrich Tariff Act, which lowered the tariff on the farm products of the western states, whose citizens desired lower rates on Eastern factory products. Taft opposed to the entry of the state of Arizona into the Union because of its judicial features. Progressives grumbled that he worked too closely with conservative Senator Nelson W. Aldrich and Speaker of the House Joseph G. Cannon. By 1910, Taft's party was deeply divided between progressives and conservatives.
On his return from Europe, Roosevelt broke with Taft in one of the most dramatic political feuds of the 20th century. To the surprise of observers who thought Roosevelt had unstoppable momentum, Taft outmaneuvered Roosevelt and LaFollette, seized control of the GOP, and forced both out of the party. The main issue in 1911-12 was independence of the judiciary, which Roosevelt denounced. Most lawyers in the GOP supported Taft, including many of Roosevelt's key supporters like Elihu Root, Henry Stimson, and Roosevelt's own son-in-law, Nicholas Longworth. In lining up delegates for the 1912 nomination, Taft outmaneuvered Roosevelt, who had started much too late, and kept control of the Republican party. Instead, Roosevelt was forced to create the Progressive Party (or "Bull Moose") ticket, splitting the Republican vote in the 1912 election. Woodrow Wilson, the Democrat, was elected, although many historians argue that Wilson would have won anyway, because the Republican factions would not support each other. Taft won a mere eight electoral votes, making it the single worst defeat for a President seeking re-election. He achieved his main goal, however, keeping permanent control of the party and making the courts sacrosanct.
|President||William Howard Taft||1909–1913|
|Vice President||James S. Sherman||1909–1912|
|Secretary of State||Philander C. Knox||1909–1913|
|Secretary of the 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 and Labor||Charles Nagel||1909–1913|
During his presidency, Taft appointed the following Justices to the Supreme Court of the United States:
Notably, Taft's six appointments to the Court rank (in number) third only to those of George Washington and Franklin D. Roosevelt; as well, his appointment of five new justices ties the number appointed by Andrew Jackson and Abraham Lincoln. Four of Taft's appointees were relatively young at ages 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. 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.
Upon leaving the White House in 1913, Taft was appointed Kent Professor of Constitutional Law at Yale Law School. The same year, he 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. 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.
When World War I did break out in Europe in 1914, however, Taft founded the League to Enforce Peace. He was co-chair 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 conflict, 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."
In 1921, when Chief Justice Edward Douglass White died, President Warren G. Harding nominated Taft to take his place, thereby fulfilling Taft's lifelong ambition to become Chief Justice of the United States. Virtually no opposition existed to the nomination, and the Senate unanimously confirmed Taft by voice vote. He readily took up the position, serving until 1930. As such, he became the only President to serve as Chief Justice, and thus is also the only former President to swear in subsequent Presidents, giving the oath of office to both Calvin Coolidge (in 1923 and 1925) and Herbert Hoover (in 1929). He remains the only person in the history of the United States to have led both the Executive and Judicial branches of the United States government, and thus far, is also the last President to hold a public office after his Presidential term ended.
In 1922, Taft traveled to England to study the procedural structure of the English courts and learn how they disposed of such a large number of cases in such an expeditious manner. 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 advocated passage of the 1925 Judges Act, which empowered the Supreme Court to give precedence to cases of national importance, thereby allowing the Court to work more efficiently. Taft was also the first Justice to employ two full time law clerks.
In 1929, Taft successfully argued for the construction of the Supreme Court Building, reasoning that the Court needed to distance itself from Congress as a separate branch of government. Until then, the Court had heard cases in a designated room in the basement of the Capitol. Taft, however, did not live to see the building's completion in 1935.
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:
Evidence from eyewitnesses and from Taft himself strongly suggests that he had severe obstructive sleep apnea during his presidency, a consequence of his 300- to 340-pound (136- to 159-kg) weight. His legendary tendency to fall asleep in almost any circumstance, an open secret and source of embarrassment for his intimates, is now understood to have been the most obvious manifestation of the disease. Within a year of leaving the Presidency, Taft lost approximately 80 pounds (32 kg). His somnolence resolved and, less obviously, his systolic blood pressure dropped 40-50 mmHg (from 210 mmHg). Undoubtedly, this weight loss extended his life.
Taft retired as Chief Justice on February 3, 1930, because of ill health. He was succeeded by Charles Evans Hughes, whom he had appointed to the Court while President. Taft died on Saturday, March 8, 1930, due to heart failure. Three days later, on March 11, he became the first president to be buried at Arlington National Cemetery. His grave marker was sculpted by James Earl Frazer out of Stony Creek granite.
A third generation of the Taft family entered the national political stage in 1938. The former President's oldest son, Robert A. Taft I, was elected to the United States Senate from Ohio. His other son, Charles Phelps Taft II, served as mayor of Cincinnati, Ohio, 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 1971-1977; the President's great-grandson, Robert A. Taft II, served as the governor of Ohio from 1999 - 2007. William Howard Taft III was U.S. ambassador to Ireland from 1953 to 1957. William Howard Taft IV, currently in private law practice, was general counsel in the former Department of Health, Education, and Welfare in the 1970's, Deputy Secretary of Defense under Casper Weinberger and Frank Carlucci in the 1980's, and and acted as Secretary of Defense during the vacancy of January-March 1989. In addition, he was a high-level official in the United States Department of State from 2000 to 2006.