William Howard Taft (September 15, 1857 – March 8, 1930) was the 27th President of the United States (1909–1913) and later the tenth Chief Justice of the United States (1921–1930). He is the only person to have served in both offices, and along with James Polk, one of two presidents to have also headed another branch of the federal government.
Though his administration had adopted some anti-trust policies, Taft generally embraced a non-interventionist approach to the problems that plagued American society in 1912. When asked by reporters in 1912 how he would relieve the nation’s severe unemployment, Taft replied, “God knows,” a position not calculated to win over many working-class voters.
In the 1912 presidential election, Republican incumbent William Howard Taft faced not one but three opponents: moderate Democratic Governor Woodrow Wilson, former President Theodore Roosevelt leading the breakaway Bull Moose party, and Socialist Party stalwart Eugene Debs, running for the fourth time.
William Howard Taft was born on December 5, 1857, in Cincinnati, Ohio, the son of a prominent attorney who had served in the Grant cabinet and later as American minister to Russia and Austria-Hungary.
In 1900 fellow Ohioan President William McKinley persuaded Taft to resign his judgeship in favor of leading a Philippine Commission. In this role Taft was in charge of ending military rule setting up the civilian government of the islands as an American colony. Taft became the first governor of the Philippines in 1901.
Taft's domestic policy featured active pursuit of trust-busting and strengthening the Interstate Commerce Commission. However, he lost the support of the Republican Party's progressive wing because of a botched performance on the tariff and an unfortunate conservation controversy.
In 1904 Roosevelt named Taft secretary of war. In this position he played a role in the construction of the Panama Canal and in establishing a protectorate in Cuba.
Taft and Roosevelt were friends. They shared a common commitment to imperialism, as well as a belief that the power of the executive branch should expand, especially to regulate the investment decisions of large corporations. When Roosevelt decided not to run for another term in 1908, he threw his support to Taft, who defeated the Democratic nominee, William Jennings Bryan in the general election.
After completing his term as president, Taft took a position teaching at the Yale University Law School. President Warren G. Harding appointed Taft as chief justice of the United States Supreme Court in 1921, a position that he held until his death on March 8, 1930. Taft is the only person in American history to serve as head of both the executive and judicial branches of the national government.
He actively advised President Harding on his appointments and helped put on the Court a group of conservative, undistinguished jurists with antiquated views. Taft retired from the Court on February 3, 1930, due to ill health, and he died the next month.
The Great Depression was just beginning to take its toll, and the conservatives brought to the Court by Taft would soon oppose at every turn the policies of the New Deal under President Franklin Delano Roosevelt.
By defending the Payne-Aldrich Act, which unexpectedly continued high tariff rates, Taft alienated many liberal Republicans who later formed the Progressive Party. He further antagonized progressives by upholding his secretary of the interior, accused of failing to carry out Roosevelt’s conservation policies.
In the angry Progressive onslaught against him, little attention was paid to the fact that his administration initiated 80 antitrust suits and that Congress submitted to the states amendments for a federal income tax and the direct election of senators. A postal savings system was established, and the Interstate Commerce Commission was directed to set railroad rates.
On election day, Wilson beat the split Republicans decisively in the Electoral College. Taft carried only two minor states, Utah and Vermont. Wilson compiled 435 electoral votes to 88 for Roosevelt and 8 for Taft. Gauging from the election results, had the Republicans united behind Roosevelt, he probably would have won the election in view of the fact that Taft and Roosevelt won a larger combined popular vote than Wilson.
What most people associated with Taft, however, was his enormous size, and the image of his 300 plus pounds of presidential flesh offended some people and amused many others. When he became stuck in the presidential bath tub, requiring six men to pull him free, the nation's press had a field day.
The head of the Forest Service, Gifford Pinchot, launched scathing attacks on Taft's Secretary of the Interior Richard Ballinger. Pinchot believed the secretary opposed conservation and brought forth charges of questionable actions and potentially inappropriate ties between big business and Ballinger. In the end, President Taft sided with Ballinger, fired Pinchot, and alienated himself from Theodore Roosevelt.