I always find it interesting how little people know about William Howard Taft. If you think about what occurred politically before and after his Presidency, you can wrap your head around why he isn’t as well known. He follows Teddy Roosevelt who is this larger than life figure and after his Presidency ends, WWI breaks out shortly after. When they do say something about him, they always seem to mention “Wait wasn’t he the President that got stuck in a bathtub?” Firstly, what you remember about someone? And Secondly and maybe more importantly, that is considered a myth by historians. That didn’t actually happen. What I do wish people would say about him is “Ah yes, the only President who was appointed to the Supreme Court after his term as President ended!” This is a man who in his lifetime controlled two different branches of the Federal Government. The Executive Branch as President and the Judicial Branch as Chief Justice of the Supreme Court. Let’s get into how those two things came to be.
William Howard Taft was born in 1857 in Cincinnati, Ohio. His father was well educated, went to Yale, was a lawyer and held a number of political appointments including Sec. of War for President Grant. Much was expected of Taft from his father. From an early age he studied the Constitution with his father and his dream of being on the Supreme Court came from his father. He felt it was a very prestigious position. He too went to study at Yale, graduating second in his class and became a lawyer. It was a lifelong dream of his to become a member of the US Supreme Court. That was a dream that would become a reality but he would do other things first. His stint as a lawyer was pretty short, he was appointed a judge while still in his 20s. He was then made Solicitor General for the Justice Department. The Solicitor General represents the Federal Government in US Supreme Court cases and decides the legal position that the US Government will take in cases. The seat of the Solicitor General is often referred to as the “10th Justice”. So he doesn’t get the position he wants yet…but he gets closer. He was then appointed a judgeship on the Federal circuit.
William Howard Taft was pushed to attain greatness by his parents and he met and married a woman who had ambitions and didn’t want to settle for being the wife of a judge but that of a politician. Like the saying goes, behind every great man is a great woman. Make way for Helen Herron Taft, but who was known as Nellie. She came from a politically connected family, even visiting the White House during President Hayes’ term in office. As the story goes, it is believed she said that she wanted to live there. They were married in 1886 and when William Howard Taft was appointed Governor General of the Philippines after the Spanish American War ended and he moved with his young family to Manilla. He accepted the position with the understanding that if a vacancy opened on the Supreme Court during McKinley’s term, he would appoint him to the Supreme Court. McKinley died 4 months into his Presidency. A position on the Supreme Court was offered to him while he was Gov. of the Philippines but he was incredibly popular there and he turned it down. Later on, President Theodore Roosevelt appointed him to be his Secretary of War. Roosevelt was highly impressed with Taft. Even once quoted as saying before leaving for vacation “All will be well in Washington because I have left Taft sitting on the lid”. Both described their relationship as being that of close friends. Taft was a great compliment to Roosevelt’s personality. Where Roosevelt was always doing something or saying something, Taft was methodical and always carefully considered both sides of the coin when making decisions. When it came time for Roosevelt to step down, Taft was his handpicked successor. The honeymoon wouldn’t last forever and the two would eventually go head to head 4 years later in the Election of 1912 but we will get more into that later.
The Election of 1908 was a relatively easy one for Taft, although he hated every minute of campaigning. With the sitting President’s support, Taft easily won the Republican Party’s nomination for President. Taft pledged to continue the progressive policies of Roosevelt and he overwhelmingly defeated Democratic candidate William Jennings Bryan who had lost his 3rd and final attempt at the Presidency. In fact, Republicans used the slogan "Vote for Taft now, you can vote for Bryan anytime"! Even though William Jennings Bryan earned more votes than he did in his first two Presidential elections, it wasn’t enough to put him over the top. Taft won more than 50% of the popular vote and over 66% of the Electoral College vote. You can see more specific results at 270towin.com.
You hear the common saying “Baptism by fire” well, William Howard Taft had a baptism by blizzard! One of the worst blizzards to hit Washington D.C. in its history occurred just before his inauguration. Ten inches of snow, high winds, it took thousands of men to remove the snow so that even a portion of the Presidential parade could take place and because of the severe weather, Taft took the oath of office inside the Senate Chamber. The Library of Congress has some great images and primary source documents. Taft was sworn into office using a bible owned by the Supreme Court. He would use the same one when he was sworn in as Chief Justice of The Supreme Court years later.
His Inaugural address was 5,000 words. If you read it in its entirety, you can see his Judicial mind. In fact, he is considered one of our most Judicial Presidents. He always considered the Constitution and in many of the explanations for his vetoes he pointed back to the constitution. In it, he swore to uphold the reforms put in place by his predecessor, wanted to ease some of the restrictions placed on railroad companies, reorganize some federal agencies ( Dept. of Justice, Dept. of labor and commerce just to name a few), he planned to propose amendments to antitrust laws, revise the tariff – they needed more money to come in, one of the things he supported was a graduated inheritance tax, he supported strengthening our military and improving the security of forts throughout the country. He gives some hints about what his foreign policy position will be. Peace is always the goal but we must be ready if need be to protect our interests. He talked about the importance of the Panama Canal and how once finished it will be of great benefit to the United States but also to the world. He specifically discusses the Southern States and his desire to breakdown sectionalism If you take a look at this quote from his address, “increased feeling on the part of all the people in the South that this Government is their Government…” look at how many years after The Civil War and we are still discussing the notion that there is this feeling within Southern States that they are not fully represented by the Federal Government.
I also want to read another quote from his inaugural address.
“The consideration of this question cannot, however, be complete and full without reference to the negro race, its progress and its present condition. The thirteenth amendment secured them freedom; the fourteenth amendment due process of law, protection of property, and the pursuit of happiness; and the fifteenth amendment attempted to secure the negro against any deprivation of the privilege to vote because he was a negro. The thirteenth and fourteenth amendments have been generally enforced and have secured the objects for which they are intended. While the fifteenth amendment has not been generally observed in the past, it ought to be observed, and the tendency of Southern legislation today is toward the enactment of electoral qualifications which shall square with that amendment. Of course, the mere adoption of a constitutional law is only one step in the right direction. It must be fairly and justly enforced as well. In time both will come.”
“The progress which the negro has made in the last fifty years, from slavery, when its statistics are reviewed, is marvelous, and it furnishes every reason to hope that in the next twenty-five years a still greater improvement in his condition as a productive member of society, on the farm, and in the shop, and in other occupations may come.” He also recognizes in his speech that Black Americans were taken to the United States against their will.
I think these quotations are incredibly important in understanding his perspective on Civil Rights and how the government must protect people’s rights and enforce the law.
When it came to being President, this was not a role he was happy in. He gained a lot of weight while President. He was known for falling asleep during meetings. It is believed he had sleep apnea and would often jolt awake after a few minutes. While he didn’t thrive in his role as President, his wife, Nellie did.
Nellie Taft as First Lady
A woman who dreamed of marrying a man who would become President of the United States so she could live in the White House from the age of 16, did a lot to expand the role of First Lady. She spoke a number of languages and would often speak to diplomats. She is known for helping to beautify the capitol by planting thousands of Japanese Cherry Blossoms. She worked to promote better working conditions for workers and met with unions. She attended some cabinet meetings. She opposed prohibition, supported suffrage and smoked cigarettes! Had it not been for the two strokes she suffered during her husband’s term, she would have done much more. After her first stroke, she had to learn how to speak again. The size of The White House was enlarged during Taft’s Presidency. Congress approved $40,000 to double the size of the Executive Office Building which would eventually become known as The West Wing. One of the new changes was the President’s Office. An Oval Office, designed after the famous Blue Room in the White House (which is also oval) was built. This is not the Oval Office of today. That one was built during the Presidency of FDR.