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Determining the Facts

Reading 2: President and Chief Justice

Louise and Alphonso Taft sent their children out into the world equipped with an education and a belief that academic learning was best put to use in service to others. Family influence, a diploma from Yale, a law degree, and his own ambition propelled Will Taft into public life at a young age. Still in his 20s, Alphonso Taft's son seemed the natural choice for various legal and judicial posts. He worked hard. He was a loyal party man, campaigning for Republican candidates and receiving jobs in return. His sense of ethics was unshakable, at one point threatening to derail his career: as collector of the internal revenue, he chose to resign rather than replace competent employees with undeserving party favorites. All the while his goal was a seat on the U.S. Supreme Court.

At age 33, he was appointed U.S. solicitor general. This was his introduction to the national scene and to progress-minded politicians such as Theodore Roosevelt. Two years later, as a U.S. circuit court judge, Taft's efforts to make the judicial system responsive to the needs of a changing society drew President William McKinley's attention. McKinley needed someone in the Philippines to establish a civil government for the new U.S. possession. He named Taft, who left for the islands in 1900. Governor-General Taft oversaw the construction of schools and transportation lines, strengthened the economy, and brought modern law to the islands. He won the hearts of the Filipinos. Some historians view these accomplishments as his most important work in light of the strategic role the Philippines later played as a U.S. outpost in the western Pacific.

While Taft was in the Philippines, he was asked by President Roosevelt to fill a vacancy on the Supreme Court. He sacrificed his dream in order to finish his work with the people he had grown to love. The Supreme Court offer was repeated a few years later when Taft was secretary of war. Again he declined. Then, President Roosevelt endorsed Taft as his successor. "My ambition is to become a justice of the Supreme Court," Taft wrote his brother in 1905. "I presume, however, there are very few men who would refuse to accept the Republican nomination for the presidency, and I am not an exception." Besides, Helen Taft, often referred to as "Nellie," wanted her husband in the White House. He received the nomination for president in 1908 and won the November election.

The accomplishments of the Taft administration are still a part of American life. He backed the constitutional amendment providing for an income tax, worked within a budget, strengthened the Interstate Commerce Commission to better regulate transportation and control railroad rates, brought dozens of antitrust suits, appointed six Supreme Court justices, and signed legislation admitting New Mexico and Arizona into the union as the 47th and 48th states. He inaugurated the presidential tradition of throwing out the first baseball of the season.

Taft's presidential achievements were obscured by his lack of broad-based support. In the view of Progressives, who had expected a continuation of Roosevelt's policies, he was paralyzed with inertia. With one eye always on the law, he was too cautious to expand his presidential power in the manner of his predecessor. Old guard Republicans, happily rid of Roosevelt, bristled at what they viewed as continuing threats to the free market–the dismantling of monopolies, artificially low railroad rates, and the notion that one's hard-earned money belonged, in part, to the government. Although his party renominated him in 1912, his mentor, Theodore Roosevelt, was furious that Taft had moved timidly on his Progressive agenda. Roosevelt headed the ticket for the Bull Moose (Progressive) Party, splitting the Republican vote and ensuring victory for Democrat Woodrow Wilson.

Lifelong devotion to his alma mater took Taft back to Yale where he taught constitutional law for eight years. A third chance at the Supreme Court came his way when President Warren G. Harding had court vacancies to fill. This time there was no burden of unfinished duty to keep Taft from accepting. In 1921 he was named 10th chief justice of the United States.

The first problem he encountered was one of sheer volume. The court was bound to accept any case involving a federal point of law. By the 1920s claims arising from the First World War, income tax laws, and prohibition generated an overwhelming backlog. The Judiciary Act of 1925, backed by Taft, allowed the high court to choose cases based on merit. This paved the way for more judicial reforms. Taft had backed the income tax as president and continued to do so as chief justice. His court upheld prohibition laws and efforts to convict bootleggers, affirmed presidential power to remove appointees, and strengthened the Interstate Commerce Commission as well as the Federal Government in general. "While Taft presided as chief justice, and was often accused of conservatism," explains Taft's biographer Henry F Pringle, "there occurred a steady redistribution of the wealth of the United States." Taft rallied support for a new building for the Supreme Court–a solemn neoclassical structure completed in 1932–giving the judicial branch of the government symbolic parity with the executive and legislative branches.

In February 1930 Taft resigned his post because of illness. A month later he died at age 72. That day President Herbert Hoover articulated the country's sense of loss when he declared, "Mr. Taft's service to our country has been of rare distinction and was marked by purity of patriotism, a lofty disinterestedness, and a devotion to the best interests of the nation." William Howard Taft was buried in Arlington National Cemetery.

Questions for Reading 2

1. William Howard Taft often has been called the "reluctant politician." What evidence can you find to support this claim?

2. What position held by Taft before his presidency was the most important? Why do you think so?

3. As president, Taft made many contributions to the country. What accomplishments do you feel were .his most important? What issues confronted by Taft still affect you and your community today? In what ways?

4. If you had been eligible to vote in 1908, would the evidence included in this reading have persuaded you to vote for Taft? Why or why not?

Reading 2 was adapted from the National Park Service visitor's guide for William Howard Taft National Historic Site.



Comments or Questions

National Park Service arrowhead with link to NPS website.