Died: March 8, 1930 in Washington
Distinguished jurist, effective administrator,
but poor politician, William Howard Taft spent four uncomfortable
years in the White House. Large, jovial, conscientious, he was caught
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 conservative Taft.
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
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 renominated Taft, Roosevelt bolted the
party to lead the Progressives, thus guaranteeing the election of Woodrow
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