William Howard Taft

I have agreed with Simon & Schuster on my next book: a biography of William Howard Taft. He is like my other subjects in that he was an American leader and lawyer, somewhat overlooked. He is unlike my other subjects in that he was president, something Seward and Chase wanted but never achieved.

Here is a bit about Taft, from my proposal.

William Howard Taft was the only man ever to serve both as president and chief justice of the United States. People know his name, and they know that he was overweight, but they do not know much else. Library shelves are filled with books about Theodore Roosevelt, Taft’s predecessor in the White House, and Woodrow Wilson, his successor, but almost bare of books about Taft. He needs and deserves a new biography.

Taft’s five decades of public service started in 1881, not long after he graduated from Yale College and Cincinnati Law School. He was a public prosecutor in Cincinnati, then head of the internal revenue office responsible for Ohio, then a judge of the Cincinnati Superior Court. In 1890, President Benjamin Harrison named Taft as the nation’s solicitor general, at the time the deputy to the attorney general, frequently attending cabinet meetings and advising the president. Two years later, when Congress created the intermediate appellate courts, Harrison appointed Taft as a judge of the Sixth Circuit. One of Taft’s opinions while a circuit judge explains an important issue so well that it is still taught in almost every law school antitrust course.

President William McKinley summoned Judge Taft to Washington in 1900 and asked him to go to the Philippines, just acquired through the Spanish-American War, to form the first civilian government. Taft knew nothing about the Philippines and was not in favor of American colonies. So he agreed reluctantly, but he agreed, and soon Taft and his wife and three young children sailed for the Philippines, where he would remain for most of the next four years. Fighting was still in progress, between the American Army and Filipino independence forces, when Taft arrived in Manila, and fighting would continue to an extent throughout his time in the Islands.

Taft helped convince most Filipinos, however, that they were better off working with than fighting against America. He did this by drafting sensible laws, by giving Filipinos substantial local control, and perhaps above all through his warm personal relations with local leaders. When President Theodore Roosevelt offered chance the Taft to return to the United States, to fill a vacant seat on the Supreme Court, the president received letters from Filipino leaders begging him to change course, telling him of their “absolute confidence” in Taft. Roosevelt relented, writing to Taft that “in view of the protests of the Philippine people, I do not see how I could take you away.”

Taft returned to Washington in 1904, to become Secretary of War, responsible not only for the Philippines but also construction of the Panama Canal and various other projects. For example, when Roosevelt faced a rebellion in Cuba, he sent Taft there, to form a provisional American government, and to persuade the rebels to lay down their arms. “Merely to record the movements of the Secretary of War requires a nimble mind,” one paper enthused, as Taft returned from Cuba and headed out on the campaign trail in the fall of 1906.

With help from Roosevelt, but also with much work on his own, Taft secured the Republican nomination in 1908, then triumphed over his Democratic opponent William Jennings Bryan. It was in some senses the first modern campaign, with both Taft and Bryan recording remarks on vinyl records, so that people could hear as well as read their views. Overruling his advisers, who wanted him to stick close to home, as many candidates did, Taft traveled widely, often making five or ten short speeches in a single day. Taft sometimes claimed that he did not like making speeches—and historians believed him—but when one looks at how he campaigned in 1908—and indeed his whole life of speechmaking—one must question this claim.

Taft was a quiet, competent president, who kept the nation out of war (notably the Mexican Revolution) and improved relations with Canada (although he failed in his attempt at creating a special trade zone). Taft spoke out in favor of black rights; he was a friend of the foremost black American, Booker T. Washington; he was the first president to attend services at a synagogue. In the most recent C-SPAN ranking of the presidents, Taft was number twenty-four. Taft’s main weakness, in such rankings, is that he was not as dramatic or radical as Roosevelt or Wilson.

Believing in 1912 that Taft was too conservative, that he alone could lead the nation in the right direction, Roosevelt recklessly decided to challenge Taft for the Republican nomination. After Taft prevailed, at a bitterly contested national convention, Roosevelt refused to accept defeat. Putting personal pride over the party of which he had been a member his whole life, Roosevelt formed a new third party and thereby ensured that Wilson would win the election. Taft suffered the worst general election defeat of any sitting president, coming in a dismal third, behind Wilson and Roosevelt.

Taft made good use of the next eight years. He lived in New Haven and taught at Yale; he gave dozens of major speeches; he wrote articles and books; and he established himself as a bipartisan senior statesman. During the First World War, he accepted an invitation from Wilson to serve as co-chairman of the National War Labor Board, a role in which he often sided with labor against management. He helped to create and to lead the League to Enforce Peace, a group dedicated to preventing future wars by creating a binding international legal regime to resolve disputes. Although Taft’s concept of an international organization differed from Wilson’s, Taft was one of the very few Republicans to support Wilson in his effort to create a League of Nations.

When Chief Justice Edward White died in 1921, President Warren Harding named Taft as the next chief justice. Although Taft was not a great president, he was a great chief justice, indeed the greatest since John Marshall. It was Taft who devised and pushed through Congress legislation to give the Court control over its own agenda, so that it did not waste time on trivial cases. And it was Taft who persuaded Congress to provide funds for a separate Supreme Court building—until this time the Court met in cramped quarters in the Capitol. When Taft resigned from the Court, just before his death, the architect of the new building wrote to him that “I shall always think of you as the real author of the project and the one to whose vision we shall owe a suitable housing for the Supreme Court.”

The one thing most people know about Taft is that he was our heaviest president. He was quite heavy, but a reporter commented that one could not watch him dance “without a feeling of astonishment that one so ponderous can move so lightly.” Taft also fought against his weight, and in the year after leaving the White House he managed, through careful diet and exercise, to lose seventy pounds. He kept the weight off for the rest of his life, but his poor health habits eventually caught up with him—he was only seventy-two when he died.

Taft was part of a powerful political family. His father Alphonso was a member of the Grant cabinet; his brother Charles was a leading editor and member of Congress; his son Robert, known as “Mr. Republican,” was a federal representative and senator; other descendants have served as governors and ambassadors and senior government lawyers.

Perhaps the most remarkable member of this family was Taft’s wife, the ambitious and accomplished Helen Herron Taft. She was the driving force behind the creation of the Cincinnati Symphony Orchestra, heading its first board of directors, composed only of women. She accompanied her husband to the Philippines, and in tours of the Islands, helping strengthen good relations. She was the first woman to ride with her husband the president in the inaugural parade, a symbol of the leading role she planned to take in the administration. She supported women’s suffrage and arranged for planting three thousand Japanese cherry trees in Washington. She would have accomplished more if she had not suffered a severe stroke, during the first year of her husband’s presidency, which thereafter limited her public appearances.

Taft was more widely traveled, when he became president, than any prior president. He had lived in the Philippines for four years, visiting many of the Islands, including remote villages. He had visited a dozen other nations, including Canada (where his family spent their summer vacations), China, Cuba, England, France, Italy, Jamaica, Japan, Panama, and Russia (which he had crossed by the relatively new Siberian Railroad). Taft knew and interacted with almost every president from Ulysses Grant through Herbert Hoover. He also knew and worked with almost every member of the Supreme Court over forty years, including the liberals Oliver Wendell Holmes and Louis Brandeis, who came to like and respect Chief Justice Taft.

Indeed, almost everyone liked William Howard Taft. He was good company: genial, pleasant, humorous. Theodore Roosevelt, during the 1908 campaign, urged Taft to smile more because “your nature shines out so transparently when you do smile—you big, generous, high-minded fellow.” Roosevelt’s daughter Alice, who was often harsh in her judgments of people, wrote that “I have never met anyone else with the equanimity, amiability, and kindliness of Mr. Taft.”




  1. Ernie Shannon on April 30, 2022 at 12:00 pm

    Mr. Stahr, just yesterday I picked up your Chase book at the local library and I have really enjoyed the intro. I’m looking forward to a good read. As I stroll through your blog, I find I really appreciate your openness about the challenges, opportunities and joys which biography writing has presented to you over the years. Book writing is a fascinating process. I will anticipate your Taft book in a couple of years.

    • Robert Dropkin,MD on June 20, 2022 at 10:49 am

      I just finished your Chase volume and placed it next to Seward and Stanton. After Taft, may I suggest the Blair family? Their role in the politics of the time would be a fascinating read! Thank you for your scholarly contributions to American history.

  2. Roger Feenstra on September 27, 2023 at 5:55 pm

    Thanks. I am compelled to read your book based on the proposal. If someone were to ask me, “Who was Taft?” I would reply, “He was one of our Presidents.” I’m ignorant of anything else about his life. Looking forward to it.

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