William Howard Taft is one of the lesser-remembered of the US Presidents, who was mostly in the shadow of his much better-known contemporary Teddy Roosevelt. Today, most people probably remember Taft, if at all, for being … well … very fat.
Taft never really wanted to get into politics. His real passion was law. He was the son of a judge who had been Attorney General under President Ulysses Grant, and William was himself appointed a Federal Circuit Judge in 1891. He told his wife that his real ambition was to serve on the Supreme Court.
But his career took a turn in the aftermath of the Spanish-American War.
By 1898, the US had expanded as far as it could within the continent of North America. If the US were to continue its relentless expansion, it would have to look overseas. And the aging Spanish Empire made a very tempting target.
When an anti-Spanish rebellion broke out in Cuba, the US, supported by a press campaign led by William Randolph Hearst, began building a case for intervention in Cuba, ostensibly to aid the rebels in their fight for independence. On February 15, 1898, the battleship Maine was suddenly destroyed by a massive explosion as she lay at anchor, and America had the excuse she wanted. In a quick series of victories, the United States crushed the Spanish forces, and under the Treaty of Paris that ended the war, Spain agreed to withdraw from Cuba, ceded the islands of Guam and Puerto Rico to the US, and agreed to sell the Philippines to the US for $20 million. Within months, Filipino natives rebelled against American rule, in a bloody insurrection that lasted for several years.
President William McKinley needed somebody to act as civilian administrator in the Philippines, to pacify the islands and end the rebellion. And the man he chose for the job was William Howard Taft. It turned out to be a good choice. Taft happened to be sympathetic to the rebel’s cause (though he deplored their violent methods), and he became the carrot to McKinley’s stick. While the US Army carried on an aggressively brutal military campaign targeting the guerrillas and their supporters, Taft put into place popular social reforms that gave the Filipinos limited representation in the government. Taft clashed continuously with the American military commander, General Arthur MacArthur, but although the two couldn’t get along, their two approaches, combined, were enough to defeat the rebels and quell the uprising. The Philippines would spend the next half-century as a US “protectorate” and would not gain independence until 1946.
President Teddy Roosevelt, who had taken office after McKinley was assassinated by an anarchist, was impressed by Taft’s political reforms in the Philippines and appointed him as Secretary of War. More importantly, Roosevelt also viewed the former judge as a potential ally in what had become a political battle for the soul of the Republican Party.
At this time in American history, the Republican Party was the liberal pro-reform party, which had been elected under Lincoln on an anti-slavery platform; the Democratic Party, which dominated the South and had already set up the Jim Crow segregation laws, was the conservative anti-reform party. Roosevelt was a supporter of the newly-emerging “Progressive Movement”, which advocated for social reforms, racial equality, and government control over growing corporate economic and political power. Meanwhile, a political shift was also happening inside the Democratic Party. The Democrats had lost the past five Presidential elections, and a new faction of “Social Democrats” now argued that their party had to move to a new reformist policy that was similar to the one Roosevelt was proposing. Gradually the two parties began to split apart and shift alignments: the conservatives were gathering inside the Republican Party, and the progressives were congregating inside the Democratic Party.
Roosevelt was a loud and brash Progressive, and he was not shy about using the power of his office to push through the agenda that he wanted. As a social reformer, he broke up corporate monopolies and became known as the “Trust Buster”, and as a conservationist, he established a number of National Parks and Nature Preserves. And when the time came for the 1908 election, Roosevelt pushed the Republican Party convention into nominating Taft, assuming that his protégé would continue to push the same agenda. And indeed Taft’s entire campaign centered around a pledge to continue Roosevelt’s policies. Newspapers joked that “TAFT” stood for “Take Advice From Teddy”. He won with 52% of the vote.
But Roosevelt (and the public) had misjudged Taft; he was not a firebrand like Teddy Roosevelt, and he was uncomfortable wielding power. Taft’s administration would be very different from Roosevelt’s.
As President, Taft began to slow-walk some of Teddy’s Progressive policies, and quietly dropped others. In particular, Federal actions against corporate monopolies under the Anti-Trust Act faded away, and the Department of the Interior began to drag its feet on many of the National Parks that Roosevelt had proposed. There were also disputes between Roosevelt and Taft over trade tariffs and economic protectionism. Roosevelt and the Progressives viewed Taft more and more as a betrayal.
By the time of the 1912 elections, the split between Taft and Roosevelt had become unbridgeable. Roosevelt actively opposed Taft’s re-nomination for the presidency, and when the conservative elements prevailed at the convention and nominated Taft anyway, Roosevelt bolted the party and declared his own candidacy under the newly-organized Progressive Party, popularly referred to as the Bull Moose Party. Most of the Republican Party’s progressive supporters left along with him. Meanwhile, the Democratic Party was being changed from within by its own progressive faction, represented by Woodrow Wilson. The 1912 election turned into a four-way race: Taft running for re-election with the Republican Party, Wilson running for the Democratic Party, Roosevelt running for the Bull Moose Party, and Eugene V Debs (in jail on sedition charges) running for the Socialist Party. With his own party fractured and weak, Taft didn’t have a chance, and Woodrow Wilson won with just 42% of the popular vote. Wilson’s win represented a permanent sea change: the Democrats would from now on represent the liberal political wing, and the Republicans the conservative.
Taft, who never really wanted to be a politician and was uncomfortable the entire time he was in the White House, went back to his first love and took a job at Yale University teaching Constitutional Law. In 1921, President Warren G Harding nominated Taft to be Chief Justice of the Supreme Court—the job he had always wanted all along. He served for the next nine years, writing opinions in some 250 cases which all tended to be conservative.
Suffering from heart disease, Taft resigned from the Supreme Court in February 1930, and died the next month. He was buried in Arlington National Cemetery.
Today, the Cincinnati home where William Howard Taft was born and grew up is protected as the William Howard Taft National Historic Site. After the Taft family sold it in 1899, the home passed through various owners until it was purchased in 1968 by the nonprofit William Howard Taft Memorial Association and donated to the National Park Service, who restored it to its original appearance. The NPS runs the site as a museum and Visitors Center.