Monday, September 13, 2010
William H. Taft
William Howard Taft (1857-1930) holds the distinction of being the only man in the history of the United States to be elected President and later appointed as chief justice. Taft's heart was in his career as attorney and judge where he spent twenty years. He did not like politics and did not want to be President. His dream job was to be a justice of the United States Supreme Court. The two most important women in his life held different opinions on how he should serve his country. His mother recognized that he didn't like politics, saying "I do not want my son to be President. His is a judicial mind and he loves the law." His wife felt that being a judge was a "fixed groove" and urged him into politics. It was obvious that his mother knew him best because he was more unhappy in the White House than any other President. He told newly inaugurated President Woodrow Wilson in 1913, "I'm glad to be going. This is the lonesomest place in the world." Eight years later when he was appointed chief justice of the United States, he said that it was the highest honor he had ever received. He wrote, "The truth is that in my present life I don't remember that I ever was President." Taft stood six feet tall, weighed more than 300 pounds and was the largest man ever to be elected President. He was described by a newspaperman as looking "like an American bison - a gentle kind one." He was mild and pleasant in personality, but kept what he considered to be rugged values. He did not smoke or drink, was honest by nature, straightforward and plain of speech. He was loyal to family, friends and his political party (Republican). Taft was modest enough to feel unqualified to be President and had no sense of showmanship. His administration was adequate but didn't capture popular imagination. Many people thought him to be a failure as President. The world was mostly at peace during the Taft Administration, but leading nations in Europe were trying to balance power, leading to World War I. The imperial government of China was overthrown in a revolution, and a republic was set up there. Admiral Robert Peary of the United States reached the North Pole in 1909, and Norwegian explorer Roald Amundsen led the group reaching the South Pole in 1911. Life in the United States was speeding up with most people still living on farms but many moving to cities. Twelve states had approved the right for women to vote, and Congress passed an Amendment to the Constitution (#16) in 1913 to allow a federal income tax to be collected - starting with the Wilson Administration. Arizona and New Mexico were admitted to the Union, bringing the total number of states to 48. Other interesting events of the world of President Taft are: 1) The National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP) was founded in 1909 to work for racial equality. 2) Boy Scouts and Camp Fire Girls were founded in the United States in 1910 with Girl Scouts being established in 1912. 3) The first motion-picture studio was built in Hollywood in 1911, making it the nation's movie capital. 4) The passenger ship Titanic hit an iceberg and sank in the Atlantic Ocean on the night of April 14-15, 1912. About 700 people were rescued, but about 1,500 people drowned. William Howard Taft was born on September 15, 1857, in a comfortable, two-story house in the Mt. Auburn section of Cincinnati, Ohio, and he spent his entire boyhood there. He was the second son of his father's second wife and had two half brothers, two brothers, and a sister. His father's ancestors emigrated from England in the 1600's and settled in Massachusetts and Vermont. His mother descended from an English family that was among the settlers of Weymouth, Massachusetts, in 1640. His Taft grandfather was a judge in Vermont who moved to Cincinnati about 1838 Taft's father was a successful lawyer and a prominent national figure in the Republican Party. Taft was large, fair, and attractive as a youth and was brought up in the Unitarian faith. His playmates were his siblings. He entered Woodward High School in Cincinnati at age 13 and enrolled in Yale College at 17, graduating second in his class in 1878. He studied law at the Cincinnati Law School, received his law degree in 1880, and was admitted to the Ohio bar. Taft's first public office was as an assistant prosecuting attorney of Hamilton County, Ohio, during 1881 and 1882 and then established a successful law partnership. He married Helen "Nellie" Herron on June 19, 1886. Her father had been a law partner of President Rutherford B. Hayes. Taft wrote that Nellie was "a woman who is willing to take me as I am, for better or worse. Mrs. Taft was both ambitious and intelligent and encouraged him to seek public office throughout his career. The couple had three children. Taft enjoyed being an attorney but was pushed toward politics because his father was prominent in the Republican Party. In early 1885 he was named assistant county solicitor for Hamilton County, and in March 1887 he was appointed by the governor to fill a vacancy on the Cincinnati Superior Court. He was re-elected to the position the next year to serve for five years. This was the first of only two offices he won by popular vote, and he resigned from it to accept President Benjamin Harrison's appointment in 1890 to be solicitor general for the United States. President Harrison appointed him in March 1892 to be a judge of the sixth circuit of the recently established United States Court of Appeals (now called the United States Court of Appeals), and he spent eight years as a circuit judge. During the same period of time, he also was the dean of the University of Cincinnati Law School from 1896 to 1900. Taft also served as the first civil governor of the Philippine Islands and then Secretary of War under President Theodore Roosevelt. Taft became Roosevelt's unofficial troubleshooter both at home and abroad. When Roosevelt announced that he would not seek reelection in 1908, he recommended Taft to be nominated. Taft did not want the position, preferring to wait for a possible appointment to the Supreme Court - but his wife and his brothers helped to change his mind. He won the nomination on the first ballot and won the election with more than a million votes over William Jennings Bryan. Mrs. Taft, as White House hostess, enjoyed presiding at state functions and holding small teas for friends until she suffered a stroke in 1909. The Taft family enjoyed summer evenings on the south portico of the White House listening to favorite phonograph recordings. Taft was an excellent dancer in spite of his large size, and his wife organized a small dance class for his diversion. He played tennis and golf and often rode horseback. Taft was nominated for the Republican Party ticket in the 1912 election but lost to the governor of New Jersey, Woodrow Wilson. Taft became a professor of constitutional law at Yale University in March 1913 and was elected as president of the American Bar Association the same year. He was appointed by President Wilson to be the chairman of the National War Labor Board during World War I. In 1921, President Warren G. Harding appointed Taft to be chief justice of the United States - the position that he had wanted for a number of years. He considered this appointment to be the greatest honor of his life. As the administrator of the highest court, he was instrumental in getting the Judiciary Act passed in 1925, which law gave the court greater control over the cases it would consider and made it possible for the court to function more effectively. He was also instrumental in gaining congressional approval for a new court building. Taft did more than his share of the court's workload and was an advisor to President Calvin Coolidge. He took care of his health, holding his weight to about 300 pounds. He walked the three miles between his home and his office almost every morning and evening. In spite of all these precautions, he was forced to retire from the court on February 3, 1930. He died on March 8 and was buried in Arlington National Cemetery. Taft and John F. Kennedy are the only Presidents to be buried there. Facts and quotes for this post came from an article by John M. Blum in World Book Encyclopedia, Vol. 19, pp 8-13.