Few men have ever had the background for the Presidency to equal that of William Howard Taft. His family heritage of legal accomplishment, his own early training in the law, his reputation for honesty and fairness, and his friendly manner, all were natural stepping stones to the office of Chief Executive. As Governor General of the Philippines and then as Secretary of War, Taft so pleased President Roosevelt that he received Roosevelt's full endorsement as the Republican Presidential candidate in the 1908 election. The election itself produced a landslide victory for Taft and prefaced a four-year term fraught with problems and controversies.
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William Howard Taft--the one man to be both president and chief justice--has a secure place in American history. Only occasionally, and perhaps unfortunately, have ex-presidents remained politically active to the point of holding important public office: John Quincy Adams represented his district of Massachusetts in the lower house of the Congress after being president; Andrew Johnson was reelected to the Senate, though he did not live long enough to take his seat; and Herbert Hoover made a singular contribution at the head of the commission that bore his name and that helped to reorganize the federal government. Taft did much more. After four years in the White House he was appointed to the Supreme Court of the United States as chief justice in 1921 and presided over the Court for a decade.
Some might contend that in passing to the Court he had taken a higher place. More than one respected voice—Justice Oliver Wendell Holmes, Jr., among them--has been raised to argue that service on the Supreme Court is the supreme public achievement. Certainly Taft expressed himself in such terms from time to time, which is not to suggest that he contemned the presidency. He thought of himself, rather, as better suited to be a jurist than an executive. Such judgments, after all, are a matter of individual temperament, taste, and training, which in Taft's case combine to explain his preference for the judiciary. His heritage, education, and early experiences were of the law, his inclinations and ambitions were judicial, and his learning was the offspring of these kindred elements.
Insofar as his writings are evidence of Taft's learning, they fall into three categories. His judicial philosophy is readily identified from his decisions both as a state judge and a federal jurist and from his Supreme Court opinions written during the 1920s. 2 His several books and other extended observations on government and especially on the presidency show Taft to good advantage as both an erudite and thoughtful student of American government. Finally, his writings on international peace and arbitration extend the range of his mind, demonstrating qualities of both judge and statesman. There is, furthermore, a basic intellectual consistency threading itself through these sets of writings, along with a number of clues that point to the role that learning played in Taft's presidency. What he had gleaned from study was reinforced by his experience in the ways of men. Tolerance for opinions with which he did not agree, a caution against precipitous conclusions, recognition that there was a meaningful difference between moral right and moral wrong, the need to be of service to others, and a consciousness of the frailties of humankind were all attitudes Taft exhibited. His dependence on learning in all this was much like his respect for it; it was assumed, internalized, practical, and quite without the self-advertising enthusiasms of a Theodore Roosevelt.
Though born and raised in Ohio, William Howard Taft belongs more to New England than the Middle West, in the view of his principal biographer, Henry F. Pringle. A New England mentality was in many ways distinctively his, and perhaps this is illustrated best by the heritage of learning that passed to him from his mother no less than his father. Both parents were bred in a tradition of intellectual commitment amid the practical affairs of everyday living, classic New Englanders torn between a passion for righteousness and a desire to get on in the world.
The Tafts came from England in the mid-1670s, the first of them a Robert Taft, "a plain unlettered man" and a carpenter by trade. He lived for a time in Braintree, and it is not unlikely that he knew the family of John Adams, which by then had attained some prominence in the town. By 1679 Robert Taft had settled permanently at nearby Mendon. Over one hundred years later President George Washington, while on a tour of New England, made a brief stop at Samuel Taft's farm and tavern, located on the turnpike connecting Boston and Hartford. The future president's father, Alphonso, was the first of the family to gain national prominence, as an Ohio judge and as secretary of war and attorney general in the dying days of the Grant administration. In the 1880s he was United States minister to Vienna and St. Petersburg. Alphonso Taft was a remarkable man in many ways. He worked his way through Yale, graduating with honors in 1833. At the time Yale was fast in the grip of a Calvinistic revival, but Alphonso was cold to the evangelistic temper he encountered in New Haven, a harbinger of his later Unitarianism. After Yale he read law, migrated west, chose Cincinnati as his new home, and prospered as a lawyer almost at once. In the process, two traits became identifiable in the senior Taft. By the later 1840s he had largely forsaken conventional Protestantism, following the lead and lectures of Ralph Waldo Emerson.
Taft was not a great public speaker -- the campaigning for the 1908 election illustrated this point very well -- but he had two qualities which helped him immensely. He was a very large man with a large smile, and when he beamed at an audience before starting a speech, the impression of overwhelming cordiality melted practically all resistance.
Defeated in the 1912 Presidential contest, Taft elected to take a position with the Yale Law School. In that way he felt he could retire from the public eye most gracefully. But storm clouds hung over Europe, and in 1914 World War I broke out. Peaceful by nature, Taft was shocked by the ensuing brutality and loss of life, and decided to act. In June of 1915, he became President of the newly-formed League to Enforce Peace. His subsequent efforts to promote some sort of association of nations were unceasing; he traveled all over the nation speaking for his cause. Finally, he gave what many might call that full measure of devotion when he agreed to appear with the leader of "the other party" -- President Woodrow Wilson -- in a joint appearance on behalf of the League of Nations.
The program was held in the Metropolitan Opera House on March 4, 1919, the day before Wilson was to sail for Europe with what he hoped would be an endorsement of his League plan. It was a truly gala occasion; Caruso sang, the house was packed (4,000), and thousands more who had to be turned away were milling around in front of the building. Ex-President and President joined forces to defend the idea of a peaceful community of nations, and were warmly received. Wilson sailed for Europe the next day with high hopes of success.
These hopes, however, were never realized. The United States of America never joined the organization its leader so strongly advocated, and Wilson and Taft were both greatly disappointed. But Taft's long service to the nation in this and other endeavors were not forgotten by the next President, Warren Harding. In 1921, William Howard Taft had his one great ambition in life fulfilled -- he became Chief Justice of the United States Supreme Court. The position came to him in the twilight of his life, but he filled it with rare dignity, integrity, and wisdom.
Unfortunately, his health had been seriously impaired during his term as Governor General of the Philippines, and his life began to ebb slowly away. Ironically, the League of Nations for which he had struggled so valiantly was likewise growing weaker with each succeeding year. Perhaps it is a small blessing that Taft never saw the inglorious collapse of the League, for certainly he would have been terribly saddened by it. This devoted American, called by many historians the father of the League idea, passed away in 1930, mourned by the nation he had so honestly served.
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