Skip to main content Skip to Search Box
Summary Article: Taft, William Howard from The Columbia Encyclopedia

1857–1930, 27th President of the United States (1909–13) and 10th chief justice of the United States (1921–30), b. Cincinnati.

Early Career

After graduating (1878) from Yale, he attended Cincinnati Law School. He received his law degree in 1880. He became a Cincinnati lawyer and soon had political posts as assistant prosecuting attorney for Hamilton co. (1881–83), assistant county solicitor (1885–87), and judge of the superior court of Ohio (1887–90). He became nationally prominent as a figure in Republican politics in 1890, when President Benjamin Harrison chose him as U.S. Solicitor General.

After service as a federal circuit judge (1892–1900) and as dean of the Cincinnati law school (1898–1900), he was appointed (1900) head of the commission sent to organize civil government in the Philippines, and he was named first civil governor of the Philippine Islands; he did much to better relations between Filipinos and Americans. In 1904 his friend President Theodore Roosevelt appointed Taft Secretary of War. Taft became a close adviser to the President and was prominent in Latin American affairs, conducting the delicate negotiations attending U.S. intervention in Cuba in 1906.

Presidency

Roosevelt chose Taft as his successor, and the Republican party named him as presidential candidate in the election of 1908, in which he defeated William Jennings Bryan. He was expected to continue Roosevelt's policies, and to a large extent he did. Trusts were vigorously prosecuted under the Sherman Antitrust Act; the Interstate Commerce Commission was strengthened by the Mann-Elkins Act (1910); and Taft's Latin American policy, known as "dollar diplomacy," was to an extent only an enlargement of Roosevelt's Panama policy and the Roosevelt Corollary to the Monroe Doctrine. The emphasis in all these policies had, however, changed. In Latin America, for instance, the accent was on protection of property and interests of Americans abroad rather than on national interest. Members of the Republican party who favored progressive policies were increasingly restive, and the Insurgents movement grew strong.

The administration made positive achievements in the inauguration of the postal savings bank (1910) and the parcel-post system (1912), and the creation of the Dept. of Labor (1911). Nevertheless, Taft was generally at odds with the progressive elements in his party: he failed to support the Insurgents' attempt to oust the dictatorial speaker of the House of Representatives, Joseph Cannon; he favored the Payne-Aldrich tariff, a high-tariff measure that was denounced by progressive Republicans; and he supported Richard Ballinger against Gifford Pinchot in the Ballinger-Pinchot controversy.

Meanwhile, Taft's relations with Roosevelt deteriorated, and the former President joined the opposition to Taft. In 1912, Roosevelt fought vigorously for the Republican presidential nomination. When he failed and Taft got the nomination, Roosevelt headed the Progressive party and ran in the election as the Progressive (popularly called the Bull Moose) candidate. The Republican vote was split, and the Democratic candidate, Woodrow Wilson, won.

Later Life

Taft retired from public life and taught law (1912–21) at Yale. He was cochairman (1918–19) of the War Labor Conference in World War I. In 1921, President Harding appointed him chief justice. His chief contribution to the Supreme Court was his administrative efficiency.

Bibliography
  • Taft's writings include The United States and Peace (1914) and Our Chief Magistrate and His Powers (1916). See Taft and Roosevelt: The Intimate Letters of Archie Butt (1930, repr. 1971).
  • biographies by H. F. Pringle (1939, repr. 1964, 2 vol. 1986), J. I. Anderson (1981), and J. C. Casey (1989).
  • Mason, A. T., William Howard Taft, Chief Justice (1965).
  • Coletta, P. E., The Presidency of William Howard Taft (1973).
  • Goodwin, D. K., The Bully Pulpit: Theodore Roosevelt, William Howard Taft, and the Golden Age of Journalism (2013).
The Columbia Encyclopedia, © Columbia University Press 2017

Related Credo Articles

Full text Article Taft, William Howard
Philip's Encyclopedia

1857-1930 Twenty-seventh US President (1909-13) and tenth Chief Justice of the Supreme Court (1921-30). He gained great credit as Governor of...

Full text Article Taft, William H. (1857–1930)
Encyclopedia of Politics

WILLIAM H. TAFT is the only person to have headed two branches of the U.S. government, as president from 1909 to 1913 and as chief justice from...

Full text Article Taft, William Howard
The Industrial Revolution: Key Themes and Documents

A corporate attorney who made his living in business law, William Howard Taft ironically became the most enthusiastic trustbusting president in U.S

See more from Credo