Election of 1908: Passing the baton to William Howard Taft

Election of 1908:  Passing the baton to William Howard Taft

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Long before the 1908 Republican convention met, Theodore Roosevelt had announced his intention not to seek a third term. He preferred to be succeeded by his secretary of war, William Howard Taft. TR perceived a certain docility in Taft that might induce him to pursue the former's progressive reforms.Taft easily won his party's nomination, but felt slighted when a convention demonstration for Roosevelt was much longer and louder than a later one for himself.The Democrats in 1908 had not forgotten the thumping they received four years previously when they ran a conservative candidate. They resorted to an earlier recipe for failure and nominated William Jennings Bryan for the third time.The 1908 campaign revolved around Roosevelt's record. The reform Republicans boasted of TR's reform achievements, while the more conservative party members simply kept quiet; for them, anyone was better than Bryan. Such a move was regarded as socialism even by those with strong progressive leanings and made Bryan look like a wild-eyed radical.Taft won a convincing victory in the 1908 election. Bryan's support was confined to the Solid South, plus Nebraska, Colorado and Nevada. The Socialists improved their popular vote tally slightly over 1904, while the Prohibition Party remained at almost the same level. The Populists, in their final appearance on the national stage, polled fewer than 30,000 votes; most of their supporters had deserted the cause in favor of Bryan.

Election of 1908


Electoral Vote


William Howard Taft (OH)
James S. Sherman (NY)




William JenningsBryan (NE)
JohnW. Kern (IN)




Eugene V. Debs (IN)
Benjamin Hanford (NY)




Eugene W. Chaflin(IL)
Aaron S. Watkins (OH)




Thomas L. Hisgen (MA)
John T. Graves (GA)




Thomas E. Watson (GA)
Samuel Williams (IN)




Election of 1908: Passing the baton to William Howard Taft - History

William Howard Taft, the 27th president of the United States, lived in this comfortable house from his birth in 1857 until he went away to college in 1874. During the years he lived here, he learned to love the law, his first passion, and absorbed the family commitment to the Republican Party and to public service. President Taft&rsquos single term in office was not a pleasant one. Progressive Republicans, including his mentor, Theodore Roosevelt, assailed him as too conservative Old Guard Republicans saw him as too liberal. Defeated by Woodrow Wilson in 1912, Taft happily returned to practicing law. In 1921, he achieved his life-long dream, when President Harding named him chief justice of the United States Supreme Court. Taft is the only American to have served both as president and as chief justice. It was about this time that he remarked, &ldquoI don&rsquot remember that I was ever president.&rdquo

Alphonso Taft, father of the future president, was already a prominent lawyer when he moved his growing family to fashionable Mount Auburn in 1851. The house he bought was a &ldquobeautiful, high, airy space,&rdquo with a view of the bustling city of Cincinnati and the Ohio River below. He quickly set about modernizing the ten-year old, two-story, Greek Revival, brick building, adding plumbing and a large addition in the rear. After the death of his first wife in 1852, he married Louise Torrey, who became stepmother to the two oldest Taft boys and bore four children of her own, including William Howard. The Taft household was a lively one, full of social activity and intellectual discussion ranging from Dickens to Darwin and from anti-slavery legislation to women&rsquos suffrage. The children grew up with the family traditions of hard work, fair play, and public service. William Howard Taft lived at home until he left to study at Yale College in 1874 four years later, he graduated, second in his class.

William Howard Taft began his studies of law at the Cincinnati Law School in 1878, passing the bar examination two years later. He practiced law in Cincinnati from late 1883 to 1887 and, like his father, became active in Republican politics. His first political appointment was as assistant county prosecutor in 1881. The following year, President Arthur named him district collector of internal revenue. Appointed to a vacancy on the Ohio Superior Court in 1887, Taft retained his seat the following year in the only election he ever ran in, except his election to the presidency ten years later. He held the judgeship until 1890.

Taft served in President Benjamin Harrison&rsquos Justice Department in Washington, DC from 1890 to 1892 during this period, he also got to know Civil Service Commissioner Theodore Roosevelt. He returned to Cincinnati in 1892 as Federal circuit judge. President McKinley promised him the next appointment to the Supreme Court but in 1900 asked him to be chief civil administrator in the Philippines, which the United States acquired in the Spanish-American War. Sympathetic toward the Filipinos, he improved the economy, built roads and schools, and gave the people at least some participation in government. While Taft was in the Philippines, he reluctantly turned down an appointment as Supreme Court justice, because he felt that duty required him to complete the work he had begun in the Philippines.

As he had pledged during the election, Taft continued many progressive policies. He initiated more antitrust suits than did Roosevelt. He was active in conservation, helping save millions of acres of Federal land from public sale. Taft extended the Interstate Commerce Commission&rsquos power to set railroad rates, advocated economy in government, signed campaign reform legislation, reduced patronage appointments, and improved the postal system. His support for the Payne-Aldrich Tariff, which kept tariffs on imports high, and his unwillingness to stretch his powers as president, alienated Roosevelt and the progressive wing of his own party, however. When Roosevelt chose to run against him as the candidate of the short-lived Progressive Party, this schism assured the election of Woodrow Wilson.

After he left office in 1913, Taft returned to Yale as a professor of law. In 1921, President Harding named him chief justice of the Supreme Court, which fulfilled his long-cherished ambition. Taft held that position until 1930 and died in Washington, DC a month after he retired.

William Howard Taft National Historic Site, a unit of the National Park System, is located at 2038 Auburn Ave., Cincinnati, OH. Click here for the National Register of Historic Places file: text and photos. The site is open seven days a week from 8:00am to 4:00pm. It is closed New Year&rsquos Day, Thanksgiving Day, and Christmas Day. Guided tours of the Taft house last 30 minutes and start on the hour and the half hour. The last guided tour of the day is at 3:30pm. Visit the National Park Service William H. Taft National Historic Site website or call 513- 684-3262 ext. 201 for more information. Visitors to the home may also wish to visit the Taft Museum of Art, in the downtown area at 316 Pike St., which has some associations with President Taft but was designated a National Historic Landmark primarily for its architectural significance. The Cincinnati Institute of Fine Arts operates it.

Taft&rsquos boyhood home is the subject of an online lesson plan, Growing into Public Service: William Howard Taft's Boyhood Home. The lesson plan has been produced by the National Park Service&rsquos Teaching with Historic Places program, which offers a series of online classroom-ready lesson plans on registered historic places. To learn more, visit the Teaching with Historic Places home page.

43f. The Election of 1912

Politics can sometimes turn the best of friends into the worst of enemies. Such was the fate for the relationship between Theodore Roosevelt and William Howard Taft.

Roosevelt's decision to challenge Taft for the Republican nomination in 1912 was most difficult. Historians disagree on his motives. Defenders of Roosevelt insist that Taft betrayed the progressive platform. When Roosevelt returned to the United States, he was pressured by thousands of progressives to lead them once more. Roosevelt believed that he could do a better job uniting the party than Taft. He felt a duty to the American people to run.

Critics of Roosevelt are not quite so kind. Roosevelt had a huge ego, and his lust for power could not keep him on the sidelines. He stabbed his friend in the back and overlooked the positive sides of Taft's Presidency. Whatever the motive, the election of 1912 would begin with two prominent Republican candidates.

The two former friends hurled insults at each other as the summer of 1912 drew near. Taft had the party leadership behind him, but Roosevelt had the people. Roosevelt spoke of a New Nationalism &mdash a broad plan of social reform for America.

Rather than destroying every trust, Roosevelt supported the creation of a Federal Trade Commission to keep a watchful eye on unfair business practices. He proposed a minimum wage, a workers' compensation act, and a child labor law. He proposed a government pension for retirees and funds to assist Americans with health care costs. He supported the women's suffrage amendment. The time of laissez faire was over. The government must intervene to help its people.

Taft and his supporters disagreed, and the battle was left for the delegates to decide.

Did William Howard Taft Really Get Stuck in a Bathtub?

Topping the scales at over 350 pounds, William Howard Taft was a true political heavyweight. Although 𠇋ig Bill” was the only man to serve as both U.S. president and Supreme Court chief justice, what most remember about Taft is that he supposedly became stuck in the White House bathtub. The story, however, apparently doesn’t hold water. No documentary evidence backs it up, and according to Brady Carlson, author of the book � Presidents: An American Adventure into the Strange Deaths and Surprising Afterlives of Our Nation’s Leaders,” the story didn’t arise until two decades after Taft left the presidency. Carlson says the sudsy tale first surfaced along with other presidential dirt in longtime White House usher Ike Hoover’s 1934 memoir, � Years in the White House.”

“The funny part is that while Taft was president, the White House got a tub that was so big a president couldn’t possibly get stuck in it,” Carlson says. Indeed, just weeks after Taft’s 1908 election, the captain of a warship carrying the president-elect to inspect the Panama Canal re-quested a super-sized bathtub capable of holding the heftiest man ever to occupy the Oval Office. Since no “Taft-size” basin could be found, a Manhattan company specially crafted the largest solid porcelain tub ever made for an individual. It was more than seven feet long, 41 inches wide and weighed a ton—literally. A photograph in the February 1909 issue of the journal Engineering Review showed the pond-like presidential bathtub with four men sitting comfortably in-side.

Election of 1908: Passing the baton to William Howard Taft - History

William Howard Taft is known as the only person to have served both as a Chief Justice and as a President of the United States. He was born on the 15th of September 1857 in Cincinnati, Ohio.

His parents were both of British ancestry. His father, Alphonso Taft, came from Vermont to practice law in order to become a judge. Alphonso later became secretary of war and an attorney general of President Grant. William’s mother, Louise Torrey, came from Massachusetts.

Early Life

William studied at schools in Cincinnati and was found to be intelligent and a fast learner. He enrolled in Yale in the year 1874 and proved to become popular among various cliques. He graduated second in his batch in 1878 before returning to Cincinnati to attend law school. He was able to pass the bar exams in Ohio in 1880.

He was soon appointed as assistant prosecutor in the state’s Hamilton County a year later. Taft moved on to become the county’s collector of internal revenue, which proved short-lived as he soon moved on to become a private practitioner of law. Four years later he returned to Hamilton County to become an assistant on solicitors.

On the 19th of June 1886, Taft married his childhood sweetheart Helen “Nellie” Herron, a daughter of a high-profile lawyer. They had had three children, namely Robert Alphonso, Helen Herron, and Charles Phelps. Nellie was intelligent and determined to support her husband in his endeavors.

She played a significant role in Taft’s political career, especially when he was soon appointed by President Benjamin Harrison as the US solicitor general. This position did not last, however, when a year later he returned to Cincinnati to become a court judge for a span of eight years.

Chief Civil Administrator

In 1900, Taft was sent to the Philippines by President McKinley to serve as the chief civil administrator. Having displayed an understanding for the Filipinos, he made it a point to contribute to the country’s economy by building schools and roads. He even allowed the people’s participation in government matters.

Taft soon became the Philippines’ first civil governor. As a leader, it was his intention to spread the importance of quality education. At that time the Philippines was still suffering from the trauma brought by the colonialism of the Spaniards and the Roman Catholic friars. Taft saw to it that any hint of their rule was put to an end by achieving an independent country free from land ownership of foreigners. With the help of the Vatican, he was able to sell the land back to the Filipinos.

A few years later when McKinley was assassinated, the presidency was taken over by Theodore Roosevelt, who twice offered Taft a position on the US Supreme Court. Taft declined both offers, saying that his work in the Philippines was yet to come to its conclusion.

Joining Theodore Roosevelt’s Cabinet

Taft had little knowledge that Roosevelt had already set his eyes on him as his ideal successor. The then-current president had ascertained his need for Taft to become part of his Cabinet. Both of them soon arrived to an understanding that Taft would still be able to continue supervising his work in the Philippines, which allowed him to accept the position as Secretary of War.

Taft was known for his ability to multitask. He was able to serve the US administration both at home and in the Philippines. He was able to oversee the construction of the Panama Canal between the year 1904 and 1908. He became one of Roosevelt’s most favorite emissaries, and the president felt confident whenever Taft was by his side.

Taft was offered a position in the Supreme Court in the year 1906. It was at this point when Roosevelt had announced that he would not run after the 1904 elections. A huge number of the ex-president’s supporters saw Taft as one of the best candidates to succeed the presidential seat. Even Roosevelt himself felt confident that his reforms would be continued once his favorite was elected. Taft decided to run for president.

William Jennings Bryan proved to be an intimidating opponent, having served as president twice in the past. Taft’s campaign methods involve undercutting Bryan’s support on liberalism. Bryan, on the other hand, assigned an elitist image on his opponent. After a strong and vigorous campaign period, Taft won by a small margin. In 1908, he was elected president.

Life as President

It was his new set of policies that made his presidential term memorable to Americans. William introduced new controls over the budget as well as an 8-hour workday for all employees serving the government. He also made it a point to pass the campaign-spending disclosure bills, which punished a number of companies that bypassed the anti-trust laws.

He found himself at a serious disadvantage after realizing the amount of contributions Roosevelt had done while in office. People saw him more as a judicial leader rather than a political one. He was often pointed out as a poor public speaker and a procrastinator. Soon there existed a falling out of trust between the two parties, with Roosevelt labeling Taft a huge disappointment and an incompetent individual controlled by important businesses. Taft would later on admit that he found his job overly intimidating.

In 1912 Roosevelt announced that he wanted the Republicans to nominate him as president. Taft, on the other hand, was resolute that his former friend would not succeed. At a 1912 convention he successfully stopped the organizers from giving important seats to a number of Roosevelt delegates. He acquired the Republican nomination afterwards. Roosevelt, desperate not to allow Taft to gain the seat of presidency for the second time, entered the Progressive Party, known as Bull Moose. The act managed to split the Republican votes. Taft’s past administration, however, proved ineffective to the voting masses, allowing his Democratic opponent Woodrow Wilson to win by a large margin.

Supreme Court Chief Justice

After losing the presidency, Taft worked as a Professor of Law in Yale. He spent his time writing articles for newspapers and books, most of which specialized in legal philosophy. He was also seen as an active advocate for world peace via international arbitration, which promoted the idea of a League of Nations. Years later, President Harding would make him Chief Justice of the US Supreme Court, a position which he found to be one of the most memorable he took in his entire life. In fact, he once wrote that he never even remembered becoming president. He held the position of Chief Justice until his death.

On the 3rd of February 1930 Taft retired from the position due to ill health. He died a few weeks later on March 8, 1930. He was the first president to be buried in Arlington National Cemetery and was the only Chief Justice to gain a state funeral.

Various tributes to Taft spread after that. Courthouses in Ohio were named after him. So did streets in Cincinnati, a school in California, and a major street in Manila, Philippines, where he worked his hardest as a politician. His family would soon enter politics. Robert Taft, Jr., his grandson, became a Senator in Ohio from 1971 to 1977. William Howard Taft III, meanwhile, became US ambassador to Ireland in 1953.

Tag: William Howard Taft

Today, we expect presidential candidates to come to us. They speak on the capitol steps, at memorials, and in high school gyms. They shake hands, meet local leaders, and in Indiana at least, make sure they’re seen eating a homemade pie or pork tenderloin of local renown. Beyond these appearances, however, campaign ads, emails, and social media posts bring candidates into our living rooms, our inboxes, and our daily lives.

President Ronald Reagan Eating Peach Cobbler at Mac’s in Mooresville, Indiana, June 19, 1985, photo located in the Philadelphia Inquirer by Justin Clark for his research into Reagan’s visit.

This was not always the case, however. In fact, for much of U.S. history, such active campaigning was seen as power hungry, uncouth, and beneath the dignity of the office. While they didn’t hit the campaign trail, the candidates were still working hard to win over voters with events and promotional material. If we start our story in Indianapolis, Indiana, in 1888 and close it twenty years later in Brook, Indiana, we see a sea change in Republican Party campaign tactics. And believe it or not, our modern barrage of presidential politicking owes a lot to the 1908 presidential campaign of William Howard Taft.

Republican Politics from the Front Porch

“Harrison and Morton Campaign Ball,” 1888, Benjamin Harrison Presidential Site, accessed University Library, IUPUI.

During the 1888 presidential campaign, Hoosier candidate Benjamin Harrison and incumbent President Grover Cleveland mostly stayed home. That’s not to say they weren’t politicking. Harrison ran a “front porch” campaign, speaking to crowds that gathered at his Indianapolis home and the reporters he invited to cover the event. Political organizations produced “posters, political cartoons, speeches, rallies, parades, brass bands, and torchlight demonstrations” in support of their candidates (Miller Center). And while Harrison stayed in Indianapolis, his supporters took the campaign on the road for him with a memorable publicity stunt. Inspired by a gimmick used for his grandfather William Henry Harrison‘s successful 1840 campaign, a Maryland supporter built a steel and canvas ball and rolled it 5,000 miles across the country to Benjamin Harrison’s home. In an attempt to draw comparisons between the two Harrisons, the campaign slogan became, inevitably, “Keep the Ball Rolling.” Harrison won the presidency, losing the popular vote, but carrying the electoral college. During the rematch in 1892, Cleveland declined to campaign out of respect for Harrison’s wife’s illness and Harrison made only a few public appearances. However, the Republican Party only tenuously backed Harrison because of “his failure to resolve three national issues,” and Cleveland won easily in 1892. (more here: Miller Center).

“Photograph of Campaign of 1888 in Front of House,” 1888, Benjamin Harrison Presidential Site, accessed University Library, IUPUI.

In 1896, the Democrats, with the support of the Populist Party, ran former U.S. Representative William Jennings Bryan for president. (Remember him he’ll be back later). Bryan was a dynamic speaker and hit the campaign trail with enthusiasm, covering 18,000 miles in three months. Still, the Republican candidate and former Governor of Ohio William McKinley stayed home. Having raised four million dollars mainly from business and banking interests, the party organization dumped money into the printing and distribution of campaign pamphlets. Meanwhile, McKinley delivered 350 speeches to 750,000 people – all from his front porch- resulting in his election. McKinley won easily again in 1900, bringing New York Governor Theodore Roosevelt with him to the White House as his vice president. (Miller Center)

Library of Congress Caption: “Theodore Roosevelt, Joseph Cannon, members of the Republican Nomination Committee, and guests in front of Sagamore Hill, Oyster Bay, N.Y.,” Underwood & Underwood, publisher, c. 1904, August 4, accessed Library of Congress.

After McKinley was assassinated in 1901, Roosevelt served out McKinley’s presidential term and was the clear choice of the Republican Party to run in 1904. (Roosevelt picked Indiana Senator Charles W. Fairbanks as his running mate.) The Democrats selected New York Supreme Court Judge Alton B. Parker as a safe choice for presidential candidate, appealing to those who opposed TR’s progressive domestic politics and expanding foreign agenda. Parker refrained from campaigning as was the norm, but heavily criticized his opponent in the press. TR made a thirty day tour of Western states after his nomination was announced, but also refrained from actively campaigning for election. By the summer of 1904 he began speaking from his Sagamore Hill front porch at Oyster Bay, New York. Like McKinley, large campaign donations helped TR secure the presidential office. (Miller Center)

Taft V. Bryan: The Game Changer

William Howard Taft doesn’t get a lot of love as a president. He was indecisive, easily railroaded by Congress, and never wanted the office as badly as his wife or TR wanted it for him. However, the strategy crafted by Taft and his advisers to win the 1908 election was brilliant and the fierce showdown of the two major party candidates changed campaigning forever. And for the Republicans, it started just outside tiny Brook, Indiana.

Muncie Evening Press, June 24, 1908, 3, accessed

Taft was TR’s handpicked successor to the presidency and thus had the backing of a beloved president and the powerful Republican political machine. He easily won the nomination at the June 1908 Republican National Convention in Chicago. However, Taft had an image problem – one that could lose him the essential votes of farmers, laborers, and African Americans. As an U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals judge, he made several anti-labor decisions. In 1894, Taft had ruled against the railroad workers of the Chicago Pullman Strike. Taft’s Democratic opponent William Jennings Bryan, (remember him?) on the other hand, was a Populist who appealed to laborers and farmers by promising to protect their interest from the Republicans, who were backed by exploitative big business.

During the 1908 campaign, Bryan, now on his third presidential run, again stormed the U.S. like an evangelist, talking directly to the people and criticizing Taft’s anti-labor record. This time, it seemed, the Republican candidate was not going to be able to stay home. Taft needed to defend his record, assure workers that the Republican Party backed their interests, and smile and shake as many hands as possible.

Library of Congress caption:
Mitchell, S.D. (1909) [i.e. 1908] Wm. Howard Taft shaking hands
Library of Congress Prints and Photographs Division Washington, D.C. Bryan should really get credit for launching the whistle stop campaigning that became standard practice. He had been touring the country for some time advocating for the silver standard. However, it wasn’t until Taft began actively campaigning on the road – in order to rehabilitate his image and make himself likable to voters, as opposed to simply spreading an educational message – that we get the kind of spectacle politics we recognize today. [Bourdon, 115-6.]

The campaign was strikingly modern in other ways too. Speeches by presidential candidates were traditionally quite long – an hour of expounding on the party platform was not unusual. However, Taft kept it short, speaking for thirty minutes at major events, but sometimes spending only five minutes joking with crowds on train platforms. Bryan, known for lengthy rhetoric, was not to be outdone. He recorded a series of two minute speeches on a wax cylinder for Thomas Edison’s National Phonograph Company. Of course, Taft then had to do the same. Thus, we get the modern sound bite. [Listen here: NPR]

George Ade: Reluctant Republican Ringleader

Meanwhile, in Indiana, the Republican Party was in danger of being torn apart over temperance (prohibition versus local option). Leaders thought that a visit from a national candidate could unify the party at least for long enough to push through a Republican state ticket. Charles S. Hernly, Chairman of Indiana’s State Republican Committee, could see that the base needed a flamboyant event to generate enthusiasm for the Party. Recalling a promising conversation from the previous spring, he formed a plan. It involved George Ade, a native of Newton County, a beloved Indiana author, and a dabbler in local politics.

By this time, Ade had achieved financial success as the writer of clever and observant fictional stories for books and newspapers. He gained fame as the wit behind several popular comedic Broadway plays. Ade was known for using humor and rustic, slangy language and was often compared to Mark Twain. He had done well for himself and wisely trusted his brother William to invest his money in real estate.

“George Ade,” photograph, n.d., Indiana State Library Photograph Collections, accessed Indiana State Library Digital Collections.

In 1902, William secured 417 acres near the small town of Brook for his brother to build a cottage as a writer’s retreat. George named the estate “Hazelden.” By 1904, when he began to stay at Hazelden more regularly, “it had grown into an Elizabethan manor house . . . complete with cow barn, greenhouse, caretaker’s cottage, dance pavilion, several smaller outbuildings, swimming pool, softball diamond, and forty foot water tower,” plus extravagant landscaped gardens. (Indiana Magazine of History)

Town of Brook, “Historic George Ade Home,”

When Ade awoke at Hazelden the morning of August 20, 1908 and settled in to read the day’s Indianapolis Star, he received somewhat of a shock. The front page headline read, “Ade’s Farm Rally Will be Big Event.” Ade later wrote that he recalled a casual conversation with Chairman Charles Hernly about the possibility of a political picnic. However, they had not had formally planned any kind of function, let alone one that Hernly described to reporters as “the biggest Republican event Indiana will see this campaign.”

Indianapolis Star, August 20, 1908, 1, accessed

Hernly had colorfully expounded on the day’s details for reporters. He listed the names of prominent state and national politicians who would likely speak, “all the big guns,” and promised a meal of “roast beef, potatoes, bread and butter and coffee” for the Midwestern farmers who were invited to attend. Hernly emphasized that Ade was “enthusiastic in his support of the Republican ticket,” and the reader assumed, the event to take place at his estate. “The only thing that is bothering Mr. Ade is the fact that it is going to take forty of his best beef cattle to satisfy the hunger of the crowd,” Hernly claimed.

Ade was now in an impossible position. He would have liked to “have headed off the barbecue idea,” but was also an enthusiastic Republican who wanted to help his party. [Indiana Magazine of History] He had served as a visible delegate to the Republican National Convention where Taft was nominated – a fact that made headlines even in the New York Times – and as a member of the notification committee that formally told Taft of his nomination. Ade was a respected figurehead for the party. If he were to refuse to host this now public event, he risked further demoralizing the already troubled Indiana Republican Party. If Hernly meant to force Ade’s hand, it worked. The “biggest Republican rally of the coming campaign” would be held in George Ade’s backyard.

The Taft Special to Ade Station

Through the summer Taft was hanging back, assessing the political climate, trying to determine how best to campaign. By September 1908, however, it was clear that he was going to have to defend his labor record from Bryan’s attacks. Taft needed to align himself with the more progressive agenda of the Republican Party as announced at the June convention. He had also been briefed on the tenuous situation in Indiana and knew he needed to appeal directly to Hoosier farmers if he wanted to win the state. The rally planned at Ade’s farm was an opportunity the candidate could not pass up. Taft accepted the invitation sent to him by Chairman Hernly.

New York Times, September 17, 1908, 3, accessed

On September 16, the Taft campaign announced the tour itinerary. The candidate would leave Cincinnati the morning of September 23 to travel though Indiana, Illinois, Wisconsin, Minnesota, the Dakotas, Iowa, Nebraska, Colorado, and Kansas over several weeks. The New York Times reported:

Judge Taft’s first address on his Western speaking tour will be made at Brook, Ind., on Sept. 23. It will be at a big Republican rally on the farm of George Ade, the Hoosier humorist and politician.

Notably, the newspaper reported that Taft would be following the route that William Jennings Bryan had undertaken in his campaign.

The morning of September 23, Taft and his staff boarded a five car train dubbed “The Taft Special” and headed for Indiana. The train stopped briefly in Indianapolis, where Taft shook hands with local politicians and waved to the approximately 200 people gathered to greet him. He joked with the crowd, forgoing a formal speech. The Taft Special stopped again briefly in Lafayette and switched tracks at Sheff before arriving at Ade station just west of Brook. Ade and a welcome committee arrived in a six car caravan to take Taft, staff, and guests to Hazelden.

Library of Congress caption: Crowd to greet Wm. H. Taft, De Witt, Nebraska, 1908,
Prints & Photographs Online Catalog.

As the caravan drove through Brook, a large sign made of evergreen reading “Welcome” framed in marigolds and goldenrod greeted them. “Triumphal arches” also made of evergreen spanned the main street and supported large pictures of Taft and the other Republican candidates. Newspapers around the country described the scene in detail. The New York Times reported:

All forenoon, from miles around the countryside, buggies, family carryalls, hay racks, and farm vehicles of every description crowded the roads leading to Hazelden, the country home of George Ade. When the candidate, seated in the humorist’s automobile, reached the farm he was driven through a veritable gauntlet of vehicles hitched to telephone poles, fence posts, trees, or anything else calculated to restrain the horses.

Indianapolis News, September 24, 1908, 4,

The Indianapolis News described the scene that greeted Taft upon his arrival at Ade’s estate:

Before the arrival of the Taft party there was a concert by the Brook Band and later by the Purdue Military band, followed by short speeches from some of the local statesmen. At noon the Second Regiment Band, of Chicago, gave a great display of daylight Japanese fireworks. When the Taft party appeared in sight down the road, a dozen bombs were hurled in the air the explosions resembled a salute by a gun squad and the air was filled with smoke as if from a battle.

The spectacle of this political theater was not lost on the Indianapolis News. The newspaper referred to the rally as a clever “stunt” and a “big play” put on by Ade. It continued to draw comparisons between the playwright’s craft and the political event:

The frameup of Ade’s latest act was all that could be desired. It was elaborately staged, and the scenery was all that nature could do for one of the prettiest places in northern Indiana, and the actors were of a pedigree out of the ordinary.

Upon arrival, the official party had lunch in the Ade home while the crowd purchased “full dinner pails,” a reference to the 1900 Republican slogan that appealed to the labor vote and helped William McKinley defeat William Jennings Bryan. At 1:15 p.m., Ade and Taft appeared on the decorated speaker’s platform. Ade introduced the candidate, and Taft officially kicked off his campaign.

Brook Reporter, September 25, 1908, 1,

Taft had not only remembered Ade from the notification committee, he was a fan of the writer’s work, “The Sultan of Sulu,” which was set in the Philippines. Taft had presided over the U.S. commission overseeing the new U.S. protectorate of Philippines under McKinley and spent a great deal of time there. National newspapers reported that Taft referred to Ade as “the Indiana Sultan of Sulu” and stated that “the Philippine original had no advantage over Ade.” Then, Taft got down to brass tacks.

He looked out at the faces of the farmers, the constituents that brought him to Indiana, and addressed them directly. He wanted this point to hit home, stating:

I was told if I came here I should have the privilege of meeting 10,000 farmers of the State of Harrison and [former Indiana Governor Oliver P.] Morton, and I seized the opportunity to break my journey to Chicago to look into your faces and to ask you the question whether your experience as farmers with Mr. Bryan and your recollection of his course since 1892 is such as to command him to you as the person into whose hands you wish to put the executive power over the destinies of this nation for four years.

Library of Congress Caption: Taft Crookston, Minn. [Minnesota], Prints & Photographs Online Catalog. In other words, Taft implied: I came here to talk to you directly and honestly, unlike Bryan, who didn’t stop between big cities and doesn’t have your interests in mind. Taft continued to attack Bryan’s record in the House as a supporter of tariff bills that hurt the working man and policies that prevented democratic discussion of amendments to such legislation. And, Taft continued, when these tariffs negatively affected the economy, what did Bryan do to fix it? Taft claimed that Bryan toured around the country advocating for the silver standard and ignored the needs of “the farmers of the country, who were groaning under a very heavy weight of obligations.” Thankfully, Taft continued, Bryan was defeated and gold remained the standard, something that helped the farmers return to prosperity. [More here on gold versus silver standard, if that’s your thing.]

Taft then espoused the progressive policies of the Republican administration that had directly improved farmers’ lives. He especially focused on the administration’s introduction of free rural mail delivery, which helped to connect farmers to new ideas, keep them up-to-date on news, and reduce the feeling of isolation from which many rural people suffered.

Lake County Times, September 24, 1908, 1,

Taft’s direct appeal to the farmers worked. The Brook Reporter could scarcely believe that “Mr. Taft would notice a small town like Brook.” The Indianapolis News ran the headline: “Brook Now On The Map, Thanks To George Ade.” In November, Hoosier farmers went to the polls. And while the split in the Indiana Republican Party proved fatal to the state ticket, Hoosiers chose Taft by over 10,000 votes. Taft was inaugurated March 4, 1909 as the twenty-seventh President of the United States.

(Richmond) Palladium-Item, November 4, 1908, 1, accessed

Taft’s Indiana stop marked a sea change in campaign strategy. At Hazleden, Taft introduced the political tactics into his repertoire that he would hone through the rest of his tour and helped win him the election. He promoted the Republican platform as a progressive agenda that would benefit farmers and laborers. He crafted a likable, jovial, and personable image by speaking casually and humorously with crowds, while still seriously addressing their concerns. He went on the offense against his opponent in a manner the Baltimore Sun called “aggressive,” stopping in many places where Bryan had recently spoken in order to rebut his opponent’s statements. And perhaps, most importantly, he shook hands and flashed that unbeatable Taft smile at as many voters as his schedule would allow. Through sheer spectacle and tenacity, the man who had squashed labor strikes as a judge was now the candidate of the working man. A little support from Teddy didn’t hurt either, but Taft’s tour of the Midwest shaped him as a speaker and directly led to his election. And the 1908 election became the first where the Republican and Democratic candidates campaigned actively – an irreversible break with convention, as we see each election season through social media, a steady stream of ads, and even late night shows. It’s enough to make you nostalgic for the ol’ front porch.

Newspapers on the Rally

“George Ade’s Rally at Hazelden Farm,” Indianapolis News, September 23, 1908, 1 “George Ade As Sultan,” Buffalo Mourning Express and Illustrated Buffalo Express, September 24, 1908, 3 “Brook Now On The Map, Thanks To George Ade,” Indianapolis News, September 24, 1908, 4 “Taft Appeals To Labor,” Baltimore Sun, September 24, 1908, 2 “Taft Defends His Record On Labor,” New York Times, September 24, 1908, 3, accessed TimesMachine “Taft at Brook,” Brook Reporter, September 25, 1908, 1, accessed

Secondary Sources

Peri E. Arnold, “William Taft,” Miller Center of Public Affairs, University of Virginia,

Jeffrey Bourdon, “‘Just Call Me Bill:’ William Taft Brings Spectacle Politics to the Midwest,” Studies in Midwestern History 2, no. 10 (October 2016): 113-138, accessed Grand Valley State University.

Howard F. McMains, “The Road to George Ade’s Farm: Origins of Taft’s First Campaign Rally, September, 1908,” Indiana Magazine of History 67, no. 4 (December 1971): 318-334, accessed Indiana University.

The Election of the Century

The impending presidential election may be the election of a century. Record primary voting, floods of new registrations, more small campaign donors and highly rated political conventions show that people are intensely interested.

These indicators augur a high turnout. Undoubtedly, more people will vote than the 60 percent who turned out four years ago, which was the highest rate since 1968. The question is, how many more? If participation tops the 1960 level of 64 percent, then we must go all the way back to 1908 — literally a century of American politics — to find the next highest rate: 66 percent.

Lessons from the 1960 and 1908 elections explain why 2008 may see a historical election. Many people recall the 1960 election that pitted two familiar names, Richard Nixon and John F. Kennedy. Kennedy won one of the closest presidential elections in American history. As in sports, people are interested when two contestants are evenly matched. Just like those in 1960, pre-election polls today show a tight race between Barack Obama and John McCain. People perceive that their vote will help determine big issues of peace and prosperity. Further, an African-American or a woman will be elected, for the first time, to one of the country’s highest offices. Contrast this to 1996: People tuned out when pre-election polls showed President Bill Clinton cruising to reelection over Bob Dole.

The 1908 election was not particularly close and did not involve big issues. Republican William Howard Taft won by a landslide over third-time Democratic candidate William Jennings Bryan, whose “free silver” platform had lost its luster. What is notable is that the 1908 election occurred in the twilight of the political machines that dominated American politics throughout the latter half of the 19th century. These machines were built from the bottom up. Local ward bosses, who knew their neighbors intimately, dispensed jobs and favors for votes. (Ward bosses conjure images of big city politics, but rural political machines existed, too.) Political machines even paid supporters’ taxes in states that disenfranchised tax delinquents.

During the machine era, turnout rates routinely exceeded 80 percent. Paying people to vote, however, discomfited many. Progressive Era reforms near the turn of the 20th century rooted out the obvious corruption by creating a civil service to replace patronage jobs and adopting the secret ballot so that political machines could not monitor voting. The 1908 election was among the last where machines could still turn out voters.

There is mounting evidence that political machines had something right: Face-to-face contact is among the most effective means to activate voters. Today’s high-tech campaigns recreate the mobilization capacity of political machines. In place of ward bosses are local volunteers, and in place of bosses’ neighborly knowledge are sophisticated microtargeted voter profiles that reveal which voters are persuadable and which are loyal party supporters. The glue is the Internet, which provides an information infrastructure for campaigns to recruit and communicate with their volunteers.

It is tempting to give Democrats a mobilization edge. Obama’s efforts are highly visible, whereas McCain must rely on the tightlipped Republican National Committee. Obama does not employ the Democratic National Committee for this expensive campaign operation because he opted out of public financing. Indeed, recent presidential candidates — McCain included — usually raise money for voter mobilization through their national parties.


William Howard Taft was born September 15, 1857, in Cincinnati, Ohio, to Alphonso Taft and Louise Torrey. [2] The Taft family was not wealthy, living in a modest home in the suburb of Mount Auburn. Alphonso served as a judge, an ambassador, and as War Secretary and Attorney General under President Ulysses S. Grant. [3]

William Taft was not seen as brilliant as a child, but was a hard worker his demanding parents pushed him and his four brothers toward success, tolerating nothing less. He attended Woodward High School in Cincinnati. At Yale College, which he entered in 1874, the heavyset, jovial Taft was popular and an intramural heavyweight wrestling champion. One classmate said he succeeded through hard work rather than by being the smartest, and had integrity. [4] [5] He was elected a member of Skull and Bones, the Yale secret society co-founded by his father, one of three future presidents (with George H.W. Bush and George W. Bush) to be a member. [6] In 1878, Taft graduated second in his class of 121. [7] He attended Cincinnati Law School, [8] and graduated with a Bachelor of Laws in 1880. While in law school, he worked on The Cincinnati Commercial newspaper, [7] edited by Murat Halstead. Taft was assigned to cover the local courts, and also spent time reading law in his father's office both activities gave him practical knowledge of the law that was not taught in class. Shortly before graduating from law school, Taft went to Columbus to take the bar examination and easily passed. [9]

Ohio lawyer and judge

After admission to the Ohio bar, Taft devoted himself to his job at the Commercial full-time. Halstead was willing to take him on permanently at an increased salary if he would give up the law, but Taft declined. In October 1880, Taft was appointed assistant prosecutor for Hamilton County (where Cincinnati is located), and took office the following January. Taft served for a year as assistant prosecutor, trying his share of routine cases. [10] He resigned in January 1882 after President Chester A. Arthur appointed him Collector of Internal Revenue for Ohio's First District, an area centered on Cincinnati. [11] Taft refused to dismiss competent employees who were politically out of favor, and resigned effective in March 1883, writing to Arthur that he wished to begin private practice in Cincinnati. [12] In 1884, Taft campaigned for the Republican candidate for president, Maine Senator James G. Blaine, who lost to New York Governor Grover Cleveland. [13]

In 1887, Taft, then aged 29, was appointed to a vacancy on the Superior Court of Cincinnati by Governor Joseph B. Foraker. The appointment was good for just over a year, after which he would have to face the voters, and in April 1888, he sought election for the first of three times in his lifetime, the other two being for the presidency. He was elected to a full five-year term. Some two dozen of Taft's opinions as a state judge survive, the most significant being Moores & Co. v. Bricklayers' Union No. 1 [b] (1889) if only because it was used against him when he ran for president in 1908. The case involved bricklayers who refused to work for any firm that dealt with a company called Parker Brothers, with which they were in dispute. Taft ruled that the union's action amounted to a secondary boycott, which was illegal. [14]

It is not clear when Taft met Helen Herron (often called Nellie), but it was no later than 1880, when she mentioned in her diary receiving an invitation to a party from him. By 1884, they were meeting regularly, and in 1885, after an initial rejection, she agreed to marry him. The wedding took place at the Herron home on June 19, 1886. William Taft remained devoted to his wife throughout their almost 44 years of marriage. Nellie Taft pushed her husband much as his parents had, and she could be very frank with her criticisms. [15] [16] The couple had three children, of whom the eldest, Robert, became a U.S. senator. [2]

Solicitor General

There was a seat vacant on the U.S. Supreme Court in 1889, and Governor Foraker suggested President Harrison appoint Taft to fill it. Taft was 32 and his professional goal was always a seat on the Supreme Court. He actively sought the appointment, writing to Foraker to urge the governor to press his case, while stating to others it was unlikely he would get it. Instead, in 1890, Harrison appointed him Solicitor General of the United States. When Taft arrived in Washington in February 1890, the office had been vacant for two months, with the work piling up. He worked to eliminate the backlog, while simultaneously educating himself on federal law and procedure he had not needed as an Ohio state judge. [17]

New York Senator William M. Evarts, a former Secretary of State, had been a classmate of Alphonso Taft at Yale. [c] Evarts called to see his friend's son as soon as Taft took office, and William and Nellie Taft were launched into Washington society. Nellie Taft was ambitious for herself and her husband, and was annoyed when the people he socialized with most were mainly Supreme Court justices, rather than the arbiters of Washington society such as Theodore Roosevelt, John Hay, Henry Cabot Lodge and their wives. [18]

In 1891, Taft introduced a new policy: confession of error, by which the U.S. government would concede a case in the Supreme Court that it had won in the court below but that the solicitor general thought it should have lost. At Taft's request, the Supreme Court reversed a murder conviction that Taft said had been based on inadmissible evidence. The policy continues to this day. [19]

Although Taft was successful as Solicitor General, winning 15 of the 18 cases he argued before the Supreme Court, [2] he was glad when in March 1891, the United States Congress created a new judgeship for each of the United States Courts of Appeal and Harrison appointed him to the Sixth Circuit, based in Cincinnati. In March 1892, Taft resigned as Solicitor General to resume his judicial career. [20]

Federal judge

Taft's federal judgeship was a lifetime appointment, and one from which promotion to the Supreme Court might come. Taft's older half-brother Charles, successful in business, supplemented Taft's government salary, allowing William and Nellie Taft and their family to live in comfort. Taft's duties involved hearing trials in the circuit, which included Ohio, Michigan, Kentucky, and Tennessee, and participating with Supreme Court Justice John Marshall Harlan, the circuit justice, and judges of the Sixth Circuit in hearing appeals. Taft spent these years, from 1892 to 1900, in personal and professional contentment. [21]

According to historian Louis L. Gould, "while Taft shared the fears about social unrest that dominated the middle classes during the 1890s, he was not as conservative as his critics believed. He supported the right of labor to organize and strike, and he ruled against employers in several negligence cases." [2] Among these was Voight v. Baltimore & Ohio Southwestern Railway Co. [d] Taft's decision for a worker injured in a railway accident violated the contemporary doctrine of liberty of contract, and he was reversed by the Supreme Court. [e] On the other hand, Taft's opinion in United States v. Addyston Pipe and Steel Co. [f] was upheld unanimously by the high court. [g] Taft's opinion, in which he held that a pipe manufacturers' association had violated the Sherman Antitrust Act, [22] was described by Henry Pringle, his biographer, as having "definitely and specifically revived" that legislation. [23]

In 1896, Taft became dean and Professor of Property at his alma mater, the Cincinnati Law School, a post that required him to prepare and give two hour-long lectures each week. [24] He was devoted to his law school, and was deeply committed to legal education, introducing the case method to the curriculum. [25] As a federal judge, Taft could not involve himself with politics, but followed it closely, remaining a Republican supporter. He watched with some disbelief as the campaign of Ohio Governor William McKinley developed in 1894 and 1895, writing "I cannot find anybody in Washington who wants him". [25] By March 1896, Taft realized that McKinley would likely be nominated, and was lukewarm in his support. He landed solidly in McKinley's camp after former Nebraska representative William Jennings Bryan in July stampeded the 1896 Democratic National Convention with his Cross of Gold speech. Bryan, both in that address and in his campaign, strongly advocated free silver, a policy that Taft saw as economic radicalism. Taft feared that people would hoard gold in anticipation of a Bryan victory, but he could do nothing but worry. McKinley was elected when a place on the Supreme Court opened in 1898, the only one under McKinley, the president named Joseph McKenna. [26]

From the 1890s until his death, Taft played a major role in the international legal community. He was active in many organizations, was a leader in the worldwide arbitration movement, and taught international law at the Yale Law School. [27] One of the reasons for his bitter break with Roosevelt in 1910–12 was Roosevelt's insistence that arbitration was naïve and that only war could decide major international disputes. [28]

Philippine years

In January 1900, Taft was called to Washington to meet with McKinley. Taft hoped a Supreme Court appointment was in the works, but instead McKinley wanted to place Taft on the commission to organize a civilian government in the Philippines. The appointment would require Taft's resignation from the bench the president assured him that if he fulfilled this task, McKinley would appoint him to the next vacancy on the high court. Taft accepted on condition he was made head of the commission, with responsibility for success or failure McKinley agreed, and Taft sailed for the islands in April 1900. [29]

The American takeover meant the Philippine Revolution bled into the Philippine–American War, as Filipinos fought for their independence, but U.S. forces, led by military governor General Arthur MacArthur Jr. [h] had the upper hand by 1900. MacArthur felt the commission was a nuisance, and their mission a quixotic attempt to impose self-government on a people unready for it. The general was forced to co-operate with Taft, as McKinley had given the commission control over the islands' military budget. [30] The commission took executive power in the Philippines on September 1, 1900 on July 4, 1901, Taft became civilian governor. MacArthur, until then the military governor, was relieved by General Adna Chaffee, who was designated only as commander of American forces. [31]

Taft sought to make the Filipinos partners in a venture that would lead to their self-government he saw independence as something decades off. Many Americans in the Philippines viewed the locals as racial inferiors, but Taft wrote soon before his arrival, "we propose to banish this idea from their minds". [32] Taft did not impose racial segregation at official events, and treated the Filipinos as social equals. [33] Nellie Taft recalled that "neither politics nor race should influence our hospitality in any way". [34]

McKinley was assassinated in September 1901, and was succeeded by Theodore Roosevelt. Taft and Roosevelt had first become friends around 1890 while Taft was Solicitor General and Roosevelt a member of the Civil Service Commission. Taft had, after McKinley's election, urged the appointment of Roosevelt as Assistant Secretary of the Navy, and watched as Roosevelt became a war hero, Governor of New York, and Vice President of the United States. They met again when Taft went to Washington in January 1902 to recuperate after two operations caused by an infection. [35] There, Taft testified before the Senate Committee on the Philippines. Taft wanted Filipino farmers to have a stake in the new government through land ownership, but much of the arable land was held by Catholic religious orders of mostly Spanish priests, which were often resented by the Filipinos. Roosevelt had Taft go to Rome to negotiate with Pope Leo XIII, to purchase the lands and to arrange the withdrawal of the Spanish priests, with Americans replacing them and training locals as clergy. Taft did not succeed in resolving these issues on his visit to Rome, but an agreement on both points was made in 1903. [36]

In late 1902, Taft had heard from Roosevelt that a seat on the Supreme Court would soon fall vacant on the resignation of Justice George Shiras, and Roosevelt desired that Taft fill it. Although this was Taft's professional goal, he refused as he felt his work as governor was not yet done. [37] The following year, Roosevelt asked Taft to become Secretary of War. As the War Department administered the Philippines, Taft would remain responsible for the islands, and Elihu Root, the incumbent, was willing to postpone his departure until 1904, allowing Taft time to wrap up his work in Manila. After consulting with his family, Taft agreed, and sailed for the United States in December 1903. [38]

Secretary of War

When Taft took office as Secretary of War in January 1904, he was not called upon to spend much time administering the army, which the president was content to do himself—Roosevelt wanted Taft as a troubleshooter in difficult situations, as a legal adviser, and to be able to give campaign speeches as he sought election in his own right. Taft strongly defended Roosevelt's record in his addresses, and wrote of the president's successful but strenuous efforts to gain election, "I would not run for president if you guaranteed the office. It is awful to be afraid of one's shadow." [39] [40]

Between 1905 and 1907, Taft came to terms with the likelihood he would be the next Republican nominee for president, though he did not plan to actively campaign for it. When Justice Henry B. Brown resigned in 1905, Taft would not accept the seat although Roosevelt offered it, a position Taft held to when another seat opened in 1906. [41] Edith Roosevelt, the First Lady, disliked the growing closeness between the two men, feeling that they were too much alike and that the president did not gain much from the advice of someone who rarely contradicted him. [42]

Alternatively, Taft wanted to be chief justice, and kept a close eye on the health of the aging incumbent, Melville Fuller, who turned 75 in 1908. Taft believed Fuller likely to live many years. Roosevelt had indicated he was likely to appoint Taft if the opportunity came to fill the court's center seat, but some considered Attorney General Philander Knox a better candidate. In any event, Fuller remained chief justice throughout Roosevelt's presidency. [i] [43]

Through the 1903 separation of Panama from Colombia and the Hay-Bunau-Varilla Treaty, the United States had secured rights to build a canal in the Isthmus of Panama. Legislation authorizing construction did not specify which government department would be responsible, and Roosevelt designated the Department of War. Taft journeyed to Panama in 1904, viewing the canal site and meeting with Panamanian officials. The Isthmian Canal Commission had trouble keeping a chief engineer, and when in February 1907 John F. Stevens submitted his resignation, Taft recommended an army engineer, George W. Goethals. Under Goethals, the project moved ahead smoothly. [44]

Another colony lost by Spain in 1898 was Cuba, but as freedom for Cuba had been a major purpose of the war, it was not annexed by the U.S., but was, after a period of occupation, given independence in 1902. Election fraud and corruption followed, as did factional conflict. In September 1906, President Tomás Estrada Palma asked for U.S. intervention. Taft traveled to Cuba with a small American force, and on September 29, 1906, under the terms of the Cuban–American Treaty of Relations of 1903, declared himself Provisional Governor of Cuba, a post he held for two weeks before being succeeded by Charles Edward Magoon. In his time in Cuba, Taft worked to persuade Cubans that the U.S. intended stability, not occupation. [45]

Taft remained involved in Philippine affairs. During Roosevelt's election campaign in 1904, he urged that Philippine agricultural products be admitted to the U.S. without duty. This caused growers of U.S. sugar and tobacco to complain to Roosevelt, who remonstrated with his Secretary of War. Taft expressed unwillingness to change his position, and threatened to resign [46] Roosevelt hastily dropped the matter. [47] Taft returned to the islands in 1905, leading a delegation of congressmen, and again in 1907, to open the first Philippine Assembly. [48]

On both of his Philippine trips as Secretary of War, Taft went to Japan, and met with officials there. [49] The meeting in July 1905 came a month before the Portsmouth Peace Conference, which would end the Russo-Japanese War with the Treaty of Portsmouth. Taft met with Japanese Prime Minister Katsura Tarō. After that meeting, the two signed a memorandum. It contained nothing new but instead reaffirmed official positions: Japan had no intention to invade the Philippines, and the U.S. that it did not object to Japanese control of Korea. [50] There were U.S. concerns about the number of Japanese laborers coming to the American West Coast, and during Taft's second visit, in September 1907, Tadasu Hayashi, the foreign minister, informally agreed to issue fewer passports to them. [51]

Gaining the nomination

Roosevelt had served almost three and a half years of McKinley's term. On the night of his own election in 1904, Roosevelt publicly declared he would not run for reelection in 1908, a pledge he quickly regretted. But he felt bound by his word. Roosevelt believed Taft was his logical successor, although the War Secretary was initially reluctant to run. [52] Roosevelt used his control of the party machinery to aid his heir apparent. [52] On pain of loss of their jobs, political appointees were required to support Taft or remain silent. [53]

A number of Republican politicians, such as Treasury Secretary George Cortelyou, tested the waters for a run but chose to stay out. New York Governor Charles Evans Hughes ran, but when he made a major policy speech, Roosevelt the same day sent a special message to Congress warning in strong terms against corporate corruption. The resulting coverage of the presidential message relegated Hughes to the back pages. [54] Roosevelt reluctantly deterred repeated attempts to draft him for another term. [55]

Assistant Postmaster General Frank H. Hitchcock resigned from his office in February 1908 to lead the Taft effort. [56] In April, Taft made a speaking tour, traveling as far west as Omaha before being recalled to go to Panama and straighten out a contested election. At the 1908 Republican National Convention in Chicago in June, there was no serious opposition to him, and he gained a first-ballot victory. Yet Taft did not have things his own way: he had hoped his running mate would be a midwestern progressive like Iowa Senator Jonathan Dolliver, but instead the convention named Congressman James S. Sherman of New York, a conservative. Taft resigned as Secretary of War on June 30 to devote himself full-time to the campaign. [57] [58]

General election campaign

Taft's opponent in the general election was Bryan, the Democratic nominee for the third time in four presidential elections. As many of Roosevelt's reforms stemmed from proposals by Bryan, the Democrat argued that he was the true heir to Roosevelt's mantle. Corporate contributions to federal political campaigns had been outlawed by the 1907 Tillman Act, and Bryan proposed that contributions by officers and directors of corporations be similarly banned, or at least disclosed when made. Taft was only willing to see the contributions disclosed after the election, and tried to ensure that officers and directors of corporations litigating with the government were not among his contributors. [59]

Taft began the campaign on the wrong foot, fueling the arguments of those who said he was not his own man by traveling to Roosevelt's home at Sagamore Hill for advice on his acceptance speech, saying that he needed "the President's judgment and criticism". [60] Taft supported most of Roosevelt's policies. He argued that labor had a right to organize, but not boycott, and that corporations and the wealthy must also obey the law. Bryan wanted the railroads to be owned by the government, but Taft preferred that they remain in the private sector, with their maximum rates set by the Interstate Commerce Commission, subject to judicial review. Taft attributed blame for the recent recession, the Panic of 1907, to stock speculation and other abuses, and felt some reform of the currency (the U.S. was on the gold standard) was needed to allow flexibility in the government's response to poor economic times, that specific legislation on trusts was needed to supplement the Sherman Antitrust Act, and that the constitution should be amended to allow for an income tax, thus overruling decisions of the Supreme Court striking such a tax down. Roosevelt's expansive use of executive power had been controversial Taft proposed to continue his policies, but place them on more solid legal underpinnings through the passage of legislation. [61]

Taft upset some progressives by choosing Hitchcock as Chairman of the Republican National Committee (RNC), placing him in charge of the presidential campaign. Hitchcock was quick to bring in men closely allied with big business. [62] Taft took an August vacation in Hot Springs, Virginia, where he irritated political advisors by spending more time on golf than strategy. After seeing a newspaper photo of Taft taking a large swing at a golf ball, Roosevelt warned him against candid shots. [63]

Roosevelt, frustrated by his own relative inaction, showered Taft with advice, fearing that the electorate would not appreciate Taft's qualities, and that Bryan would win. Roosevelt's supporters spread rumors that the president was in effect running Taft's campaign. This annoyed Nellie Taft, who never trusted the Roosevelts. [64] Nevertheless, Roosevelt supported the Republican nominee with such enthusiasm that humorists suggested "TAFT" stood for "Take advice from Theodore". [65]

Bryan urged a system of bank guarantees, so that depositors could be repaid if banks failed, but Taft opposed this, offering a postal savings system instead. [59] The issue of prohibition of alcohol entered the campaign when in mid-September, Carrie Nation called on Taft and demanded to know his views. Taft and Roosevelt had agreed the party platform would take no position on the matter, and Nation left indignant, to allege that Taft was irreligious and against temperance. Taft, at Roosevelt's advice, ignored the issue. [66]

In the end, Taft won by a comfortable margin. Taft defeated Bryan by 321 electoral votes to 162 however, he garnered just 51.6 percent of the popular vote. [67] Nellie Taft said regarding the campaign, "There was nothing to criticize, except his not knowing or caring about the way the game of politics is played." [68] Longtime White House usher Ike Hoover recalled that Taft came often to see Roosevelt during the campaign, but seldom between the election and Inauguration Day, March 4, 1909. [69]

Inauguration and appointments

Taft was sworn in as president on March 4, 1909. Due to a winter storm that coated Washington with ice, Taft was inaugurated within the Senate Chamber rather than outside the Capitol as is customary. The new president stated in his inaugural address that he had been honored to have been "one of the advisers of my distinguished predecessor" and to have had a part "in the reforms he has initiated. I should be untrue to myself, to my promises, and to the declarations of the party platform on which I was elected if I did not make the maintenance and enforcement of those reforms a most important feature of my administration". [70] He pledged to make those reforms long-lasting, ensuring that honest businessmen did not suffer uncertainty through change of policy. He spoke of the need for reduction of the 1897 Dingley Tariff, for antitrust reform, and for continued advancement of the Philippines toward full self-government. [71] Roosevelt left office with regret that his tenure in the position he enjoyed so much was over and, to keep out of Taft's way, arranged for a year-long hunting trip to Africa. [72]

Soon after the Republican convention, Taft and Roosevelt had discussed which cabinet officers would stay on. Taft kept only Agriculture Secretary James Wilson and Postmaster General George von Lengerke Meyer (who was shifted to the Navy Department). Others appointed to the Taft cabinet included Philander Knox, who had served under McKinley and Roosevelt as Attorney General, as the new Secretary of State, and Franklin MacVeagh as Treasury Secretary. [73] [74]

Taft did not enjoy the easy relationship with the press that Roosevelt had, choosing not to offer himself for interviews or photo opportunities as often as his predecessor had. [75] His administration marked a change in style from the charismatic leadership of Roosevelt to Taft's quieter passion for the rule of law. [76]

First Lady's illness

Early in Taft's term, in May 1909, his wife Nellie had a severe stroke that left her paralysed in one arm and one leg and deprived her of the power of speech. Taft spent several hours each day looking after her and teaching her to speak again, which took a year. [77]

Foreign policy

Organization and principles

Taft made it a priority to restructure the State Department, noting, "it is organized on the basis of the needs of the government in 1800 instead of 1900." [78] The Department was for the first time organized into geographical divisions, including desks for the Far East, Latin America and Western Europe. [79] The department's first in-service training program was established, and appointees spent a month in Washington before going to their posts. [80] Taft and Secretary of State Knox had a strong relationship, and the president listened to his counsel on matters foreign and domestic. According to historian Paolo E. Coletta, Knox was not a good diplomat, and had poor relations with the Senate, press, and many foreign leaders, especially those from Latin America. [81]

There was broad agreement between Taft and Knox on major foreign policy goals the U.S. would not interfere in European affairs, and would use force if necessary to enforce the Monroe Doctrine in the Americas. The defense of the Panama Canal, which was under construction throughout Taft's term (it opened in 1914), guided United States foreign policy in the Caribbean and Central America. Previous administrations had made efforts to promote American business interests overseas, but Taft went a step further and used the web of American diplomats and consuls abroad to further trade. Such ties, Taft hoped, would promote world peace. [81] Taft pushed for arbitration treaties with Great Britain and France, but the Senate was not willing to yield to arbitrators its constitutional prerogative to approve treaties. [82]

Tariffs and reciprocity

At the time of Taft's presidency, protectionism through the use of tariffs was a fundamental position of the Republican Party. [83] The Dingley Tariff had been enacted to protect American industry from foreign competition. The 1908 party platform had supported unspecified revisions to the Dingley Act, and Taft interpreted this to mean reductions. Taft called a special session of Congress to convene on March 15, 1909 to deal with the tariff question. [84]

Sereno E. Payne, chairman of the House Ways and Means Committee, had held hearings in late 1908, and sponsored the resulting draft legislation. On balance, the bill reduced tariffs slightly, but when it passed the House in April 1909 and reached the Senate, the chairman of the Senate Finance Committee, Rhode Island Senator Nelson W. Aldrich, attached many amendments raising rates. This outraged progressives such as Wisconsin's Robert M. La Follette, who urged Taft to say that the bill was not in accord with the party platform. Taft refused, angering them. [85] Taft insisted that most imports from the Philippines be free of duty, and according to Anderson, showed effective leadership on a subject he was knowledgeable on and cared about. [86]

When opponents sought to modify the tariff bill to allow for an income tax, Taft opposed it on the ground that the Supreme Court would likely strike it down as unconstitutional, as it had before. Instead, they proposed a constitutional amendment, which passed both houses in early July, was sent to the states, and by 1913 was ratified as the Sixteenth Amendment. In the conference committee, Taft won some victories, such as limiting the tax on lumber. The conference report passed both houses, and Taft signed it on August 6, 1909. The Payne-Aldrich tariff was immediately controversial. According to Coletta, "Taft had lost the initiative, and the wounds inflicted in the acrid tariff debate never healed". [87]

In Taft's annual message sent to Congress in December 1910, he urged a free trade accord with Canada. Britain at that time still handled Canada's foreign relations, and Taft found the British and Canadian governments willing. Many in Canada opposed an accord, fearing the U.S. would dump it when convenient as it had the 1854 Elgin-Marcy Treaty in 1866, and farm and fisheries interests in the United States were also opposed. After January 1911 talks with Canadian officials, Taft had the agreement, which was not a treaty, introduced into Congress and it passed in late July. The Parliament of Canada, led by Prime Minister Sir Wilfrid Laurier, had deadlocked over the issue. Canadians turned Laurier out of office in the September 1911 election and Robert Borden became the new prime minister. No cross-border agreement was concluded, and the debate deepened divisions in the Republican Party. [88] [89]

Latin America

Taft and his Secretary of State, Philander Knox, instituted a policy of Dollar Diplomacy towards Latin America, believing U.S. investment would benefit all involved, while diminishing European influence in regions where the Monroe Doctrine applied. The policy was unpopular among Latin American states that did not wish to become financial protectorates of the United States, as well as in the U.S. Senate, many of whose members believed the U.S. should not interfere abroad. [90] No foreign affairs controversy tested Taft's policy more than the collapse of the Mexican regime and subsequent turmoil of the Mexican Revolution. [91]

When Taft entered office, Mexico was increasingly restless under the grip of longtime dictator Porfirio Díaz. Many Mexicans backed his opponent, Francisco Madero. [92] There were a number of incidents in which Mexican rebels crossed the U.S. border to obtain horses and weapons Taft sought to prevent this by ordering the US Army to the border areas for maneuvers. Taft told his military aide, Archibald Butt, that "I am going to sit on the lid and it will take a great deal to pry me off". [93] He showed his support for Díaz by meeting with him at El Paso, Texas, and Ciudad Juárez, Mexico, the first meeting between a U.S. and a Mexican president and also the first time an American president visited Mexico. [94] The day of the summit, Frederick Russell Burnham and a Texas Ranger captured and disarmed an assassin holding a palm pistol only a few feet from the two presidents. [94] Before the election in Mexico, Díaz jailed opposition candidate Madero, whose supporters took up arms. This resulted in both the ousting of Díaz and a revolution that would continue for another ten years. In the U.S.'s Arizona Territory, two citizens were killed and almost a dozen injured, some as a result of gunfire across the border. Taft was against an aggressive response and so instructed the territorial governor. [91]

Nicaragua's president, José Santos Zelaya, wanted to revoke commercial concessions granted to American companies, [j] and American diplomats quietly favored rebel forces under Juan Estrada. [95] Nicaragua was in debt to foreign powers, and the U.S. was unwilling that an alternate canal route fall into the hands of Europeans. Zelaya's elected successor, José Madriz, could not put down the rebellion as U.S. forces interfered, and in August 1910, the Estrada forces took Managua, the capital. The U.S. compelled Nicaragua to accept a loan, and sent officials to ensure it was repaid from government revenues. The country remained unstable, and after another coup in 1911 and more disturbances in 1912, Taft sent troops to begin the United States occupation of Nicaragua, which lasted until 1933. [96] [97]

Treaties among Panama, Colombia, and the United States to resolve disputes arising from the Panamanian Revolution of 1903 had been signed by the lame-duck Roosevelt administration in early 1909, and were approved by the Senate and also ratified by Panama. Colombia, however, declined to ratify the treaties, and after the 1912 elections, Knox offered $10 million to the Colombians (later raised to $25 million). The Colombians felt the amount inadequate, and requested arbitration the matter was not settled under the Taft administration. [98]

East Asia

Due to his years in the Philippines, Taft was keenly interested as president in East Asian affairs. [99] Taft considered relations with Europe relatively unimportant, but because of the potential for trade and investment, Taft ranked the post of minister to China as most important in the Foreign Service. Knox did not agree, and declined a suggestion that he go to Peking to view the facts on the ground. Taft considered Roosevelt's minister there, William W. Rockhill, as uninterested in the China trade, and replaced him with William J. Calhoun, whom McKinley and Roosevelt had sent on several foreign missions. Knox did not listen to Calhoun on policy, and there were often conflicts. [100] Taft and Knox tried unsuccessfully to extend John Hay's Open Door Policy to Manchuria. [101]

In 1898, an American company had gained a concession for a railroad between Hankow and Szechuan, but the Chinese revoked the agreement in 1904 after the company (which was indemnified for the revocation) breached the agreement by selling a majority stake outside the United States. The Chinese imperial government got the money for the indemnity from the British Hong Kong government, on condition British subjects would be favored if foreign capital was needed to build the railroad line, and in 1909, a British-led consortium began negotiations. [102] This came to Knox's attention in May of that year, and he demanded that U.S. banks be allowed to participate. Taft appealed personally to the Prince Regent, Zaifeng, Prince Chun, and was successful in gaining U.S. participation, though agreements were not signed until May 1911. [103] However, the Chinese decree authorizing the agreement also required the nationalization of local railroad companies in the affected provinces. Inadequate compensation was paid to the shareholders, and these grievances were among those which touched off the Chinese Revolution of 1911. [104] [105]

After the revolution broke out, the revolt's leaders chose Sun Yat-sen as provisional president of what became the Republic of China, overthrowing the Manchu dynasty, Taft was reluctant to recognize the new government, although American public opinion was in favor of it. The U.S. House of Representatives in February 1912 passed a resolution supporting a Chinese republic, but Taft and Knox felt recognition should come as a concerted action by Western powers. Taft in his final annual message to Congress in December 1912 indicated that he was moving towards recognition once the republic was fully established, but by then he had been defeated for reelection and he did not follow through. [106] Taft continued the policy against immigration from China and Japan as under Roosevelt. A revised treaty of friendship and navigation entered into by the U.S. and Japan in 1911 granted broad reciprocal rights to Japanese people in America and Americans in Japan, but were premised on the continuation of the Gentlemen's Agreement. There was objection on the West Coast when the treaty was submitted to the Senate, but Taft informed politicians that there was no change in immigration policy. [107]


Taft was opposed to the traditional practice of rewarding wealthy supporters with key ambassadorial posts, preferring that diplomats not live in a lavish lifestyle and selecting men who, as Taft put it, would recognize an American when they saw one. High on his list for dismissal was the ambassador to France, Henry White, whom Taft knew and disliked from his visits to Europe. White's ousting caused other career State Department employees to fear that their jobs might be lost to politics. Taft also wanted to replace the Roosevelt-appointed ambassador in London, Whitelaw Reid, but Reid, owner of the New-York Tribune, had backed Taft during the campaign, and both William and Nellie Taft enjoyed his gossipy reports. Reid remained in place until his 1912 death. [108]

Taft was a supporter of settling international disputes by arbitration, and he negotiated treaties with Great Britain and with France providing that differences be arbitrated. These were signed in August 1911. Neither Taft nor Knox (a former senator) consulted with members of the Senate during the negotiating process. By then many Republicans were opposed to Taft and the president felt that lobbying too hard for the treaties might cause their defeat. He made some speeches supporting the treaties in October, but the Senate added amendments Taft could not accept, killing the agreements. [109]

Although no general arbitration treaty was entered into, Taft's administration settled several disputes with Great Britain by peaceful means, often involving arbitration. These included a settlement of the boundary between Maine and New Brunswick, a long-running dispute over seal hunting in the Bering Sea that also involved Japan, and a similar disagreement regarding fishing off Newfoundland. The sealing convention remained in force until abrogated by Japan in 1940. [110]

Domestic policies and politics


Taft continued and expanded Roosevelt's efforts to break up business combinations through lawsuits brought under the Sherman Antitrust Act, bringing 70 cases in four years (Roosevelt had brought 40 in seven years). Suits brought against the Standard Oil Company and the American Tobacco Company, initiated under Roosevelt, were decided in favor of the government by the Supreme Court in 1911. [111] In June 1911, the Democrat-controlled House of Representatives began hearings into United States Steel (U.S. Steel). That company had been expanded under Roosevelt, who had supported its acquisition of the Tennessee Coal, Iron, and Railroad Company as a means of preventing the deepening of the Panic of 1907, a decision the former president defended when testifying at the hearings. Taft, as Secretary of War, had praised the acquisitions. [112] Historian Louis L. Gould suggested that Roosevelt was likely deceived into believing that U.S. Steel did not want to purchase the Tennessee company, but it was in fact a bargain. For Roosevelt, questioning the matter went to his personal honesty. [113]

In October 1911, Taft's Justice Department brought suit against U.S. Steel, demanding that over a hundred of its subsidiaries be granted corporate independence, and naming as defendants many prominent business executives and financiers. The pleadings in the case had not been reviewed by Taft, and alleged that Roosevelt "had fostered monopoly, and had been duped by clever industrialists". [112] Roosevelt was offended by the references to him and his administration in the pleadings, and felt that Taft could not evade command responsibility by saying he did not know of them. [114]

Taft sent a special message to Congress on the need for a revamped antitrust statute when it convened its regular session in December 1911, but it took no action. Another antitrust case that had political repercussions for Taft was that brought against the International Harvester Company, the large manufacturer of farm equipment, in early 1912. As Roosevelt's administration had investigated International Harvester, but had taken no action (a decision Taft had supported), the suit became caught up in Roosevelt's challenge for the Republican presidential nomination. Supporters of Taft alleged that Roosevelt had acted improperly the former president blasted Taft for waiting three and a half years, and until he was under challenge, to reverse a decision he had supported. [115]

Ballinger–Pinchot affair

Roosevelt was an ardent conservationist, assisted in this by like-minded appointees, including Interior Secretary James R. Garfield [k] and Chief Forester Gifford Pinchot. Taft agreed with the need for conservation, but felt it should be accomplished by legislation rather than executive order. He did not retain Garfield, an Ohioan, as secretary, choosing instead a westerner, former Seattle mayor Richard A. Ballinger. Roosevelt was surprised at the replacement, believing that Taft had promised to keep Garfield, and this change was one of the events that caused Roosevelt to realize that Taft would choose different policies. [116]

Roosevelt had withdrawn much land from the public domain, including some in Alaska thought rich in coal. In 1902, Clarence Cunningham, an Idaho entrepreneur, had found coal deposits in Alaska, and made mining claims, and the government investigated their legality. This dragged on for the remainder of the Roosevelt administration, including during the year (1907–1908) when Ballinger served as head of the General Land Office. [117] A special agent for the Land Office, Louis Glavis, investigated the Cunningham claims, and when Secretary Ballinger in 1909 approved them, Glavis broke governmental protocol by going outside the Interior Department to seek help from Pinchot. [118]

In September 1909, Glavis made his allegations public in a magazine article, disclosing that Ballinger had acted as an attorney for Cunningham between his two periods of government service. This violated conflict of interest rules forbidding a former government official from advocacy on a matter he had been responsible for. [119] On September 13, 1909 Taft dismissed Glavis from government service, relying on a report from Attorney General George W. Wickersham dated two days previously. [120] Pinchot was determined to dramatize the issue by forcing his own dismissal, which Taft tried to avoid, fearing that it might cause a break with Roosevelt (still overseas). Taft asked Elihu Root (by then a senator) to look into the matter, and Root urged the firing of Pinchot. [119]

Taft had ordered government officials not to comment on the fracas. [121] In January 1910, Pinchot forced the issue by sending a letter to Iowa Senator Dolliver alleging that but for the actions of the Forestry Service, Taft would have approved a fraudulent claim on public lands. According to Pringle, this "was an utterly improper appeal from an executive subordinate to the legislative branch of the government and an unhappy president prepared to separate Pinchot from public office". [122] Pinchot was dismissed, much to his delight, and he sailed for Europe to lay his case before Roosevelt. [123] A congressional investigation followed, which cleared Ballinger by majority vote, but the administration was embarrassed when Glavis' attorney, Louis D. Brandeis, proved that the Wickersham report had been backdated, which Taft belatedly admitted. The Ballinger–Pinchot affair caused progressives and Roosevelt loyalists to feel that Taft had turned his back on Roosevelt's agenda. [124]

Civil rights

Taft announced in his inaugural address that he would not appoint African Americans to federal jobs, such as postmaster, where this would cause racial friction. This differed from Roosevelt, who would not remove or replace black officeholders with whom local whites would not deal. Termed Taft's "Southern Policy", this stance effectively invited white protests against black appointees. Taft followed through, removing most black office holders in the South, and made few appointments of African Americans in the North. [125]

At the time Taft was inaugurated, the way forward for African Americans was debated by their leaders. Booker T. Washington felt that most blacks should be trained for industrial work, with only a few seeking higher education W. E. B. DuBois took a more militant stand for equality. Taft tended towards Washington's approach. According to Coletta, Taft let the African-American "be 'kept in his place' . He thus failed to see or follow the humanitarian mission historically associated with the Republican party, with the result that Negroes both North and South began to drift toward the Democratic party." [126]

Taft, a Unitarian, was a leader in the early 20th century of the favorable reappraisal of Catholicism's historic role. It tended to neutralize anti-Catholic sentiments, especially in the Far West where Protestantism was a weak force. In 1904 Taft gave a speech at the University of Notre Dame. He praised the "enterprise, courage, and fidelity to duty that distinguished those heroes of Spain who braved the then frightful dangers of the deep to carry Christianity and European civilization into" the Philippines. In 1909 he praised Junípero Serra as an "apostle, legislator, [and] builder" who advanced "the beginning of civilization in California." [127]

A supporter of free immigration, Taft vetoed a bill passed by Congress and supported by labor unions that would have restricted unskilled laborers by imposing a literacy test. [128]

Judicial appointments

Taft made six appointments to the Supreme Court only George Washington and Franklin D. Roosevelt have made more. [129] The death of Justice Rufus Peckham in October 1909 gave Taft his first opportunity. He chose an old friend and colleague from the Sixth Circuit, Horace H. Lurton of Georgia he had in vain urged Theodore Roosevelt to appoint Lurton to the high court. Attorney General Wickersham objected that Lurton, a former Confederate soldier and a Democrat, was aged 65. Taft named Lurton anyway on December 13, 1909, and the Senate confirmed him by voice vote a week later. Lurton is still the oldest person to be made an associate justice. [l] Lurie suggested that Taft, already beset by the tariff and conservation controversies, desired to perform an official act which gave him pleasure, especially since he thought Lurton deserved it. [130]

Justice David Josiah Brewer's death on March 28, 1910 gave Taft a second opportunity to fill a seat on the high court he chose New York Governor Charles Evans Hughes. Taft told Hughes that should the chief justiceship fall vacant during his term, Hughes would be his likely choice for the center seat. The Senate quickly confirmed Hughes, but then Chief Justice Fuller died on July 4, 1910. Taft took five months to replace Fuller, and when he did, it was with Justice Edward Douglass White, who became the first associate justice to be promoted to chief justice. [m] According to Lurie, Taft, who still had hopes of being chief justice, may have been more willing to appoint an older man than he (White) than a younger one (Hughes), who might outlive him, as indeed Hughes did. To fill White's seat as associate justice, Taft appointed Willis Van Devanter of Wyoming, a federal appeals judge. By the time Taft nominated White and Van Devanter in December 1910, he had another seat to fill due to William Henry Moody's retirement because of illness he named a Louisiana Democrat, Joseph R. Lamar, whom he had met while playing golf, and had subsequently learned had a good reputation as a judge. [131]

With the death of Justice Harlan in October 1911, Taft got to fill a sixth seat on the Supreme Court. After Secretary Knox declined appointment, Taft named Chancellor of New Jersey Mahlon Pitney, the last person appointed to the Supreme Court who did not attend law school. [132] Pitney had a stronger anti-labor record than Taft's other appointments, and was the only one to meet opposition, winning confirmation by a Senate vote of 50–26. [133]

Taft appointed 13 judges to the federal courts of appeal and 38 to the United States district courts. Taft also appointed judges to various specialized courts, including the first five appointees each to the United States Commerce Court and the United States Court of Customs Appeals. [134] The Commerce Court, created in 1910, stemmed from a Taft proposal for a specialized court to hear appeals from the Interstate Commerce Commission. There was considerable opposition to its establishment, which only grew when one of its judges, Robert W. Archbald, was in 1912 impeached for corruption and removed by the Senate the following January. Taft vetoed a bill to abolish the court, but the respite was short-lived as Woodrow Wilson signed similar legislation in October 1913. [135]

1912 presidential campaign and election

Moving apart from Roosevelt

During Roosevelt's fifteen months beyond the Atlantic, from March 1909 to June 1910, neither man wrote much to the other. Taft biographer Lurie suggested that each expected the other to make the first move to re-establish their relationship on a new footing. Upon Roosevelt's triumphant return, Taft invited him to stay at the White House. The former president declined, and in private letters to friends expressed dissatisfaction at Taft's performance. Nevertheless, he wrote that he expected Taft to be renominated by the Republicans in 1912, and did not speak of himself as a candidate. [136]

Taft and Roosevelt met twice in 1910 the meetings, though outwardly cordial, did not display their former closeness. [137] Roosevelt gave a series of speeches in the West in the late summer and early fall of 1910. Roosevelt not only attacked the Supreme Court's 1905 decision in Lochner v. New York, [n] he accused the federal courts of undermining democracy, and called for them to be deprived of the power to rule legislation unconstitutional. This attack horrified Taft, who privately agreed that Lochner had been wrongly decided. Roosevelt called for "elimination of corporate expenditures for political purposes, physical valuation of railroad properties, regulation of industrial combinations, establishment of an export tariff commission, a graduated income tax" as well as "workmen's compensation laws, state and national legislation to regulate the [labor] of women and children, and complete publicity of campaign expenditure". [138] According to John Murphy in his journal article on the breach between the two presidents, "As Roosevelt began to move to the left, Taft veered to the right." [138]

During the 1910 midterm election campaign, Roosevelt involved himself in New York politics, while Taft with donations and influence tried to secure the election of the Republican gubernatorial candidate in Ohio, former lieutenant governor Warren G. Harding. The Republicans suffered losses in the 1910 elections as the Democrats took control of the House and slashed the Republican majority in the Senate. In New Jersey, Democrat Woodrow Wilson was elected governor, and Harding lost his race in Ohio. [137]

After the election, Roosevelt continued to promote progressive ideals, a New Nationalism, much to Taft's dismay. Roosevelt attacked his successor's administration, arguing that its guiding principles were not that of the party of Lincoln, but those of the Gilded Age. [139] The feud continued on and off through 1911, a year in which there were few elections of significance. Wisconsin Senator La Follette announced a presidential run as a Republican, and was backed by a convention of progressives. Roosevelt began to move into a position for a run in late 1911, writing that the tradition that presidents not run for a third term only applied to consecutive terms. [140]

Roosevelt was receiving many letters from supporters urging him to run, and Republican office-holders were organizing on his behalf. Balked on many policies by an unwilling Congress and courts in his full term in the White House, he saw manifestations of public support he believed would sweep him to the White House with a mandate for progressive policies that would brook no opposition. [141] In February, Roosevelt announced he would accept the Republican nomination if it was offered to him. Taft felt that if he lost in November, it would be a repudiation of the party, but if he lost renomination, it would be a rejection of himself. [142] He was reluctant to oppose Roosevelt, who helped make him president, but having become president, he was determined to be president, and that meant not standing aside to allow Roosevelt to gain another term. [143]

Primaries and convention

As Roosevelt became more radical in his progressivism, Taft was hardened in his resolve to achieve re-nomination, as he was convinced that the progressives threatened the very foundation of the government. [144] One blow to Taft was the loss of Archibald Butt, one of the last links between the previous and present presidents, as Butt had formerly served Roosevelt. Ambivalent between his loyalties, Butt went to Europe on vacation he died in the sinking of the RMS Titanic. [145]

Roosevelt dominated the primaries, winning 278 of the 362 delegates to the Republican National Convention in Chicago decided in that manner. Taft had control of the party machinery, and it came as no surprise that he gained the bulk of the delegates decided at district or state conventions. [146] Taft did not have a majority, but was likely to have one once southern delegations committed to him. Roosevelt challenged the election of these delegates, but the RNC overruled most objections. Roosevelt's sole remaining chance was with a friendly convention chairman, who might make rulings on the seating of delegates that favored his side. Taft followed custom and remained in Washington, but Roosevelt went to Chicago to run his campaign [147] and told his supporters in a speech, "we stand at Armageddon, and we battle for the Lord". [148] [149]

Taft had won over Root, who agreed to run for temporary chairman of the convention, and the delegates elected Root over Roosevelt's candidate. [148] The Roosevelt forces moved to substitute the delegates they supported for the ones they argued should not be seated. Root made a crucial ruling, that although the contested delegates could not vote on their own seating, they could vote on the other contested delegates, a ruling that assured Taft's nomination, as the motion offered by the Roosevelt forces failed, 567–507. [150] As it became clear Roosevelt would bolt the party if not nominated, some Republicans sought a compromise candidate to avert electoral disaster they failed. [151] Taft's name was placed in nomination by Warren Harding, whose attempts to praise Taft and unify the party were met with angry interruptions from progressives. [152] Taft was nominated on the first ballot, though most Roosevelt delegates refused to vote. [150]

Campaign and defeat

Alleging Taft had stolen the nomination, Roosevelt and his followers formed the Progressive Party. [o] [153] Taft knew he would lose, but concluded that through Roosevelt's loss at Chicago the party had been preserved as "the defender of conservative government and conservative institutions." [154] He made his doomed run to preserve conservative control of the Republican Party. [155] Governor Woodrow Wilson was the Democratic nominee. Seeing Roosevelt as the greater electoral threat, Wilson spent little time attacking Taft, arguing that Roosevelt had been lukewarm in opposing the trusts during his presidency, and that Wilson was the true reformer. [156] Taft contrasted what he called his "progressive conservatism" with Roosevelt's Progressive democracy, which to Taft represented "the establishment of a benevolent despotism." [157]

Reverting to the pre-1888 custom that presidents seeking reelection did not campaign, Taft spoke publicly only once, making his nomination acceptance speech on August 1. [158] He had difficulty in financing the campaign, as many industrialists had concluded he could not win, and would support Wilson to block Roosevelt. The president issued a confident statement in September after the Republicans narrowly won Vermont's state elections in a three-way fight, but had no illusions he would win his race. [159] He had hoped to send his cabinet officers out on the campaign trail, but found them reluctant to go. Senator Root agreed to give a single speech for him. [160]

Vice President Sherman had been renominated at Chicago seriously ill during the campaign, he died six days before the election, [p] and was replaced on the ticket by the president of Columbia University, Nicholas Murray Butler. But few electors chose Taft and Butler, who won only Utah and Vermont, for a total of eight electoral votes. [q] Roosevelt won 88, and Wilson 435. Wilson won with a plurality—not a majority—of the popular vote. Taft finished with just under 3.5 million, over 600,000 less than the former president. [161] Taft was not on the ballot in California, due to the actions of local Progressives, nor in South Dakota. [162]

With no pension or other compensation to expect from the government after leaving the White House, Taft contemplated a return to the practice of law, from which he had long been absent. Given that Taft had appointed many federal judges, including a majority of the Supreme Court, this would raise questions of conflict of interest at every federal court appearance and he was saved from this by an offer for him to become Kent Professor of Law and Legal History at Yale Law School. He accepted, and after a month's vacation in Georgia, arrived in New Haven on April 1, 1913 to a rapturous reception. As it was too late in the semester for him to give an academic course, he instead prepared eight lectures on "Questions of Modern Government", which he delivered in May. [163] He earned money with paid speeches and with articles for magazines, and would end his eight years out of office having increased his savings. [164] While at Yale, he wrote the treatise, Our Chief Magistrate and His Powers (1916). [165]

Taft had been made president of the Lincoln Memorial Commission while still in office when Democrats proposed removing him for one of their party, he quipped that unlike losing the presidency, such a removal would hurt. The architect, Henry Bacon, wanted to use Colorado-Yule marble, while southern Democrats urged using Georgia marble. Taft lobbied for the western stone, and the matter was submitted to the Commission of Fine Arts, which supported Taft and Bacon. The project went forward Taft would dedicate the Lincoln Memorial as chief justice in 1922. [166] In 1913, Taft was elected to a one-year term as president of the American Bar Association (ABA), a trade group of lawyers. He removed opponents, such as Louis Brandeis and University of Pennsylvania Law School dean William Draper Lewis (a supporter of the Progressive Party) from committees. [167]

Taft maintained a cordial relationship with Wilson. The former president privately criticized his successor on a number of issues, but made his views known publicly only on Philippine policy. Taft was appalled when, after Justice Lamar's death in January 1916, Wilson nominated Brandeis, whom the former president had never forgiven for his role in the Ballinger–Pinchot affair. When hearings led to nothing discreditable about Brandeis, Taft intervened with a letter signed by himself and other former ABA presidents, stating that Brandeis was not fit to serve on the Supreme Court. Nevertheless, the Democratic-controlled Senate confirmed Brandeis. [168] Taft and Roosevelt remained embittered they met only once in the first three years of the Wilson presidency, at a funeral at Yale. They spoke only for a moment, politely but formally. [169]

As president of the League to Enforce Peace, Taft hoped to prevent war through an international association of nations. With World War I raging in Europe, Taft sent Wilson a note of support for his foreign policy in 1915. [170] President Wilson accepted Taft's invitation to address the league, and spoke in May 1916 of a postwar international organization that could prevent a repetition. [171] Taft supported the effort to get Justice Hughes to resign from the bench and accept the Republican presidential nomination. Once this was done, Hughes tried to get Roosevelt and Taft to reconcile, as a united effort was needed to defeat Wilson. This occurred on October 3 in New York, but Roosevelt allowed only a handshake, and no words were exchanged. This was one of many difficulties for the Republicans in the campaign, and Wilson narrowly won reelection. [172]

In March 1917, Taft demonstrated public support for the war effort by joining the Connecticut State Guard, a state defense force organized to carry out the state duties of the Connecticut National Guard while the National Guard served on active duty. [173] When Wilson asked Congress to declare war on Germany in April 1917, Taft was an enthusiastic supporter he was chairman of the American Red Cross' executive committee, which occupied much of the former president's time. [174] In August 1917, Wilson conferred military titles on executives of the Red Cross as a way to provide them with additional authority to use in carrying out their wartime responsibilities, and Taft was appointed a major general. [175]

During the war, Taft took leave from Yale in order to serve as co-chairman of the National War Labor Board, tasked with assuring good relations between industry owners and their workers. [176] In February 1918, the new RNC chairman, Will H. Hays, approached Taft seeking his reconciliation with Roosevelt. At a dinner in the two men embraced, but the relationship did not progress Roosevelt died in January 1919. [177] Taft later wrote, "Had he died in a hostile state of mind toward me, I would have mourned the fact all my life. I loved him always and cherish his memory." [178]

When Wilson proposed establishment of a League of Nations, Taft expressed public support. He was the leader of his party's activist wing, and was opposed by a small group of senators who vigorously opposed the League. Taft's flip-flop on whether reservations to the Versailles Treaty were necessary angered both sides, causing some Republicans to call him a Wilson supporter and a traitor to his party. The Senate refused to ratify the Versailles pact. [179]


During the 1920 election campaign, Taft supported the Republican ticket, Harding (by then a senator) and Massachusetts Governor Calvin Coolidge they were elected. [180] Taft was among those asked to come to the president-elect's home in Marion, Ohio to advise him on appointments, and the two men conferred there on December 24, 1920. By Taft's later account, after some conversation, Harding casually asked if Taft would accept appointment to the Supreme Court if Taft would, Harding would appoint him. Taft had a condition for Harding—having served as president, and having appointed two of the present associate justices and opposed Brandeis, he could accept only the chief justice position. Harding made no response, and Taft in a thank-you note reiterated the condition and stated that Chief Justice White had often told him he was keeping the position for Taft until a Republican held the White House. In January 1921, Taft heard through intermediaries that Harding planned to appoint him, if given the chance. [181]

White by then was in failing health, but made no move to resign when Harding was sworn in on March 4, 1921. [182] Taft called on the chief justice on March 26, and found White ill, but still carrying on his work and not talking of retiring. [183] White did not retire, dying in office on May 19, 1921. Taft issued a tribute to the man he had appointed to the center seat, and waited and worried if he would be White's successor. Despite widespread speculation Taft would be the pick, Harding made no quick announcement. [184] Taft was lobbying for himself behind the scenes, especially with the Ohio politicians who formed Harding's inner circle. [185]

It later emerged that Harding had also promised former Utah senator George Sutherland a seat on the Supreme Court, and was waiting in the expectation that another place would become vacant. [r] [186] Harding was also considering a proposal by Justice William R. Day to crown his career by being chief justice for six months before retiring. Taft felt, when he learned of this plan, that a short-term appointment would not serve the office well, and that once confirmed by the Senate, the memory of Day would grow dim. After Harding rejected Day's plan, Attorney General Harry Daugherty, who supported Taft's candidacy, urged him to fill the vacancy, and he named Taft on June 30, 1921. [184] The Senate confirmed Taft the same day, 61–4, without any committee hearings and after a brief debate in executive session. Taft drew the objections of three progressive Republicans and one southern Democrat. [s] [187] When he was sworn in on July 11, he became the first and to date only person to serve both as president and chief justice. [2]

Taft Court membership timeline

McKinley appointment T. Roosevelt appointment Taft appointment Wilson appointment Harding appointment Coolidge appointment


Commerce Clause

The Supreme Court under Taft compiled a conservative record in Commerce Clause jurisprudence. This had the practical effect of making it difficult for the federal government to regulate industry, and the Taft Court also scuttled many state laws. The few liberals on the court—Brandeis, Holmes, and (from 1925) Harlan Fiske Stone—sometimes protested, believing orderly progress essential, but often joined in the majority opinion. [188]

The White Court had, in 1918, struck down an attempt by Congress to regulate child labor in Hammer v. Dagenhart. [t] [189] Congress thereafter attempted to end child labor by imposing a tax on certain corporations making use of it. That law was overturned by the Supreme Court in 1922 in Bailey v. Drexel Furniture Co., with Taft writing the court's opinion for an 8–1 majority. [u] He held that the tax was not intended to raise revenue, but rather was an attempt to regulate matters reserved to the states under the Tenth Amendment, [190] and that allowing such taxation would eliminate the power of the states. [2] One case in which Taft and his court upheld federal regulation was Stafford v. Wallace. Taft ruled for a 7–1 majority [v] that the processing of animals in stockyards was so closely tied to interstate commerce as to bring it within the ambit of Congress's power to regulate. [191]

A case in which the Taft Court struck down regulation that generated a dissent from the chief justice was Adkins v. Children's Hospital. [w] Congress had decreed a minimum wage for women in the District of Columbia. A 5–3 majority of the Supreme Court struck it down. Justice Sutherland wrote for the majority that the recently ratified Nineteenth Amendment, guaranteeing women the vote, meant that the sexes were equal when it came to bargaining power over working conditions Taft, in dissent, deemed this unrealistic. [192] Taft's dissent in Adkins was rare both because he authored few dissents, and because it was one of the few times he took an expansive view of the police power of the government. [193]

Powers of government

In 1922, Taft ruled for a unanimous court in Balzac v. Porto Rico. [x] One of the Insular Cases, Balzac involved a Puerto Rico newspaper publisher who was prosecuted for libel but denied a jury trial, a Sixth Amendment protection under the constitution. Taft held that as Puerto Rico was not a territory designated for statehood, only such constitutional protections as Congress decreed would apply to its residents. [194]

In 1926, Taft wrote for a 6–3 majority in Myers v. United States [y] that Congress could not require the president to get Senate approval before removing an appointee. Taft noted that there is no restriction of the president's power to remove officials in the constitution. Although Myers involved the removal of a postmaster, [195] Taft in his opinion found invalid the repealed Tenure of Office Act, for violation of which his presidential predecessor, Andrew Johnson, had been impeached, though acquitted by the Senate. [196] Taft valued Myers as his most important opinion. [197]

The following year, the court decided McGrain v. Daugherty. [z] A congressional committee investigating possible complicity of former Attorney General Daugherty in the Teapot Dome scandal subpoenaed records from his brother, Mally, who refused to provide them, alleging Congress had no power to obtain documents from him. Van Devanter ruled for a unanimous court against him, finding that Congress had the authority to conduct investigations as an auxiliary to its legislative function. [198]

Individual and civil rights

In 1925, the Taft Court laid the groundwork for the incorporation of many of the guarantees of the Bill of Rights to be applied against the states through the Fourteenth Amendment. In Gitlow v. New York, [aa] the court by a 6–2 vote with Taft in the majority, upheld Gitlow's conviction on criminal anarchy charges for advocating the overthrow of the government his defense was freedom of speech. Justice Edward T. Sanford wrote the court's opinion, and both majority and minority (Holmes, joined by Brandeis) assumed that the First Amendment's Free Speech and Free Press clauses were protected against infringement by the states. [199]

Pierce v. Society of Sisters [ab] was a 1925 decision by the Taft Court striking down an Oregon law banning private schools. In a decision written by Justice James C. McReynolds, a unanimous court held that Oregon could regulate private schools, but could not eliminate them. The outcome supported the right of parents to control the education of their children, but also, since the lead plaintiff (the society) ran Catholic schools, struck a blow for religious freedom. [199]

United States v. Lanza [ac] was one of a series of cases involving Prohibition. Lanza committed acts allegedly in violation of both state and federal law, and was first convicted in Washington state court, then prosecuted in federal district court. He alleged the second prosecution in violation of the Double Jeopardy Clause of the Fifth Amendment. Taft, for a unanimous court, allowed the second prosecution, holding that the state and federal governments were dual sovereigns, each empowered to prosecute the conduct in question. [200]

In the 1927 case Lum v. Rice, [ad] Taft wrote for a unanimous Court that included liberals Holmes, Brandeis and Stone. The ruling held the exclusion on account of race of a child of Chinese ancestry from a whites-only public school did not violate the Fourteenth Amendment to the United States Constitution. This allowed states to extend segregation in public schools to Chinese students. [201]

Administration and political influence

Taft exercised the power of his position to influence the decisions of his colleagues, urging unanimity and discouraging dissents. Alpheus Mason, in his article on Chief Justice Taft for the American Bar Association Journal, contrasted Taft's expansive view of the role of the chief justice with the narrow view of presidential power he took while in that office. [202] Taft saw nothing wrong with making his views on possible appointments to the court known to the White House, and was annoyed to be criticized in the press. He was initially a firm supporter of President Coolidge after Harding's death in 1923, but became disillusioned with Coolidge's appointments to office and to the bench he had similar misgivings about Coolidge's successor, Herbert Hoover. [203] Taft advised the Republican presidents in office while he was chief justice to avoid "offside" appointments like Brandeis and Holmes. [188] Nevertheless, by 1923, Taft was writing of his liking for Brandeis, whom he deemed a hard worker, and Holmes walked to work with him until age and infirmity required an automobile. [204]

Believing that the chief justice should be responsible for the federal courts, Taft felt that he should have an administrative staff to assist him, and the chief justice should be empowered to temporarily reassign judges. [205] He also believed the federal courts had been ill-run. Many of the lower courts had lengthy backlogs, as did the Supreme Court. [206] Immediately on taking office, Taft made it a priority to confer with Attorney General Daugherty as to new legislation, [207] and made his case before congressional hearings, in legal periodicals and in speeches across the country. [208] When Congress convened in December 1921, a bill was introduced for 24 new judges, to empower the chief justice to move judges temporarily to eliminate the delays, and to have him chair a body consisting of the senior appellate judge of each circuit. Congress objected to some aspects, requiring Taft to get the agreement of the senior judge of each involved circuit before assigning a judge, but it in September 1922 passed the bill, and the Judicial Conference of Senior Circuit Judges held its first meeting that December. [209]

The Supreme Court's docket was congested, swelled by war litigation and laws that allowed a party defeated in the circuit court of appeals to have the case decided by the Supreme Court if a constitutional question was involved. Taft believed an appeal should usually be settled by the circuit court, with only cases of major import decided by the justices. He and other Supreme Court members proposed legislation to make most of the court's docket discretionary, with a case getting full consideration by the justices only if they granted a writ of certiorari. To Taft's frustration, Congress took three years to consider the matter. Taft and other members of the court lobbied for the bill in Congress, and the Judges' Bill became law in February 1925. By late the following year, Taft was able to show that the backlog was shrinking. [210]

When Taft became chief justice, the court did not have its own building and met in the Capitol. Its offices were cluttered and overcrowded, but Fuller and White had been opposed to proposals to move the court to its own building. In 1925, Taft began a fight to get the court a building, and two years later Congress appropriated money to purchase the land, on the south side of the Capitol. Cass Gilbert had prepared plans for the building, and was hired by the government as architect. Taft had hoped to live to see the court move into the new building, but it did not do so until 1935, after Taft's death. [211]

Taft is remembered as the heaviest president he was 5 feet 11 inches (1.80 m) tall and his weight peaked at 335–340 pounds (152–154 kg) toward the end of his presidency, [212] although this later decreased, and by 1929 he weighed just 244 pounds (111 kg). By the time Taft became chief justice, his health was starting to decline, and he carefully planned a fitness regimen, walking 3 miles (4.8 km) from his home to the Capitol each day. When he walked home after work, he would usually go by way of Connecticut Avenue and use a particular crossing over Rock Creek. After his death, the crossing was named the Taft Bridge. [213]

Taft followed a weight loss program and hired the British doctor N. E. Yorke-Davies as a dietary advisor. The two men corresponded regularly for over twenty years, and Taft kept a daily record of his weight, food intake, and physical activity. [214]

At Hoover's inauguration on March 4, 1929, Taft recited part of the oath incorrectly, later writing, "my memory is not always accurate and one sometimes becomes a little uncertain", misquoting again in that letter, differently. [215] His health gradually declined over the near-decade of his chief justiceship. Worried that if he retired his replacement would be chosen by President Herbert Hoover, whom he considered too progressive, he wrote his brother Horace in 1929, "I am older and slower and less acute and more confused. However, as long as things continue as they are, and I am able to answer to my place, I must stay on the court in order to prevent the Bolsheviki from getting control". [216]

Taft insisted on going to Cincinnati to attend the funeral of his brother Charles, who died on December 31, 1929 the strain did not improve his own health. When the court reconvened on January 6, 1930, Taft had not returned to Washington, and two opinions were delivered by Van Devanter that Taft had drafted but had been unable to complete because of his illness. Taft went to Asheville, North Carolina, for a rest, but by the end of January, he could barely speak and was suffering from hallucinations. [217] Taft was afraid that Stone would be made chief justice he did not resign until he had secured assurances from Hoover that Hughes would be the choice. [ae] [218] Returning to Washington after his resignation on February 3, Taft had barely enough strength to sign a reply to a letter of tribute from the eight associate justices. He died at his home in Washington on March 8, 1930. [217]

Taft lay in state at the United States Capitol rotunda. [219] Three days following his death, on March 11, he became the first president and first member of the Supreme Court to be buried at Arlington National Cemetery. [220] [221] James Earle Fraser sculpted his grave marker out of Stony Creek granite. [220]

Lurie argued that Taft did not receive the public credit for his policies that he should have. Few trusts had been broken up under Roosevelt (although the lawsuits received much publicity). Taft, more quietly than his predecessor, filed many more cases than did Roosevelt, and rejected his predecessor's contention that there was such a thing as a "good" trust. This lack of flair marred Taft's presidency according to Lurie, Taft "was boring—honest, likable, but boring". [222] Scott Bomboy for the National Constitution Center wrote that despite being "one of the most interesting, intellectual, and versatile presidents . a chief justice of the United States, a wrestler at Yale, a reformer, a peace activist, and a baseball fan . today, Taft is best remembered as the president who was so large that he got stuck in the White House bathtub," a story that is not true. [155] [223] Taft similarly remains known for another physical characteristic—as the last president with facial hair to date. [224]

Mason called Taft's years in the White House "undistinguished". [205] Coletta deemed Taft to have had a solid record of bills passed by Congress, but felt he could have accomplished more with political skill. [225] Anderson noted that Taft's prepresidential federal service was entirely in appointed posts, and that he had never run for an important executive or legislative position, which would have allowed him to develop the skills to manipulate public opinion, "the presidency is no place for on-the-job training". [165] According to Coletta, "in troubled times in which the people demanded progressive change, he saw the existing order as good." [226]

Inevitably linked with Roosevelt, Taft generally falls in the shadow of the flamboyant Rough Rider, who chose him to be president, and who took it away. [227] Yet, a portrait of Taft as a victim of betrayal by his best friend is incomplete: as Coletta put it, "Was he a poor politician because he was victimized or because he lacked the foresight and imagination to notice the storm brewing in the political sky until it broke and swamped him?" [228] Adept at using the levers of power in a way his successor could not, Roosevelt generally got what was politically possible out of a situation. Taft was generally slow to act, and when he did, his actions often generated enemies, as in the Ballinger–Pinchot affair. Roosevelt was able to secure positive coverage in the newspapers Taft had a judge's reticence in talking to reporters, and, with no comment from the White House, hostile journalists would supply the want with a quote from a Taft opponent. [229] And it was Roosevelt who engraved in public memory the image of Taft as a Buchanan-like figure, with a narrow view of the presidency which made him unwilling to act for the public good. Anderson pointed out that Roosevelt's Autobiography (which placed this view in enduring form) was published after both men had left the presidency (in 1913), was intended in part to justify Roosevelt's splitting of the Republican Party, and contains not a single positive reference to the man Roosevelt had admired and hand-picked as his successor. While Roosevelt was biased, [230] he was not alone: every major newspaper reporter of that time who left reminiscences of Taft's presidency was critical of him. [231] Taft replied to his predecessor's criticism with his constitutional treatise on the powers of the presidency. [230]

Taft was convinced he would be vindicated by history. After he left office, he was estimated to be about in the middle of U.S. presidents by greatness, and subsequent rankings by historians have by and large sustained that verdict. Coletta noted that this places Taft in good company, with James Madison, John Quincy Adams and McKinley. [232] Lurie catalogued progressive innovations that took place under Taft, and argued that historians have overlooked them because Taft was not an effective political writer or speaker. [233] According to Gould, "the clichés about Taft's weight, his maladroitness in the White House, and his conservatism of thought and doctrine have an element of truth, but they fail to do justice to a shrewd commentator on the political scene, a man of consummate ambition, and a resourceful practitioner of the internal politics of his party." [234] Anderson deemed Taft's success in becoming both president and chief justice "an astounding feat of inside judicial and Republican party politics, played out over years, the likes of which we are not likely to see again in American history". [185]

Taft has been rated among the greatest of the chief justices [235] later Supreme Court Justice Antonin Scalia noted that this was "not so much on the basis of his opinions, perhaps because many of them ran counter to the ultimate sweep of history". [236] A successor as chief justice, Earl Warren, concurred: "In Taft's case, the symbol, the tag, the label usually attached to him is 'conservative.' It is certainly not of itself a term of opprobrium even when bandied by the critics, but its use is too often confused with 'reactionary.' " [178] Most commentators agree that as chief justice, Taft's most significant contribution was his advocacy for reform of the high court, urging and ultimately gaining improvement in the court's procedures and facilities. [178] [189] [237] Mason cited enactment of the Judges' Bill of 1925 as Taft's major achievement on the court. [189] According to Anderson, Taft as chief justice "was as aggressive in the pursuit of his agenda in the judicial realm as Theodore Roosevelt was in the presidential". [238]

The house in Cincinnati where Taft was born and lived as a boy is now the William Howard Taft National Historic Site. [239] Taft was named one of the first Gold Medal Honorees of the National Institute of Social Sciences. [240] Taft's son Robert was a significant political figure, becoming Senate Majority Leader and three times a major contender for the Republican nomination for president. A conservative, each time he was defeated by a candidate backed by the more liberal Eastern Establishment wing of the party. [af] [241]

Lurie concluded his account of William Taft's career,

While the fabled cherry trees in Washington represent a suitable monument for Nellie Taft, there is no memorial to her husband, except perhaps the magnificent home for his Court—one for which he eagerly planned. But he died even before ground was broken for the structure. As he reacted to his overwhelming defeat for reelection in 1912, Taft had written that "I must wait for years if I would be vindicated by the people . I am content to wait." Perhaps he has waited long enough. [242]

Election of 1908: Passing the baton to William Howard Taft - History

Well before 1900, politicians and writers had begun to pinpoint targets for the progressive attack. Henry Demarest Lloyd assailed the Standard Oil Company in 1894 with his book Wealth Against Commonwealth. Jacob A. Riis shocked middle-class Americans in 1890 with How the Other Half Lives which described the dark and dirty slums of New York.

Socialists and feminists were at the front of social justice.

Raking Muck with the Muckrakers

Popular magazines began to appear in American newsstands in 1902. They exposed the corruption and scandal that the public loved to hate. The reform-minded journalists who wrote articles in these magazines were called Muckrakers by President Roosevelt.

In 1902, New York reporter, Lincoln Steffens launched a series of articles in McClure's titled "The Shame of the Cities" which unmasked the corrupt alliance between big business and municipal government.

Ida M. Tarbell published a devastating but factual depiction of the Standard Oil Company.

David G. Phillips published a series, "The Treason of the Senate" in Cosmopolitan that charged that 75 of the 90 senators did not represent the people but they rather represented railroads and trusts.

Some of the most effective attacks of the muckrakers were directed at social evils. The suppression of America's blacks was shown in Ray Stannard'sFollowing the Color Line (1908). John Spargo wrote of the abuses of child labor in The Bitter Cry of the Children (1906).

Progressive reformers were mainly middle-class men and women.

The progressives sought 2 goals: to use state power to control the trusts and to stem the socialist threat by generally improving the common person's conditions of life and labor.

Progressives wanted to regain the power that had slipped from the hands of the people into those of the "interests." Progressives supported direct primary elections and favored "initiative" so that voters could directly propose legislation themselves, thus bypassing the boss-sought state legislatures. They also supported "referendum" and "recall." Referendum would place laws on ballots for final approval by the people, and recall would enable the voters to remove faithless corrupt officials.

As a result of pressure from the public's progressive reformers, the 17 th Amendment was passed to the Constitution in 1913. It established the direct election of U.S. senators.

Progressivism in the Cities and States

States began the march toward progressivism when they undertook to regulate railroads and trusts. In 1901, the governor of Wisconsin and significant figure of the progressive era, Robert M. La Follette took considerable control from the corrupt corporations and returned it to the people.

Governor of California, Hiram W. Johnson helped to break the dominant grip of the Southern Pacific Railroad on California politics in 1910.

A crucial focus for women's activism was the settlement house movement. Settlement houses exposed middle-class women to poverty, political corruption, and intolerable working and living conditions.

Most female progressives defended their new activities as an extension of their traditional roles of wife and mother.

Female activists worked through organizations like the Women's Trade Union League and the National Consumers League.

Florence Kelley took control of the National Consumers League in 1899 and mobilized female consumers to pressure for laws safeguarding women and children in the workplace.

Caught up in the crusade, some states controlled, restricted, or abolished alcohol.

TR's Square Deal for Labor

President Roosevelt believed in the progressive reform. He enacted a "Square Deal" program that consisted of 3 parts: control of the corporations, consumer protection, and conservation of natural resources.

In 1902, coal miners in Pennsylvania went on strike and demanded a 20% raise in pay and a workday decrease from 10 hours to 9 hours. When mine spokesman, George F. Baer refused to negotiate, President Roosevelt stepped in and threatened to operate the mines with federal troops. A deal was struck in which the miners received a 10% pay raise and an hour workday reduction.

Congress, aware of the increasing hostilities between capital and labor, created the Department of Commerce in 1903.

TR Corrals the Corporations

Although the Interstate Commerce Commission was created in 1887, railroad barons were still able to have high shipping rates because of their ability to appeal the commission's decisions on high rates to the federal courts.

In 1903, Congress passed the Elkins Act, which allowed for heavy fines to be placed on railroads that gave rebates and on the shippers that accepted them. (Railroad companies would offer rebates as incentives for companies to use their rail lines.)

Congress passed the Hepburn Act of 1906, restricting free passes and expanding the Interstate Commerce Commission to extend to include express companies, sleeping-car companies, and pipelines. (Free passes: rewards offered to companies allowing an allotted number of free shipments given to companies to encourage future business.)

In 1902, President Roosevelt challenged the Northern Securities Company, a railroad trust company that sought to achieve a monopoly of the railroads in the Northwest. The Supreme Court upheld the President and the trust was forced to be dissolved.

After botulism was found in American meats, foreign governments threatened to ban all American meat imports. Backed by the public, President Roosevelt passed the Meat Inspection Act of 1906. The act stated that the preparation of meat shipped over state lines would be subject to federal inspection.

The Pure Food and Drug Act of 1906 was designed to prevent the adulteration and mislabeling of foods and pharmaceuticals.

The first step towards conservation came with the Desert Land Act of 1887, under which the federal government sold dry land cheaply on the condition that the purchaser would irrigate the soil within 3 years. A more successful step was the Forest Reserve Act of 1891. It authorized the president to set aside public forests as national parks and other reserves. The Carey Act of 1894 distributed federal land to the states on the condition that it be irrigated and settled.

President Roosevelt, a naturalist and rancher, convinced Congress to pass the Newlands Act of 1902, which authorized the federal government to collect money from the sale of public lands in western states and then use these funds for the development of irrigation projects.

In 1900 Roosevelt, attempting to preserve the nation's shrinking forests, set aside 125 million acres of land in federal reserves.

Under President Roosevelt, professional foresters and engineers developed a policy of "multiple-use resource management." They sought to combine recreation, sustained-yield logging, watershed protection, and summer stock grazing on the same expanse of federal land. Many westerners soon realized how to work with federal conservation programs and not resist the federal management of natural resources.

The "Roosevelt Panic" of 1907

Theodore Roosevelt was elected as president in 1904. President Roosevelt made it known that he would not run for a 3 rd term.

A panic descended upon Wall Street in 1907. The financial world blamed the panic on President Roosevelt for unsettling the industries with his anti-trust tactics.

Responding to the panic of 1907, Congress passed the Aldrich-Vreeland Act in 1908 which authorized national banks to issue emergency currency backed by various kinds of collateral.

The Rough Rider Thunders Out

For the election of 1908, the Republican Party chose William Howard Taft, secretary of war to Theodore Roosevelt. The Democratic Party choseWilliam Jennings Bryan.

William Howard Taft won the election of 1908.

In Roosevelt's term, Roosevelt attempted to protect against socialism and to protect capitalists against popular indignation. He greatly enlarged the power and prestige of the presidential office, and he helped shape the progressive movement and beyond it, the liberal reform campaigns later in the century. TR also opened the eyes of Americans to the fact that they shared the world with other nations.

Taft: A Round Peg in a Square Hole

President Taft had none of the arts of a dashing political leader, such as Roosevelt, and none of Roosevelt's zest. He generally adopted an attitude of passivity towards Congress.

The Dollar Goes Abroad as a Diplomat

Taft encouraged Wall Street bankers to invest in foreign areas of strategic interest to the United States. New York bankers thus strengthened American defenses and foreign policies, while bringing prosperity to America.

In China's Manchuria, Japan and Russia controlled the railroads. President Taft saw in the Manchurian monopoly a possible strangulation of Chinese economic interests and a slamming of the Open Door policy. In 1909, Secretary of State Philander C. Knox proposed that a group of American and foreign bankers buy the Manchurian railroads and then turn them over to China. Both Japan and Russia flatly rejected the selling of their railroads.

Taft brought 90 lawsuits against the trusts during his 4 years in office as opposed to Roosevelt who brought just 44 suits in 7 years.

In 1911, the Supreme Court ordered the dissolution of the Standard Oil Company, stating that it violated the Sherman Anti-Trust Act of 1890.

Also in 1911, the Courts handed down its "rule of reason" a doctrine that stated that only those trusts that unreasonably restrained trade were illegal.

Taft Splits the Republican Party

President Taft signed the Payne-Aldrich Bill in 1909, a tariff bill that placed a high tariff on many imports. With the signing, Taft betrayed his campaign promises of lowering the tariff.

Taft was a strong conservationist, but in 1910, the Ballinger-Pinchot quarrel erased much of his conservationist record. When Secretary of the InteriorRichard Ballinger opened public lands in Wyoming, Montana, and Alaska to corporate development, he was criticized by chief of the Agriculture Department's Division of Forestry, Gifford Pinchot. When Taft dismissed Pinchot, much protest arose from conservationists.

By the spring of 1910, the reformist wing of the Republican Party was furious with Taft and the Republican Party had split. One once supporter of Taft, Roosevelt, was now an enemy. Taft had broken up Roosevelt's U.S. Steel Corporation, which Roosevelt had worked long and hard to form.

The Taft-Roosevelt Rupture

In 1911, the National Progressive Republican League was formed with La Follette as its leading candidate for the Republican presidential nomination.

In February of 1912, Theodore Roosevelt, with his new views on Taft, announced that he would run again for presidency, clarifying that he said he wouldn't run for 3 consecutive terms.

The Taft-Roosevelt explosion happened in June of 1912 when the Republican convention met in Chicago. When it came time to vote, the Roosevelt supporters claimed fraud and in the end refused to vote. Taft subsequently won the Republican nomination.

Tariff Reform

In 1908, Republicans promised to lower unpopular tariffs on U.S. imports, but the Payne-Aldrich Tariff Act further divided Republicans.

Learning Objectives

Describe the role of tariffs in mid- and late-nineteenth-century politics

Key Takeaways

Key Points

  • Throughout the early twentieth century, most American manufacturers and union workers demanded the high tariff be maintained.
  • During Taft’s election campaign in 1908, Republicans promised to lower unpopular tariffs on U.S. imports.
  • The Payne-Aldrich Tariff Act of 1909, which lowered 650 tariffs, raised 220 tariffs, and left 1,150 tariffs untouched, was signed enthusiastically by Taft in 1909, who believed that the compromise would preserve party unity.
  • Instead, the Payne-Aldrich Tariff Act further split the Republicans, eventually leading to the split of Theodore Roosevelt ‘s “Bull Moose” Progressives from Taft’s Progressive Republicans.

Key Terms

  • Bull Moose Party: The 1909 Progressive Party formed by former President Theodore Roosevelt after a split in the Republican Party between Roosevelt and President William Howard Taft.
  • Payne-Aldrich Tariff: This act from 1909 began in the U.S. House of Representatives as a bill lowering certain tariffs on goods entering the United States. It was the first change in tariff laws since the Dingley Act of 1897. President William Howard Taft called Congress into a special session in 1909 shortly after his inauguration to discuss the issue.
  • protectionism: The economic policy of restraining trade between countries through methods such as tariffs on imported goods, restrictive quotas, and a variety of other government regulations designed to allow fair competition between imports and goods and services produced domestically.


During Reconstruction, high tariffs were the norm as the Republican Party maintained power and the Southern Democrats were restricted from office. The Republican high-tariff advocates appealed to farmers with the theme that high-wage factory workers would pay premium prices for foodstuffs. This was the “home market” idea, and it won over most farmers in the Northeast. However, it had little relevance to the southern and western farmers who exported most of their cotton, tobacco, and wheat.

Thanks to such tariffs, American industry and agriculture—apart from wool—had become the most efficient in the world by the 1880s as they took the lead in the Industrial Revolution. Hence, throughout the early twentieth century, most American manufacturers and union workers demanded the high tariff be maintained.

Tariffs remained a significant political issue during presidential elections and were often a source of contention between Democrats and Republicans. Democrats campaigned energetically against tariffs, especially the high McKinley Tariff of 1890. In 1892, Democrat Grover Cleveland was elected to the presidency, and much of his campaign platform focused on lowering the tariff. While in office, Cleveland attempted to follow through with his campaign promise with limited success. For instance, the Wilson-Gorman Tariff Act of 1894 did lower overall rates, but contained so many concessions to protectionism that Cleveland refused to sign it. In 1896, Republican McKinley campaigned heavily on the tariff issue, claiming that it was a positive solution to economic recession. Promising protection and prosperity to every economic sector, McKinley won, and the Republicans rushed through the Dingley Act in 1897, boosting rates again, while Democrats continued to argue that high rates enabled trusts to operate and led to higher consumer prices.

Taft and Tariff Reform

“Some Trouble with the Tariff Team”: In this 1901 editorial cartoon, President Teddy Roosevelt watches the GOP team pull apart on tariff issue.

During Taft’s election campaign in 1908, Republicans promised to lower unpopular tariffs on U.S. imports. Industries and businesses supported this high tariff, because it enabled them to compete in the world market. However, small farmers, laborers, and manufacturers resented the tariff, because it affected their exports to foreign countries. Once elected, Taft called a special session of Congress in 1909 to discuss lowering the tariff. Senator Payne proposed a bill that lowered the tariff on many imported goods. However, Congress accepted an alternative bill, proposed by Nelson Aldrich, which lowered the tariff on only a few imported items and increased it on many other products. This met with severe opposition from a faction of Republicans in the Senate. In the end, Congress adopted the Payne-Aldrich Tariff Act, which lowered 650 tariffs, raised 220 tariffs, and left 1,150 tariffs untouched. The act was signed enthusiastically by Taft in 1909, who believed that the compromise would preserve party unity.

Although the Payne-Aldrich Tariff Act did very little to affect the current status of tariffs, it angered many Democrats, Progressives, and Progressive Republicans because it did not solve the tariff issue. Taft’s public support of the bill, instead of preserving party unity, further split the Republicans. Roosevelt in particular criticized Taft over the Payne-Aldrich Tariff Act, and led a faction of Progressive Republicans away from Taft’s conservative Republicans. This group of Progressive Republicans eventually formed the Bull Moose Party, which selected Roosevelt as its presidential nominee in the 1912 election. Meanwhile, unified in their commitment to lowering the tariff, Democrats enjoyed rising public popularity during Taft’s presidency.

‘A Vision of the Impossible’: Taft on Progressives and Panaceas

In a wide-ranging discussion of the Progressive Era in her new biography of Calvin Coolidge, Amity Shlaes quotes a striking excerpt from a little-known speech by President William Howard Taft.

Given in the middle of the 1912 election, in which Taft competed (poorly) against Woodrow Wilson and former President Teddy Roosevelt, the speech focuses on the predominant themes and schemes of his opponents, handily highlighting their limits.

In a particularly snappy swipe at Roosevelt, who had just recently split from the Republican Party, Taft notes that despite various efforts to form new parties, any rumbling therein is largely driven by the “promise of a panacea,” a top-down fantasy “in which the rich are to be made reasonably poor and the poor reasonably rich, by law.” Instead, Taft argues, we should seek solutions that “bring on complete equality of opportunity,” unleashing individuals and communities to work, create, and collaborate. The bones of civilization are not built, first and foremost, by the bidding of the policymaker’s baton.

Shlaes quotes the speech in passing, but the full text (or audio!) is well worth taking in:

We are living in an age in which by exaggeration of the defects of our present condition, by false charges and responsibility for it against individuals and classes, by holding up to the feverish imagination of the less fortunate and the discontented the possibilities of a millenium, a condition of popular unrest has been produced.

New parties are being formed with the proposed purpose of satisfying this unrest by promising a panacea. Insofar as inequality of condition can be lessened and equality of opportunity can be promoted by improvement of our educational systems, the betterment of the laws to ensure the quick administration of justice, and by the prevention of the acquisition of privilege without just compensation—insofar as the adoption of the legislation above recited and laws of a similar character may aid the less fortunate in their struggle with the hardships of life—all are in sympathy with the continued effort to remedy injustice and to aid the weak. And I venture to say, that there’s no national administration in which more real steps of such progress have been taken than in the present one. But insofar as the propaganda for the satisfaction of unrest involves the promise of a millenium—a condition in which the rich are to be made reasonably poor and the poor reasonably rich, by law — we are chasing a phantom. We are holding out to those whose unrest we fear, a prospect and a dream, a vision of the impossible.

After we have changed all the governmental machinery, so as to permit instantaneous expression of the people in constitutional amendments, in statutes, and in recall of public agents, what then? Votes are not bread, constitutional amendments are not work, referendums do not pay rent or furnish houses, recalls do not furnish clothing, initiatives do not supply employment or relieve inequalities of condition or of opportunity. We still ought to have set before us the definite plans to bring on complete equality of opportunity, and to abolish hardship and evil for humanity. We listen for them in vain.

Taft clearly understands the bottom-up nature of human flourishing and the destructive potential of top-down planners and levelers. Given the modern mushrooming of “governmental machinery,” the continuous sapping of “popular unrest” by today’s Planning Class, and the overlap of this and that between today’s Left and the Right, there would appear to be a lesson here somewhere.

Our challenges and divides are certainly distinct from those in Taft’s time, but the laws of men still have their limits and, alas, the Great Progressive Prospect is still, as Taft calls it, “a vision of the impossible.”

is an associate editor and writer for the Acton Institute. His work has appeared in venues such as the Foundation for Economic Education, First Things, The Christian Post, The Stream, Intellectual Takeout, Patheos, LifeSiteNews, The City, Charisma News, The Green Room, Juicy Ecumenism, Ethika Politika, Made to Flourish, and the Center for Faith and Work. Joseph resides in Minneapolis, Minnesota with his wife and four children.

Watch the video: The American Presidential Election of 1908 (October 2022).

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