Miller Center

American President

A Reference Resource

A Life in Brief

William Howard Taft faced the difficult task as President of living up to the legacy of Theodore Roosevelt. Taft so disappointed his predecessor, former mentor, and friend, that Roosevelt opposed his renomination in 1912 and bolted from the Republican Party to form his own "Bull-Moose" party, creating an opening for Democrat Woodrow Wilson in the 1912 presidential election. Taft's lifelong ambition was to serve as Chief Justice of the United States, to which he was appointed after leaving the presidency. He remains the only man in American history to have gained the highest executive and judicial positions.

Meeting Expectations

Taft, born in 1857, spent his boyhood in Cincinnati, Ohio, trying to live up to the high expectations of his demanding parents, especially his father, Alphonso Taft. Alphonso Taft was a distinguished Cincinnati attorney and a prominent Republican who served as secretary of war and then attorney general under President Ulysses Grant, and was U.S. minister (ambassador) to Austria-Hungary and Russia under President Chester Arthur. The elder Taft had also sought but lost the 1879 Republican gubernatorial nomination in Ohio.

From childhood, William Howard Taft had a weight problem, a reaction perhaps to his parents' very high expectations for him. At times during his presidency, he reached 300 pounds. He followed his father's and half-brother's path to Yale University, graduating second in his class. He studied law at the University of Cincinnati and entered private practice while also holding several local appointive positions. At age 29, Taft married an ambitious, intellectual, and independent woman, Helen "Nellie" Herron, who pushed him to strive for more than a judicial career. He held several key legal and judicial posts from 1887 to 1900, including judge of the Cincinnati Superior Court, U.S. solicitor general, and then as a member of the Sixth U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals. President William McKinley then asked Taft to serve as president of the commission to oversee the newly won Philippine Islands. Taft was disappointed, but pushed by his associates, including his wife, he took the job, with McKinley's promise of a future position on the Supreme Court upon his return.

Governor General of the Philippines

Despite his initial hesitancy about it, Taft's service in the Philippines from 1900 to 1903 was fulfilling and largely successful. While there, he twice turned down President Roosevelt's offer of a Supreme Court appointment in order to finish his work. Becoming governor of the islands in 1901, Taft abandoned the brutal and bloody tactics the U.S. military government had used to squash the nationalist rebellion. By the time he left the islands to become Roosevelt's secretary of war in 1903, Taft had constructed a functioning civil regime and pacified the islands. At the same time, Taft fully subscribed to the view that Filipinos were not capable of self-rule. He believed that independence could only come to the undeveloped nation after a long period of U.S. tutelage and protection.

As secretary of war, Taft became Roosevelt's chief emissary and confidant, assisting him in the Portsmouth Peace negotiations, and in establishing a protectorate in Cuba. Roosevelt, having sworn upon his victory in 1904 that he would not seek another term, handpicked Taft to succeed him in 1908. The public joked that T.A.F.T. stood for "take advice from Theodore." Thanks in part to Roosevelt's popularity, Taft's victory over Democrat William Jennings Bryan was decisive. Taft promised to continue Roosevelt's reform program. But Roosevelt, and many of his allies, saw Taft's administration as abandoning progressivism. The consequent animosity split the Republican Party in 1912, sweeping Woodrow Wilson into office.

A Judicial President

Taft's disposition was more prone to judicious administration than presidential activism. Though he came to the White House promising to continue Roosevelt's agenda, he was more comfortable executing the existing law than demanding new legislation from Congress. His first effort as President was to lead Congress to lower tariffs, but traditional high tariff interests dominated Congress, and Taft largely failed in his effort at legislative leadership. He also alienated Roosevelt when he attempted to break up U.S. Steel, a trust that Roosevelt had approved while President. Taft also forced Roosevelt's forestry chief to resign, jeopardizing Roosevelt's gains in the conservation of natural resources. By 1911, Taft was less active in "trust-busting," and generally seemed more conservative. In foreign affairs, Taft continued Roosevelt's goal of expanding U.S. foreign trade in South and Central America, as well as in Asia, and he termed his policy "dollar diplomacy."

President Taft's life-long dream of reaching the U.S. Supreme Court was satisfied in 1921 with his appointment as chief justice by President Warren Harding. Taft had been uncomfortable with politics. His tendency to contemplate every side of an issue served him well as chief justice but rendered him indecisive and ineffectual as President. His presidency is generally viewed as a failure, swinging as he did from a progressive program of "trust busting" to reactionary conservatism in the face of withering criticism from Roosevelt and his allies. While Taft's presidency left a mark on the organization and conduct of the executive branch, and developed the administration of anti-trust policy, his public leadership has been widely seen as below average for 20th century Presidents.