Podcast #45: Life and Presidency of William Howard Taft - Part 2

Domestic Issues

Payne-Aldrich Tariff Act

True to his promise in his inaugural address, he hoped to change the existing tariff. Taft felt that high tariffs hurt consumers and limited competition. He hoped to get them lowered. The President supported the Bill but by the time it was ready for the Senate to pass, there had been so much compromise and changes made to the original Bill. It divided an already divided Republican Party and the Bill only lowered tariff rates by about 5% and in some cases, raised the rates on other products. Another important thing that this Act created was a Corporate Tax. This taxed Corporations with income more than $5,000 at a rate of 1%. Today, Corporations are taxed on a graduated rate from anywhere to 15 – 35%. When the tax codes were revised again in 1913, we see the addition of a Capital Gains tax. Anyone who has sold a company will groan at the mere mention of the capital gains tax. This is a tax on the income derived from the sale of a corporate stock. Corporate Tax has been a big money maker for the Federal Government.

September 14, 1909

Taft tours the South, Southwest

259 speeches – he promoted the new tariff bill This was not his only tour of the country. He would travel through the western states again trying to gain support for treaties with both Great Britain and France. GB and France never approved the treaties.

While his Predecessor, Theodore Roosevelt is known as a Trustbuster, more lawsuits against monopolies were brought against companies in Taft’s 4 years than TR did in 7! Standard Oil & American Tobacco Co. were the most famous of the monopolies he went after. The suit brought against US Steel, which had been given the greenlight by his predecessor Theodore Roosevelt signaled the end to the friendship between Taft and Roosevelt. The Supreme Court voted in favor of US Steel.

The Postal Savings Bank Act went into effect in Jan. of 1911 and remained in place until 1967. This law created a Post Office Banking System. Individuals could buy certificates or savings stamps and were issued to depositors as proof of their deposit and funds were then transferred to a designated bank (only one bank in each state had the rights to this) and savings accounts that had less than $500 in them earned 2% interest. The limit on the accounts would be increased over time. This was rather popular because unlike other banks, this money was guaranteed by the US Government. Once upon a time your money wasn’t always so safe in the bank. When the Federal Government created the FDIC during the Great Depression, this was a game changer and by the mid-1960s there was no longer a need or public demand for a postal savings bank.

During his Presidency he appoints a number of justices to The Supreme Court, including a Chief Justice. He was strategic in his choice of a Chief Justice. After all this is the position he wants… that he has wanted for really his entire life. He doesn’t put some young guy in the role, he appoints a seasoned 65-year-old in the hopes, he won’t be there too long and there may still be a chance for him to be Chief Justice someday.

Triangle Shirtwaist Factory Fire on March 25, 1911. This Shirtwaist Factory was in NYC. The owners would have the doors locked to keep workers in and workers were inspected to make sure that they wouldn’t steal anything. Like many factories of the era, conditions were deplorable. The Fire escapes were broken, again the doors were locked and so when a fire broke out on the top floors of the factory; it was a recipe for disaster. The majority of the employees were teenage immigrant girls. There were 500 people working that day and 146 people were killed in the fire. The images of young girls jumping from the top windows so as not to be burned alive. It was a terrible and preventable tragedy. The story led to public outrage and a push for the labor movement in their goal to make safe working environments for all workers a reality. The owners were arrested and charged with 1st and 2nd degree manslaughter. They were found not guilty. Imagine the thought process that allows for the factory owners to go free. The notion that the lives of those young immigrant girls had such little significance in the eyes of the jury. Years later, civil lawsuits were brought against the owner and they ended up having to pay a fine that came out to about $75 per life lost. This event also led to the passing of workplace safety laws in NY.

The Children’s Bureau was signed into law by President Taft in 1912. The Bureau still exists today. When it was first created the bureau of course dealt with issues like child labor, but also high infant mortality rates, improvement of the conditions of orphans with the creation of child welfare agencies and the creation of juvenile courts. Orphans living in overcrowded cities were often transported by trains to various locations in the Midwest to either work or to be adopted by families. Today the Children’s Bureau is responsible for ensuring the safety and welfare of children in the United States.

The 16th amendment was proposed. In his Inaugural Address, he spoke of a graduated inheritance tax. This was proposed but the Senate disliked this idea. Instead they proposed a graduated income tax. We will talk more about this amendment within our series of podcasts on The Progressive Era.

Dept. of Labor and commerce were split into two different agencies and both had cabinet level positions. All of the agencies having to do with labor were transferred over to the newly created Department of Labor. Labor issues had readily taken a backseat to other issues should as big business and Commerce when the two departments were together. The purpose of the Department of Labor is to foster, promote, and develop the wellbeing of the wage earners, job seekers, and retirees of the United States; improve working conditions; advance opportunities for profitable employment; and assure work-related benefits and rights. The Department of labor ensures laws are being followed when it comes to minimum wage, overtime, workplace safety, parental and medical leaves. They work with unions. When you hear of the unemployment rate, we get those facts from the Department of Labor.

Foreign Policy

Dollar Diplomacy

If you go to the Dept. of State’s website and more specifically the office of the historian, they describe the goal of dollar diplomacy as a way “to create stability and order abroad that would best promote American commercial interests.” Taft referred to it as “exchanging dollars for bullets”. Investments by US Companies in countries with instability could help alleviate some of the problems. The United States would use its economic might to get countries to do what we want them to do and allow them to benefit a bit too.

Two areas that you can look at to understand this policy, China and Nicaragua.

President Taft hoped to purchase rights to China’s railroads. The thought process was if we can control the railroad lines we essentially control their economy. The US was not successful in doing this and it led to increased suspicion from Japan and Russia on the motives of the United States. For those who know their World History, Revolution in China would begin in 1911.

Latin American countries were of particular interest to the US Government. Ensuring the safety of the Western Hemisphere and limiting European interference in the region is not a new concept. During the Presidency of Taft we see some Latin American countries become known as – Banana Republics

The United Fruit Company – now known as Chiquita Brands International

Their biggest competition was the Standard Fruit Company which today is known as Dole Food Company. The companies had tremendous influence over the political and economic development over a number of countries specifically, Costa Rica, Guatemala, Honduras & Columbia. Much of that influence was not positive. These countries were often referred to as Banana Republics.

As more and more American businesses invested in Latin American countries and brought their businesses there. The US sought to protect its economic interests. Nicaragua is a great case study to look at. If you remember in our podcast on the Presidency of Theodore Roosevelt, we discussed the building of the Panama Canal which began during his Presidency. Prior to Panama being chosen, Nicaragua was also being closely considered by the US. When that didn’t pan out, the President of Nicaragua looked to European countries like Germany and emerging Asian powerhouse Japan to see if they would be interested. This potential threat to a US owned canal in Panama and the American businesses that had invested in the region, caused the US to take action. In Nov. of 1909, President Taft sent warships and Marines to Nicaragua. Groups within Nicaragua had been rebelling against their President and the deaths of two American volunteers gave even more justification for the US government to get involved and the President of Nicaragua at the time was ousted from power. A US military presence remained in Nicaragua for 15 years to maintain peace and protect US interests.

Issues with Mexico. In 1909, President Taft crossed the Mexican border in what was considered neutral territory between the two countries and met with Mexican President Diaz. It was a historic meeting. It was the 2nd international trip for a sitting President and the first time a US President went to Mexico. There was also an assassination attempt made on Taft. It wasn’t the first time someone had tried to kill him during his Presidency. There were a few attempts. The meeting between the two occurred shortly before the start of the Mexican Revolution. There is a great letter from Taft to his wife after the meeting where he states that he is concerned for what will happen after the death of the 8o year old Mexican President. He feared a revolution in Mexico because of the 2 million in investments US Businesses had there.

Revolution in Mexico does break out and fighting so close to the US border could have brought the United States into another conflict. Taft was set on avoiding direct intervention in the region. He did however send about 20,000 troops to the border in March of 1911. In a message to Congress he stated "It seems my duty as Commander in Chief to place troops in sufficient number where, if Congress shall direct that they enter Mexico to save American lives and property, an effective movement may be promptly made," Even though Taft and the US Congress don’t send troops into Mexico, this will change during the Presidency of Woodrow Wilson. We will talk more about US Involvement in the Mexican Revolution in our podcast on Wilson.

Election of 1912

Saw two former friends become bitter rivals. Theodore Roosevelt threw his hat into the ring for an unprecedented 3rd term. Taft, who didn’t particularly like being President, agreed to run for a 2nd term. Roosevelt hoped to snatch the Republican nomination from the sitting President and once, hand chosen successor. While he seemed to be the more popular choice, there were more pro Taft delegates seated at the convention. Again, no one ever said politics wasn’t a dirty game. Taft won the Republican Party’s nomination and Theodore Roosevelt created a new political party. It was called the Progressive Party but is almost always referred to as The Bull Moose Party. The new political party touted TR’s plan for a “New Nationalism”. They hoped to create a strong Federal government and supported Women’s Suffrage, an end to child labor, an 8 hr. work day, a minimum wage for workers and continuation of progressive reforms and regulation when it comes to big business. The Democrats nominated Woodrow Wilson and while people only really discuss these three men, the election was really a 4-way race. The Socialist Party nominated Eugene V. Debs. The split of the Republican party worked in favor of the Democrats and allowed Woodrow Wilson to win the election. President Taft came in third with just 23 percent of the vote.

In his Post Presidency life, Taft really shines. He goes and becomes a Professor at Yale, teaching Constitutional Law. He throws himself into life at Yale. In fact, there is a great Yale Alumni Magazine article from 2013 which talks about how the former President coached a Freshman debate team and attended the school’s proms and baseball games. He was President of The American Bar Association. He helped to create the American Law Institute along with a number of other people. While I am touting some of his accomplishments, I should also mention that while he was still President, he advocated for the creation for US Chamber of Commerce. He felt it was important to have an agency that could represent the interests of US Businesses. Understand at this time, the Labor Movement is in full swing. There were many local chambers of Commerce, but this would be able to reach out to all of those more local groups and have their hand on the pulse of what was happening. With the outbreak of WWI in Europe. Taft along with a number others including Elihu Root, Rabbi Steven Wise, Alexander Graham Bell created the League to Enforce Peace in 1915 in Philadelphia. This organization is considered the precursor to the League of Nations. The purpose of the organization was for member nations to "jointly use their economic and military force against any one of their number that goes to war or commits acts of hostility against another." Again, Taft has this reputation for being a great administrator, he gets things done. So he is very busy. He spent 8 years at Yale until he was appointed by President Harding to be Chief Justice of The Supreme Court. He replaced the man he had appointed as Chief Justice.

He was unanimously confirmed by the Senate the same day he was appointed by President Harding. He served as the 10th Chief Justice to the Supreme Court for 8 years; until his retirement a little over a month before his death. During his tenure as Chief Justice he wrote 200 opinions for the court. He is also known for changing the Supreme Court. One of the first things he set out to do was to lobby Congress to pass a law that would change the manner in which The Supreme Court would hear cases. It took 4 years to pass, but the Judiciary Act of 1925 was passed. Before that bill, The Supreme Court heard a much larger number of cases each term. Now, the court could decide which cases would be on its docket (which is a calendar list of cases).

This was not the only thing he lobbied Congress for. Chief Justice Taft was instrumental in getting the Supreme Court its own building. The Supreme Court didn’t always have its own home. It had a number of them over its history. Many different Capitols (New York – they had 1 home, the Royal Exchange Building, in Philadelphia they had two homes (A brief 2 day stay at Independence Hall and then Old Town Hall). When the Capitol Building in Washington D.C. was built, buildings for the Executive and Legislative Branches were built, but none for the Judiciary. The Supreme Court Historical Society has great information on this. Congress allowed the Supreme Court to meet in various rooms in the Capitol Building. From 1810- 1860 the room where they met changed from time to time but from 1895-1935, The Supreme Court met in The Old Senate Chamber. Taft got Congress to designate over 9 Million dollars for the construction of a Supreme Court Building. He didn’t live to see its completion. But he did oversee its planning. Taft instructed the architect, Cass Gilbert, to design “a building of dignity and importance suitable for its use as the permanent home of the Supreme Court of the United States.”

That he did. While the building is much newer than the Capitol building and The White House, it was designed to match both structures. There is a lot of symbolism in the building. If you go to see it, you will notice sculptures representing justice and the order of law, there are the carved likenesses of individuals who helped to make the building possible including a young William Howard Taft, former Chief Justice John Marshall and even the architect of the building. There are depictions of Moses and Confucius and even turtles in different locations. This was used to symbolize longevity, and the slow - yet deliberate pace of justice. A man who was once his predecessor's hand-picked successor chose his own for the Supreme Court. He wouldn’t retire until he got assurance from President Hoover that his replacement would be Charles Evans Hughes. Taft had appointed him to the Supreme Court but he resigned to run for President against Woodrow Wilson in 1916. Taft resigned, Hoover appointed Hughes and about a month later, Taft died.

The death of former President and Chief Justice Taft was announced by President Hoover who stated

“It becomes my sad duty to announce officially the death of William Howard Taft, which occurred at his home in the City of Washington, on the eighth day of March, nineteen hundred and thirty, at five-fifteen o'clock in the afternoon.”

Taft was the First President to own a car and the last to own a cow. He was the first President of only two US Presidents buried at Arlington National Cemetery. His wife was buried with him after her death.

Upon hearing the news of Taft’s death, Alfred E Smith stated: "He served his country in the highest tradition of American ideals. He will be mourned by a nation that knows how to value its great men."

Recent Episodes