There you go — the one thing all my history students have known about William Howard Taft: that he weighed 340 pounds and once got stuck in the White House bathtub. Finding out much more is harder than you might think! Consider: The New York Times has sponsored a series of biographies of American presidents that includes every single one except for Barack Obama, George W. Bush, Bill Clinton, Ronald Reagan… and William Howard Taft. Millard Fillmore gets a volume. Chester A. Arthur gets a volume. Taft? Bzzzt. Thus, I was forced to turn to the academic presses, and wound up reading…
William Howard Taft: The Travails of a Progressive
Jonathan Lurie, 2012
…which is pretty poor. It felt like the literary equivalent of empty calories: page after page went by, and I neither saw much of an argument being made nor the landmarks of Taft's career being set into a strong narrative framework. So here is what I've pieced together both from this book and from other sources.
William Howard Taft grew up in Cincinnati and graduated from Yale before returning home to pick up a degree from Cincinnati Law School. "I love judges, and I love courts," he would later say. "They are my ideals, that typify on earth what we shall meet hereafter in heaven under a just god." By the age of 30 he was already a judge on Ohio's superior court, and by 32 he had been named solicitor general in the Benjamin Harrison administration. He then joined the 6th Circuit Court of Appeals, which he considered an ideal position: not only was it a potential stepping stone to the Supreme Court, but the worst-case scenario for him was a comfortable income for life, right at home in Cincinnati. But in 1900 he was pressured into taking a detour. The United States had captured the Philippines in the Spanish-American War, and William McKinley wanted Taft to head up the effort to establish a civilian government for the islands, in the face of military commanders who thought that the three branches of the Philippine government should be the U.S. Army, the U.S. Navy, and Fuck You. Taft reluctantly accepted, and wound up staying in the Philippines for four years, even declining Theodore Roosevelt's offer of a Supreme Court appointment in order to remain. He did accept a promotion to secretary of war in 1904, in which capacity he served as an unquestioning subordinate; when Taft suggested in a speech that tariffs on imports from the Philippines should be lowered, and Roosevelt cautioned him that he was out of step with the rest of the Republican Party on that issue, Taft immediately offered to resign. "Fiddle-dee-dee," Roosevelt replied, "I shall never send you another letter of complaint if it produces such awful results. […] As for your retiring from the Cabinet, upon my word, Will, I think you have nerves, or something!"
Though Taft protested that the presidency held no appeal for him,
Roosevelt — who had impulsively declared that he wouldn't
run in 1908 — settled upon him as his heir.
It seems pretty clear that Roosevelt saw Taft as a Dmitry Medvedev figure:
someone new to serve as titular leader for the sake of appearances, but
do as he was told,
and even step aside should
Putin Roosevelt decide he
wanted to return to the presidency in 2012 1912.
Taft did eventually agree to run, and defeated William Jennings Bryan to
win the White House.
He took office with, he said, "much hesitation and doubt", and after
barely a year, he was lamenting that "I don't know that I have had harder
luck than have other Presidents, but I do know that thus far I have
succeeded far less than have others".
What went wrong?
The usual answer is that Taft was bad at politics, but what does that
Here are a couple of examples.
Roosevelt had been known as a "trust-buster", fighting collusion among
corporations and declaring "malefactors of great wealth" the greatest
threat to the nation.
Taft's sentiments were similar.
"Wall Street, as an aggregation, is the biggest ass I have ever run
across," he wrote.
And Taft prosecuted more trusts in his four years in office than
Roosevelt had in his seven-plus.
But that's the thing: Roosevelt chose which trusts to take on for
Taft's explicit policy was to sue "every trust of any size that violates
In 1911, he went after U.S. Steel, which, according to the brief filed
by his attorney general, had in 1907 illegally acquired one of its chief
competitors, with the complicity of then-President Roosevelt.
Taft thereby managed to alienate both of the Republican Party's core
constituencies: big business, by taking on the steel trust in the first
place, and the progressive movement, by painting one of its chief
standard bearers as either a dupe or a conspirator.
Or consider the Payne-Aldrich Tariff of 1909.
When Taft was president, federal revenue was still raised primarily
through duties on imports.
Roosevelt had steered clear of the tariff laws, partly because economics
bored him and partly because he knew they constituted a political
But Taft felt that since revising tariffs was part of the platform of the
party on whose ticket he had run, he was bound to follow through.
He left it to Congress to sort out the details.
The bill he signed was a mixture of hikes and reductions that pleased
no one: business interests hated the lower tariffs that offered their
industries less protection from foreign competition, while progressives
were outraged that the bill's chief author was Nelson Aldrich, the
embodiment of the GOP's money wing.
So what did Taft have to say about this bill that was universally
despised and in which he himself had little investment?
"The Payne bill is the best bill the Republican Party has ever
Taft would later credit his presidency with one crucial accomplishment: by successfully fighting for the Republican nomination in 1912, and remaining in the race even after Roosevelt ran as a third-party candidate in the general election — thus splitting the non-Democratic vote and throwing the election to Woodrow Wilson — he achieved "the suppression of such an evil as Roosevelt". What made Taft come to see Roosevelt as evil? The answer has to do with a phrase found in the title of Lurie's book, which to the modern (and, I suppose, non-Canadian) ear sounds like an oxymoron. What did it mean to be a "progressive conservative"? Both Roosevelt and Taft defined themselves that way, and to a great extent they meant the same thing by it: progressive conservatives were conservative in that they wanted to conserve the U.S. as a capitalist republic, and progressive in that they recognized that maintaining the laissez-faire system of the Gilded Age was the surest way to send the country careening toward another revolution. They agreed that government needed to actively curb the excesses of the greedy, myopic robber barons, not for punitive reasons, but to try to ensure the survival of the system that allowed the rich to make their fortunes. But Taft differed from Roosevelt in one key respect. Roosevelt may have been conservative in character — he was prudish, belligerent, jingoistic — but he wasn't in temperament. He liked taking action, stirring things up. All too often he saw righteous government action impeded by an "absolutely fossilized" court system, "arbitrarily and irresponsibly limiting the power of the people". The progressives called for an income tax, and it's easy to imagine Roosevelt presenting one to the Supreme Court as a fait accompli and daring the justices to play havoc with the economy by striking it down. But Taft was president now, and while he also supported the income tax, he insisted that the entire process of constitutional amendment be followed to explicitly permit such a tax before he would sign it into law. Taft bristled at a speaking tour Roosevelt undertook in 1910, grumbling that "the regret which he certainly expressed that courts had the power to set aside statutes was an attack upon our system at the very point where I think it is the strongest." Taft believed in expertise — he surpassed his predecessors in convening commissions to weigh in on government affairs — and thought that the people should defer to the expertise of trained magistrates. To Taft, progressive innovations such as ballot initiatives and direct election of senators meant a government reflective of "the momentary passions of a people necessarily indifferently informed as to the issues presented". He saw the political spectrum less as left vs. right than as judges vs. demagogues, and on that spectrum he saw himself and Roosevelt on opposite ends.
So Taft undermined Roosevelt's run for a third term, and Wilson was elected, and eight years passed, and Harding succeeded Wilson, and at last Taft was appointed to the Supreme Court — as Chief Justice, at that. This raises two questions. First: why didn't he just accept the Supreme Court appointment Roosevelt had offered him two decades earlier? I don't know how much stock can really be put in this explanation, but every source I've read has said the same thing: Taft made his career decisions at the behest of his wife, whose lifelong dream was to be First Lady. At every juncture she apparently steered her husband away from the judicial branch and toward the executive. Second: even if Helen Taft was the truly ambitious one, it's not like "Supreme Court justice" is a particularly mundane career goal. Even "circuit court judge" is pretty flippin' lofty. Taft did well enough in school, but showed no signs of being a prodigy like Roosevelt; how did someone with his lack of distinction, coupled with an admitted streak of laziness and a tendency to give in to self-pity and pessimism, compile the career he did? He shrugged that "I always had my plate the right side up when offices were falling", but why did they so frequently fall in his vicinity?
It's not much of a mystery. Taft's father was Alphonso Taft, Ulysses Grant's third secretary of war and fifth attorney general. He was still active in politics when William Howard Taft was getting his start. Securing a job for a high-ranking official's son was a good way for a middle-ranking official to curry favor, so the younger Taft didn't have to make much of an effort to snag some pretty plum jobs. And once he was in the club, he quickly developed a network of pals around his age at the gathering spots for Washington's up-and-comers — people who could put in a good word for him when even better opportunities opened up. Roosevelt was one of these, a fellow aristocrat from one of the richest families in New York. And it's hard to shake the sense that part of the cause of their break was that Taft came to view Roosevelt as a traitor to their class. Because, really, who should make the laws?, Taft once scoffed in a letter. "Cranks who never had any money, and representatives of the purlieus of the population"? To see how far birth will get you in America, look at some of Taft's descendants: son Robert Taft, senator; son Charles Phelps Taft II, mayor of Cincinnati; grandson Robert Taft, Jr., senator; grandson William Howard Taft III, ambassador; grandson Horace Taft, dean at Yale; great-grandson Robert Taft III, governor of Ohio; great-grandson William Howard Taft IV, deputy secretary of defense.
But it turns out that my elementary school was named after none of these. It was named after Charles Parkman Taft, developer of the Taft avocado.