Miller Center

American President

A Reference Resource

Life Before the Presidency

Born in the Mount Auburn section of Cincinnati, Ohio, on September 15, 1857, William Howard Taft was a physically active child, playing sports and taking dancing lessons despite his tendency to obesity. He loved baseball, and he was a good second baseman and a power hitter. Taft studied at Woodward High School, a well-regarded private school in Cincinnati, graduating in 1874 second in the class with a four-year grade point average of 91.5 out of 100.

At Yale University, Taft followed his father's advice to refrain from athletics lest his participation impede his academic progress. He graduated second in his class of 132 students and then went on to the University of Cincinnati Law School while working part time as a courthouse reporter for the Cincinnati Commercial. Taft passed his bar exams in May 1880.

Living Up to High Expectations

Taft was raised in a large, close, and stimulating family. He had five siblings, two half brothers by his father's first marriage and two brothers and a sister born to his mother. The family identified with the Unitarian Church, subscribing to a belief in God but not the divinity of Christ. Taft's father, Alphonso Taft, was a lawyer and served as secretary of war and then attorney general in President Ulysses S. Grant's cabinet. President Chester A. Arthur appointed Taft's father to serve as minister (the title of ambassador in those days) to Austria-Hungary and Russia. A significant role model for William, Alphonso Taft was sensible, kind, gentle, and highly "Victorian"—a man who kept his emotions under rigid control. Politically active in the Republican Party, the senior Taft served on Cincinnati's city council and sought unsuccessfully the 1875 Republican nomination in the Ohio gubernatorial race. Alphonso had liberal views on women's rights, however, and encouraged Taft's mother, Louisa Maria Torrey Taft, in her independent ways and numerous outside activities and her intellectual curiosity. The energetic Louisa Taft organized a local and statewide kindergarten movement, an art association, book clubs, German and French clubs, and traveled widely with her husband on his diplomatic missions. Of the two parents, Louisa was the more curious and adventurous, often taking the family down paths none would have ventured on their own. Taft's father died in 1891.

William lived in constant fear of not meeting his parents' expectations. No matter how well he performed, he was anxious about their approval. When he graduated from high school in 1874, he chose for his graduation ceremony address the subject of women's suffrage, telling the audience about his progressive parents. Taft's large variations in his body weight, according to some scholars, stemmed from his social and family anxieties.

Political Ambitions

Taft married Helen "Nellie" Herron at her parents' home in Cincinnati on June 19, 1886. He was twenty-eight and she was twenty-five. Nellie equaled Taft's mother in intellect and energy. She accepted Taft's proposal for marriage in part because she saw him as a partner to fulfill her hope of a life in national politics, and beyond that of parochial Cincinnati. Her father, a one-time law partner of Rutherford B. Hayes, had taken Nellie to the White House for President and Mrs. Hayes's twenty-fifth wedding anniversary. Young Nellie was so captivated that she vowed to one day be First Lady. In 1911, she would celebrate her own silver wedding anniversary at the White House, filling the mansion with nearly 4,000 guests.

Principally due to his father's political connections, Taft became assistant prosecutor of Hamilton County, Ohio, in 1881. Thereafter, he worked as a lawyer for a few years before being appointed judge of the Cincinnati Superior Court in 1887. From an early point in his career, he aspired to a seat on the U.S. Supreme Court. He was appointed U.S. solicitor general in 1890 (the third highest position in the Department of Justice). While living in Washington, D.C., as solicitor general, Taft became close to Theodore Roosevelt, then a civil service commissioner. Taft later petitioned his fellow Ohioan, President William McKinley, to obtain Roosevelt's appointment as assistant secretary of the Navy. Against his wife's preferences, in 1892 Taft accepted appointment as a judge of the Sixth U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals with jurisdiction over Ohio, Michigan, Kentucky, and Tennessee. While on that court, Taft also served, from 1896 to 1900, as a professor of law and dean of the University of Cincinnati Law School.

Governor General of the Philippines

Although content with his place on the Sixth U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals as a possible stepping stone to the Supreme Court, Taft knew that it was not enough for Nellie Taft. She wanted the White House, and she seldom hid her irritation over Taft's judicial ambitions. When a telegram from President McKinley in January 1900 summoned Taft to Washington, Nellie suspected that something was in the works. She would welcome her husband's appointment to the Supreme Court as a way of moving back to Washington, but she hoped the meeting with McKinley would open other doors. Her hope was fulfilled.

Out of the victory in the Spanish-American War, the Philippine Islands had become a U.S. protectorate. McKinley wanted Taft to go to the islands to set up a civilian government. This entailed drafting and implementing laws, a constitution, an administration, and a civil service bureaucracy. A civil commission was established toward that end, and McKinley offered to Taft the commission's presidency. Taft was hesitant to take this challenging job, in a distant corner of the world, but Republican leaders maintained that this task would distinguish him for future high office.

In going to the Philippines, Taft knew that he was stepping into a political storm. Seventy thousand U.S. soldiers were fighting in the islands to put down a rebellion of Filipino nationalists led by Emilio Aguinaldo. The ferocity of America's attempt to squash the rebellion was especially bloody and often horribly brutal. It left a black mark on the nation's honor, and the "yellow press" had a field day attacking U.S. conduct against the Filipinos. Additionally, political opposition was growing to what critics charged were McKinley's imperialist policies. But Nellie, surprised and overjoyed, urged Taft to take the job. The two traveled with their three children to the islands, where they lived like royalty for the next several years.

Upon arriving in the islands, Taft immediately clashed with the military governor, General Arthur MacArthur (the father of General Douglas MacArthur of World War II and Korean War fame). Taft viewed the military control of the islands as too brutal and unsympathetic to the islanders. Obtaining McArthur's removal after the capture of Aguinaldo, Taft quickly set to work drafting the Island's constitution. It included a Bill of Rights that was nearly identical to the first ten amendments to the U.S. Constitution, with the notable absence of the right to trial by jury. Central to the new governance structure was the role of civil governor, a post to which Taft was appointed. He established a civil service system, a judicial system, English-language public schools, a transportation network, and health care facilities. He also negotiated with the Vatican (the Roman Catholic papal headquarters in Rome) to purchase 390,000 acres of church property in the Philippines for $7.5 million. Taft distributed this land by way of low-cost mortgages to tens of thousands of Filipino peasants.

While in the Philippines, Taft had twice turned down President Roosevelt's offer of a Supreme Court appointment in order to finish his work in the Islands. Taft was loved and supported by many Filipino residents for his evenhanded governance. In Taft's own view, the Filipinos were not yet capable of governing themselves, and he believed that it would take years before self-rule would work. He foresaw a long period of U.S. instruction and protection of the islands through which the "immature" culture could be raised by American tutelage to capacities for independent governance. The Philippines did not achieve self-rule and independence until 1946.

Secretary of War

Had it not been for the opportunity to become Roosevelt's secretary of war, Nellie Taft would have urged her husband to stay in the Philippines. Taft accepted Roosevelt's offer because he believed that as secretary of war he would continue to oversee affairs in the Islands. During his four years as secretary of war (1904-1908), Taft became Roosevelt's chief agent, confidant, and troubleshooter in foreign affairs. He supervised the construction of the Panama Canal, made several voyages around the world for the President, supervised affairs in the Philippines, and functioned as the provisional governor of Cuba. He traveled more than any other cabinet minister, with over 255 days of his four years spent abroad on special missions. He was gone so often that the press began questioning his huge travel expenses—partly because he almost always took Nellie and at least one or two of his children along. Concerned about the public's opinion, Roosevelt asked Taft to have the voyages funded by Taft's wealthy brother, Charles, who already was underwriting much of Taft's living expenses in Washington, D.C. (In 1904, Charles—who had married a wealthy Ohio heiress—gave William 1,000 shares of Cleveland Gas Company stock, which added $8,000 a year to his income, a large sum in those days.) Always eager to help his brother, Charles Taft assumed the lion's share of William's travel expenses.