Helen Taft

Helen Taft

It was not William Howard Taft's highest ambition to become President of the United States: it was his wife's. Of the two, it was Helen "Nellie" Herron Taft who was most ambitious to attain the White House. While her husband served in state and federal judgeships, as U.S. solicitor general, governor of the Philippines, and secretary of war, it was Nellie who kept her eyes focused on presidential politics. Others, including President Theodore Roosevelt, urged Taft to think of himself as a potential Republican nominee in 1908, but it was Nellie who most influenced his decision not to accept opportunities in 1902 and again in 1906 not to accept proffered appointment to the U.S. Supreme Court. Taft's victory in the presidential election of 1908 left Nellie triumphant.

Helen Herron Taft’s political ambitions for her husband, along with her avid interest in politics, were connected to her discomfort with the peripheral role assigned to young women of her class in late nineteenth-century America. Far more than a social decoration, Mrs. Taft was a well-educated, imaginative, and energetic person in a time and place that offered a woman of her genteel class few opportunities for direct expression of her abilities. Thus, her husband and children were necessarily the outlets for her powers.

Mrs. Taft reveled in her husband’s inauguration, and she proudly became the first presidential wife to ride next to her husband in the procession from the Capitol to the White House after the inauguration. Once in the White House, Mrs. Taft’s attentions turned away from politics and more towards the operation of the executive mansion and its complex social activities.  She later observed about her life after entry to the White House:  “My very active participation in my husband’s career came to an end when he became President.” She added, "in the White House I found my own duties too engrossing to permit me to follow him long or very far into the governmental maze . . . ."

Mrs. Taft introduced a heightened formality to the White House with liveried footmen posted at the public entrance to receive visitors and direct tourists. She initially increased the White House's formal entertainments over the pace of the prior administration, organizing formal dinners, White House musicales, and lavish garden parties. However, her public role came to an abrupt halt when she suffered a stroke in 1909. She was thus forced to surrender her responsibilities to her daughter Helen and sisters Eleanor More, Maria Herron, and Jennie Anderson. Although she initially lost the power of speech, within two years she had regained her voice and resumed her First Lady duties, even throwing and enjoying her twenty-fifth wedding anniversary party, which she and the President celebrated with hundreds of guests. It was to be the last truly happy White House event that Nellie Taft would hostess.

Helen had been suspicious of Teddy Roosevelt's presidential ambitions for 1912, but William Howard Taft was not as worried and declined to believe his good friend would try to usurp his role. In this instance, his wife's appraisal proved accurate. Much to his dismay, and even more to hers, Teddy Roosevelt's "Bull Moose" campaign divided Republican support between the former allies. As a result, the Tafts were forced to leave the White House following the President's third-place finish behind Roosevelt and Woodrow Wilson, the eventual winner. 

Helen Herron Taft's legacy in Washington, D.C., continues to this day, represented each spring with the blooming of the Japanese cherry trees that line the capital's tidal basin. They result form Mrs. Taft's campaign in 1909 for planting thousands of the young flowering trees that she recalled from her years in Asia while her husband was governor of the Philippines. And visitors to the Smithsonian museums see Mrs. Taft's influence in that institution's stunning collection of First Ladies' inaugural gowns, a collection that began with Mrs. Taft's own. 

After their White House years, Helen Taft took up residence with her husband in New Haven, Connecticut, as he joined the faculty of the Yale Law School. Ironically, she returned to her beloved Washington in 1921 when her husband was given the office to which he had aspired most of his adult life, chief justice of the U.S. Supreme Court. Helen Herron Taft died in 1943, thirteen years after her husband's death.