Youth and Early Career
William Howard Taft was the 27th president of the United States (1909-1913) and chief justice of the United States Supreme Court (1921-1930), the only person in American history to serve in both positions. He was born in Cincinnati, Ohio, on September 15, 1857, to Louisa Maria Torrey Taft and Alphonso Taft, a judge who later served as secretary of war and then attorney general in the final year of Ulysses S. Grant’s presidency (1876-1877) and as a diplomat during the administration of Chester Arthur (1882-1885). Young William Taft graduated as salutatorian of Yale’s class of 1878, completed his studies at the University of Cincinnati School of Law, and was admitted to the state bar in 1880. H married Helen Herron in 1886. The couple later had three children. One son, Robert, served as a U.S. senator (1939-1953) and narrowly lost the Republican presidential nomination in 1952 to General Dwight D. Eisenhower. William Howard Taft was a large man, standing 6' 2" tall and weighing between 243 pounds (in college and on the Supreme Court) and 332 pounds (as president).
Until his election as president in 1908, Taft’s political career was one of appointments to judicial and administrative posts. In Cincinnati, he served as prosecuting attorney (1881-1882), assistant county solicitor (1885-1887), and state superior court judge (1887-1890). When a vacancy opened in March 1889 on the U.S. Supreme Court, 31-year-old Taft had supporters suggest his name to President Benjamin Harrison. Taft loved the law, and to sit on the nation’s high court was his ultimate goal. Although Harrison chose David Brewer for the position, he soon named Taft as the U.S. solicitor general (1890-1892), the nation’s second highest legal officer (under the attorney general) and its primary courtroom lawyer. He won 16 of the 18 cases he argued before the Supreme Court, and was then appointed by Harrison as a federal judge on the sixth circuit court (1892-1900). He would later have to defend against political charges that his record as a federal judge was anti-labor; however, the reality was more complex. He upheld the property rights of owners and injunctions against boycotts, but he also recognized labor’s rights to organize and strike and sided with workers in some negligence cases.
The Philippines and Secretary of War
Taft was satisfied with his career as a federal judge, but in early 1900 his politically ambitious wife convinced him to accept President William McKinley’s offer to head the Second Philippines Commission. The United States had gained control of the Philippines after the Spanish-American War of 1898. In July 1901, he was named as the first civil governor of the Philippines. Taft proved to be an excellent and fair-minded administrator, helping to improve the standard of living and to lay the foundation for a stable government. He accomplished that under the turbulent circumstances of a Filipino rebellion. In 1902, he negotiated the settlement of a complicated issue involving land owned by Catholic friars. With the agreement of the Vatican and financial assistance from the U.S. government, the church-owned land was sold in small lots to Filipinos. Although not a motivation at the time, his oversight of the situation aided his appeal to Catholic voters in 1908.
While governor of the Philippines, Taft had no desire for elective office, but still coveted a seat on the Supreme Court. Nevertheless, his commitment to finishing his work in the Philippines caused him to turn down two offers from President Theodore Roosevelt to join the high court as an associate justice. Taft privately disdained the suggestion from friends that he seek the Ohio governorship in 1903 in order to position himself for the 1908 presidential nomination. In 1904, Roosevelt convinced him to accept the post of secretary of war, which would allow him to continue overseeing the Philippines.
Despite very different personalities, the dynamic Roosevelt and the judicious Taft worked well together, and the new war secretary became the administration’s “trouble-shooter.” His public pronouncements increasingly aligned with those of the president’s. Whereas Taft had long opposed American intervention in Latin America, he endorsed the Roosevelt Corollary to the Monroe Doctrine and administered the construction of the Panama Canal. He negotiated a peace settlement in Cuba when a potential rebellion loomed in 1906. He also began making public statements on issues not related to the War Department. During the 1906 congressional elections, he enthusiastically endorsed federal legislation backed by Roosevelt, such as the Pure Food and Drug Act and the Meat Inspection Act. He obligingly accepted the president’s editorial deletion of a call for lower tariffs in a political speech the secretary was preparing. In 1907, Taft reached a “Gentlemen’s Agreement” with Japanese diplomats, which helped ease tensions between the United States and Japan.
In response to criticism, Taft stated that he took the president’s side on issues because they shared political principles and goals. The president also believed that their thinking harmonized and appreciated the secretary’s loyalty; therefore, Roosevelt endorsed Taft as the best man to continue his policies. Despite the war secretary’s discomfort with running for office (“Politics… makes me sick,” he wrote his wife in 1906), he had increasingly developed a desire to be president. With Roosevelt’s strong public backing, Taft had the nomination secured by the time the Republican Convention met in June 1908, winning by a landslide on the first ballot.
Initially, he intended to run a traditional “front porch” campaign by receiving groups of voters at his Cincinnati home, but in late September embarked on a national speaking tour. With Democrat William Jennings Bryan also electioneering, it marked the first time in American history that the two major party presidential nominees went on campaign speaking tours. That November, Taft defeated Bryan 321-162 in the Electoral College and 52%-43.5% in the popular vote.
The first rift in what would in a few years be an open breach in the Taft-Roosevelt relationship began when the president-elect included corporate lawyers and others in his cabinet who were too conservative in Roosevelt’s view. Taft did, however, follow Roosevelt’s example of seeking to gain public support for his policies by taking his case directly to the people. He made good use of the first travel allowance that Congress ever allocated to a president, logging over 150,000 miles during his term, which made him the most traveled president to that date. Lacking Roosevelt’s charisma, Taft’s stumping rarely resulted in widespread approval, but instead provoked press criticism that he was neglecting the responsibilities of office. It was also observed that the convivial Tafts socialized frequently and spent much time at their summer home on Massachusetts Bay, and that the president was often on the golf course (an avid sportsman, he was the first president to play golf). Nevertheless, Taft was attentive to his official duties, worked hard, and could boast of a number of administration accomplishments.
Given the Republican Party’s longstanding support of protective tariffs, Taft had distinguished himself during the 1908 campaign by calling for tariff reform. Congress began hearings on the issue after his election, and the GOP congressional leadership—House Speaker Joseph Cannon, House Majority Leader Serano Payne, and Senator Nelson Aldrich—asked him not to intervene in the legislative process. Taft agreed since it reflected his governing philosophy. However, he vowed in his inaugural address to veto any tariff bill that did not reduce rates. The president then called Congress into special session to enact the legislation, and it passed the Payne-Aldrich Tariff Act in August 1909. The new law lowered the overall tariff rate by only five percent (to 41%) and raised rates on crucial resources like coal and iron ore. Although not as substantial as Taft had promised, it was the first successful attempt at tariff reform in 15 years. The law also included the president’s suggestion of a permanent tariff commission to study rates and recommend further changes.
The Taft administration put Roosevelt’s conservation policies on firmer legal ground. However, in early 1910, Taft angered the former president and other environmentalists by firing Gifford Pinchot, chief of the U.S. Forest Service, who had accused Interior Secretary Richard Ballinger of colluding with coal companies to plunder federal reserves in Alaska. The Taft administration also advanced a series of antitrust lawsuits far more numerous and effective than under Roosevelt the “trustbuster,” resulting in the breakup of Standard Oil and the American Tobacco Company. In 1910, Taft signed the Mann-Elkins Act, which enhanced the authority of the Interstate Commerce Commission (ICC) to set maximum rates charged by railroads. It also prohibited higher rates for short hauls, and placed telegraph and telephone companies under ICC regulations.
In addition, the Taft administration oversaw the near-completion of the Panama Canal, established a separate Department of Labor (formerly merged with the Department of Commerce), regulated political contributions from business corporations, imposed an eight-hour day on federal public works projects, and enhanced the Pure Food and Drug Act. Taft appointed six Supreme Court justices and almost half of the federal judges during his single presidential term. At the president’s direction, Secretary of State Philander Knox pursued what critics called “Dollar Diplomacy,” attempting to foster stability in Latin America through investments by American banks and industry. Taft justified the doctrine as an extension of the Monroe Doctrine. In 1912, he dispatched the marines to put down a rebellion against the pro-American government in Nicaragua. A reciprocal trade agreement with Canada was rejected by Canadian voters.
Although he had a record of reform, Taft’s alignment with Republican conservatives alienated many of the party’s progressives, including Theodore Roosevelt. The former president had moved leftward politically over the years, and in August 1910 delivered his speech on “New Nationalism,” which promoted a strong federal government to side with workers and consumers. Despite the efforts of both men, the Republican Party fared poorly in the 1910 elections, resulting in a smaller Senate majority and loss of the House. The final rupture in their relationship came in October 1911, when the Justice Department’s antitrust suit against U. S. Steel blamed Roosevelt for mishandling the Panic of 1907. Taft had been aware of the document’s details, but Roosevelt reacted by telling friends he would challenge the president for the Republican nomination in 1912.
Roosevelt made his formal announcement in February 1912, and he and Taft waged a bitter pre-convention campaign. That year, twelve states held direct primaries, a relatively new innovation. Roosevelt won nine of the contests, but Taft secured the patronage delegates and did well in states with traditional conventions. The president’s managers also controlled the Republican National Convention in June at which contested delegations were awarded to Taft. Roosevelt cried foul and walked out of the convention with three-quarters of his delegates (344), which allowed Taft to win victory on the first ballot. Roosevelt then organized the Progressive Party, which nominated him for president. Taft adhered to the tradition against incumbent presidents openly campaigning for reelection, but Roosevelt and Democratic nominee Woodrow Wilson stumped for votes. To make matters worse for the Republican ticket, Vice President James Sherman died in late October. With the Republican Party divided, Wilson won the contest with an Electoral College majority of 435 to Roosevelt’s 88 and Taft’s 8 (Utah and Vermont) and a popular plurality of 42% to Roosevelt’s 27%, Taft’s 23%, and Socialist Eugene Debs’s 6%.
Law Professor and Chief Justice
After his presidential term ended in March 1913, Taft accepted the position of Kent Professor of Constitutional Law at Yale. Besides teaching, he wrote and lectured on national and international affairs. In 1916, he published Our Chief Magistrate and His Powers, which discussed presidential powers. Taft co-chaired the National War Labor Board (1918-1919) and campaigned for the establishment of a League of Nations. On June 30, 1921, Republican President Warren G. Harding nominated Taft to be chief justice of the U.S. Supreme Court. The Senate confirmed the appointment the same day with only four dissenting votes.
Taft applied his administrative skills to the Supreme Court. He persuaded Congress to grant the justices almost complete discretion in deciding their docket (Judiciary Act of 1925) and to allocate funds for the Supreme Court’s own building (completed in 1935). As chief justice, Taft valued consensus among the justices, believing that frequent dissents undermined the impact of rulings. In 1922, he wrote the majority opinion that declared unconstitutional a federal statute taxing products made with child labor. He issued one of his few dissents the next year when the court overturned a minimum-wage law for women in the District of Columbia. Overall, his decisions granted wide latitude to Congress under its constitutional authority to regulate interstate commerce.
In failing health, Taft resigned from the Supreme Court on February 3, 1930, and died the next month on March 8. He was the first president to be buried in Arlington National Cemetery.
Sources consulted: American National Biography (online); The American Presidency (Grolier Encyclopedia online); and, Kermit Hall, ed., The Oxford Companion to the Supreme Court of the United States.