President of the United States
Distinguished jurist, effective
administrator, but poor politician, William Howard Taft spent four
uncomfortable years in the White House. Large, jovial, conscientious, he
was caught in the intense battles between Progressives and conservatives, and
got scant credit for the achievements of his administration.
Born in 1857, the son of a
distinguished judge, he was graduated from Yale, and returned to Cincinnati to
study and practice law. He rose in politics through Republican judiciary
appointments, through his own competence and availability, and because, as he
once wrote facetiously, he always had his "plate the right side up when
offices were falling."
But Taft much preferred law to
politics. He was appointed a Federal circuit judge at 34. He aspired to be a
member of the Supreme Court, but his wife, Helen Herron Taft, held other
ambitions for him.
His route to the White House was
via administrative posts. President McKinley sent him to the Philippines in
1900 as chief civil administrator. Sympathetic toward the Filipinos, he
improved the economy, built roads and schools, and gave the people at least
some participation in government.
President Roosevelt made him
Secretary of War, and by 1907 had decided that Taft should be his successor.
The Republican Convention nominated him the next year.
Taft disliked the
campaign--"one of the most uncomfortable four months of my life."
But he pledged his loyalty to the Roosevelt program, popular in the West,
while his brother Charles reassured eastern Republicans. William Jennings
Bryan, running on the Democratic ticket for a third time, complained that he
was having to oppose two candidates, a western progressive Taft and an eastern
Progressives were pleased with
Taft's election. "Roosevelt has cut enough hay," they said;
"Taft is the man to put it into the barn." Conservatives were
delighted to be rid of Roosevelt--the "mad messiah."
Taft recognized that his
techniques would differ from those of his predecessor. Unlike Roosevelt, Taft
did not believe in the stretching of Presidential powers. He once commented
that Roosevelt "ought more often to have admitted the legal way of
reaching the same ends."
Taft alienated many liberal
Republicans who later formed the Progressive Party, by defending the
Payne-Aldrich Act which unexpectedly continued high tariff rates. A trade
agreement with Canada, which Taft pushed through Congress, would have pleased
eastern advocates of a low tariff, but the Canadians rejected it. He further
antagonized Progressives by upholding his Secretary of the Interior, accused
of failing to carry out Roosevelt's conservation policies.
In the angry Progressive
onslaught against him, little attention was paid to the fact that his
administration initiated 80 antitrust suits and that Congress submitted to the
states amendments for a Federal income tax and the direct election of
Senators. A postal savings system was established, and the Interstate Commerce
Commission was directed to set railroad rates.
In 1912, when the Republicans re-nominated
Taft, Roosevelt bolted the party to lead the Progressives, thus guaranteeing
the election of Woodrow Wilson.
Taft, free of the Presidency,
served as Professor of Law at Yale until President Harding made him Chief
Justice of the United States, a position he held until just before his death
in 1930. To Taft, the appointment was his greatest honor; he wrote: "I
don't remember that I ever was President."