Miller Center

American President

A Reference Resource

Domestic Affairs

William Howard Taft entered the White House determined to implement and continue Roosevelt's program. His central ambition regarding reform was to create an orderly framework for administering a reform agenda. His conception of executive leadership was primarily focused on administration rather than legislative agenda-setting. He felt most comfortable in executing the law, regardless of his personal feelings for the particular piece of legislation. However, during his presidency, Congress produced significant reform legislation. In one of his first acts in office, Taft called for a special session of Congress to reform tariff law through reduced rates.

Among the significant pieces of legislation passed by Congress during Taft's presidency was the Mann-Elkins Act of 1910, empowering the Interstate Commerce Commission to suspend railroad rate hikes and to set rates. The act also expanded the ICC's jurisdiction to cover telephones, telegraphs, and radio. Taft also placed 35,000 postmasters and 20,000 skilled workers in the Navy under civil service protection. In addition, the Department of Commerce and Labor was divided into two cabinet departments with Taft's approval. He also vetoed the admissions of Arizona and New Mexico to statehood because of their constitutional provision for the recall of judges. When the recall clauses were removed, Taft supported statehood. And while he pushed the passage of the Sixteenth Amendment (income tax), he only reluctantly advocated the Seventeenth Amendment (direct election of senators). Among his most controversial actions, Taft promoted an administrative innovation whereby the President, rather than the disparate agencies of government, would submit a budget to Congress. Congress prohibited that action, but Taft's effort foreshadowed the creation of the executive budget in the Budget and Accounting Act of 1921, which gave the President new capacities for efficiency and control in the executive branch.

Trust-Busting

Taft's intent to provide more efficient administration for existing reform policies was perfectly suited for the prosecution of antitrust violations. More trust prosecutions (99, in all) occurred under Taft than under Roosevelt, who was known as the "Great Trust-Buster." The two most famous antitrust cases under the Taft Administration, Standard Oil Company of New Jersey and the American Tobacco Company, were actually begun during the Roosevelt years. He also won a lawsuit against the American Sugar Refining Company to break up the "sugar trust" that rigged prices. And when Taft moved to break up U.S. Steel, Roosevelt accused him of a lack of insight—unable to distinguish between "good" and "bad" trusts. By 1911, however, Taft began to back away from his antitrust efforts, stung by the criticism of his conservative business supporters and unsure about the long-range effect of trust-busting on the national economy. Most importantly, Taft had surrounded himself with conservative businessmen who shared his love for golf and recreation at fine resorts. His new business cronies isolated Taft from the progressive followers of Roosevelt who had supported his election.

Presidential Missteps

Taft stumbled dramatically on two important occasions as President. The first misstep occurred with his special congressional session to revise the tariff downward. This move activated a concerted effort by the protectionist majority in the Republican Party to persuade Taft to back off on tariff reform. In the struggle over the tariff, Senator Nelson Aldrich of Rhode Island and Representative Sereno E. Payne of New York, representing big business, succeeded in pushing through a tariff (the Payne-Aldrich Tariff) that affected only modest reductions. Although during the course of congressional action Taft had threatened to veto a tariff bill with insufficient reductions, when the Payne-Aldrich bill came to his desk he signed it, later claiming it was the best tariff bill ever passed by Congress. Taft's reversal on tariff reform immediately alienated progressives who saw high tariffs as the "mother of trusts."

The second misstep involved his dismissal of Roosevelt's friend, the chief forester of the United States, Gifford Pinchot. The affair stemmed from Taft's appointment of Washington-state businessman Richard Ballinger as head of the Department of the Interior. Ballinger held that Roosevelt had improperly closed large sections of federal public-domain lands to economic development, re-opened some tracts, including rich coal lands in Alaska that Roosevelt had previously designated not for sale. Consequently, Pinchot launched a public attack on Ballinger, and indirectly on Taft, leaving the President with no alternative but to dismiss Pinchot. The resulting explosion tore the Republican Party apart and drove an inseparable wedge between Taft and his once-beloved friend and mentor, Theodore Roosevelt.