William Howard Taft was born in Cincinnati, Ohio, on September 15, 1857. The son of Alphonso Taft and his second wife, Louisa (Torrey) Taft, he spent his childhood residing in Ohio. He lived with two elder half-brothers, two younger brothers, and a younger sister. Although not wealthy, the Taft family enjoyed comfortable circumstances.
Alphonso Taft came from a respected family in New England, and he attended Yale College. He enjoyed a successful career as an attorney and eventually served in the Grant Administration.
William Howard Taft graduated from high school in Cincinnati. He entered Yale College in 1874 at the age of 17. As a good student, he matriculated near the top of his class before returning to Ohio to enroll in Cincinnati Law School. He graduated with a law degree in 1880.
Early Career And Marriage
Shortly after receiving admission to the Ohio bar, Taft became an assistant county prosecutor. The Governor appointed the 29-year-old to a vacant judicial position in Cincinnati. He subsequently won an election and served as a Superior Court judge in Ohio. In 1886, he married Helen “Nellie” Heron. They enjoyed a 44-year marriage and raised three children together.
In 1889, President Benjamin Harrison selected Taft to serve as the chief federal prosecutor, and he argued cases before the United States Supreme Court. He developed a successful record as the United States Solicitor General.
In March 1892, President Harrison nominated him to serve as a federal appellate court judge in Ohio. Many Taft judicial opinions supported conservative positions.
Governor of the Philippines
As a result of the Spanish-American War, Spain sold the Philippine Islands to the United States for $20 million. Soon afterwards, in 1898, a nationalist movement in the islands demanded independence. President McKinley sent U.S. troops to suppress the rebellion. He selected Judge Taft to help establish an elected, civilian, territorial government in the Philippines.
William Howard Taft became the first civilian Governor of the Philippines on July 1, 1901. He persuaded many Filipinos to participate in the new territorial government, and he gradually won popular support.
In the United States, bitter disagreements erupted in Congress over whether the USA should retain the Philippines as a territory or not. Congress eventually established a Commonwealth of the Philippines in 1935 in preparation for granting independence. As the first civilian Governor, William Howard Taft played a pivotal role in helping establish the framework for a peaceful, territorial administration.
Secretary of War
Just a few months after Taft became Governor of the Philippines, an anarchist named Leon Czolgosz shot President McKinley. The President passed away on Sept. 14. His 42-year-old vice president, Theodore “Teddy” Roosevelt, succeeded him. He played a significant role in Taft’s career.
In 1904, President Roosevelt asked Governor Taft to become his Secretary of War, which was a cabinet position comparable to the modern post of Secretary of Defense. Taft supported Roosevelt’s policies loyally. A tall, now heavyset man weighing over 300 pounds, he became a readily identifiable figure within the Roosevelt Administration.
Many progressive Republicans backed the President. Secretary Taft enjoyed support from conservative elements within the Republican Party. Some of his political allies favored the conservative record he had established as a judge. His selection as Secretary of War pleased conservatives.
At the end of his second term, President Roosevelt worked hard to obtain the Republican presidential nomination for his Secretary of War and good friend. Taft campaigned for the presidency as the Republican nominee against Democrat and populist William Jennings Bryan. He won the election of 1908 by a large margin in both the Electoral College and the popular vote.
In the White House, President Taft maintained a genteel, old-fashioned leadership style. While he continued to support many of former President Roosevelt’s policies, he adhered to a more leisurely schedule. He frequently played golf in the mornings and took extended lunches. His lack of vigor in pursuing his administration’s own proposals in Congress antagonized some Republicans.
Like President Roosevelt, President Taft supported conserving wilderness through the establishment of federal preserves. He approved a number of worker safety measures desired by Progressives, including legislation to promote mine safety. Although he wanted to reduce trade tariffs, he failed to prevent members of Congress from including numerous amendments to legislation intended to lower tariffs. However, the Taft Administration did aggressively act to break up business monopolies.
In 1911, President Taft and former President Roosevelt became political adversaries after President Taft instructed his administration to pursue an antitrust case against U.S. Steel, a large steel manufacturing company. President Roosevelt had previously upheld the acquisition of Tennessee Coal And Iron Company by U.S. Steel; he objected to the unflattering way the government’s antitrust lawsuit briefs depicted him. The former President also believed his opinions should carry greater weight with the Taft Administration since he had worked diligently to help President Taft gain election. By 1912, Teddy Roosevelt had begun criticizing President Taft in public.
The 1912 Election
In 1912, President Taft sought reelection. Former President Roosevelt also declared his intention to seek the Republican nomination. Although Teddy Roosevelt soundly beat President Taft in a number of party presidential primaries that year, the convention included numerous Taft supporters. Republican delegates nominated President Taft.
Roosevelt then accepted the nomination of a new Progressive third party. Democrats had nominated former college President Woodrow Wilson, also Governor of New Jersey. He received support from both conservative Southern Democrats and the left wing of his party. During the 1912 election, Republicans split their votes between conservative President Taft and Progressive candidate Roosevelt, which awarded a victory to the unified Democrats.
A Professor at Yale
Former President Taft accepted a chair as a Professor of History and Law at Yale University in 1913. Although he often disagreed with President Wilson, he rarely revealed his views in public. He praised the President’s efforts to establish a League of Nations.
Chief Justice Taft
William Howard Taft supported the Republican Harding-Coolidge ticket in 1920. In 1921, President Harding nominated him to serve as Chief Justice of the Supreme Court. The Senate immediately and overwhelmingly voted in favor of the nomination.
During his tenure on the Supreme Court, William Howard Taft served with several famous judges, including Oliver Wendell Holmes, Jr., Louis Brandeis, and Harlan F. Stone. He frequently disagreed with liberal justices.
Chief Justice Taft developed a conservative record in deciding Commerce Clause cases. He usually ruled against imposing federal regulations upon business. However, in Adkins v. Children’s Hospital, 261 U.S. 525 (1923), when the Supreme Court overturned a federal law requiring equal wages for female employees within the District of Columbia, he wrote a dissent.
In Pierce v. Society of Sisters, 268 U.S. 510 (1925), the Court unanimously struck down a state law compelling parents to send their children to public schools or state-approved private schools. Chief Justice Taft viewed Myers v. United States, 272 U.S. 52 (1926) as his most significant ruling. It upheld the power of a President to remove officials from the Executive Branch. As the Chief Justice, he advocated the passage of the Judges Act of 1925. This legislation gave wider latitude to the Supreme Court in accepting cases.
Taft suffered poor health during the 1920s. After attending his brother’s funeral in late 1929, his physical condition deteriorated. He passed away at his home in Washington D.C. on March 8, 1930.
4. John A. Garraty, The American Nation Since 1865 (New York: Harper & Row, 1966)