Young William attended Cincinnati's First Congregational-Unitarian Church with his parents; he joined the congregation at an early age and was an enthusiastic participant. As he rose in the government, he spent little time in Cincinnati. He attended the church much less frequently than he had but worshiped there when he could.
Taft attended Woodward High School in Cincinnati, and laid the cornerstone of the new Woodward High School, now the site of the School for Creative and Performing Arts (SCPA). Like others in his family, he attended Yale College in New Haven, Connecticut. At Yale, he was a member of the Linonian Society, a literary and debating society; Skull and Bones, the secret society co-founded by his father in 1832; and the Beta chapter of the Psi Upsilon fraternity. He was given the nickname "Big Lub" because of his size, but his college friends knew him by the nickname "Old Bill". Taft received comments, sometimes humorous, about his weight. Making positive use of his stature, Taft was Yale's intramural heavyweight wrestling champion. In 1878, Taft graduated, ranking second in his class out of 121. After college, he attended Cincinnati Law School, graduating with a Bachelor of Laws in 1880. While in law school, he worked on the area newspaper The Cincinnati Commercial.
After admission to the Ohio bar, Taft was appointed Assistant Prosecutor of Hamilton County, Ohio, based in Cincinnati. In 1882, he was appointed local Collector of Internal Revenue. Taft married his longtime sweetheart, Helen Herron, in Cincinnati in 1886. In 1887, he was appointed a judge of the Superior Court of Cincinnati. In 1890, President Benjamin Harrison appointed him Solicitor General of the United States; at age 32, he was the youngest-ever Solicitor General. Taft then began serving on the newly created United States Court of Appeals for the Sixth Circuit in 1891; he was confirmed by the Senate on March 17, 1892, and received his commission that same day. In about 1893, Taft decided in favor of the processing aluminum patents belonging to the Pittsburgh Reduction Company, now known as Alcoa. Along with his judgeship, between 1896 and 1900 Taft also served as the first dean and a professor of constitutional law at the University of Cincinnati.
In 1900, President William McKinley appointed Taft chairman of a commission to organize a civilian government in the Philippines which had been ceded to the United States by Spain following the Spanish–American War and the 1898 Treaty of Paris. Although Taft had been opposed to the annexation of the islands, and had told McKinley his real ambition was to become a justice of the Supreme Court of the United States, he reluctantly accepted the appointment.
From 1901 to 1904, Taft served as the first civilian Governor-General of the Philippines, a position in which he was very popular with both Americans and Filipinos. In 1902, Taft visited Rome to negotiate with Pope Leo XIII for the purchase of Philippine lands owned by the Roman Catholic Church. Taft then persuaded Congress to appropriate more than $7 million to purchase these lands, which he sold to Filipinos on easy terms. In 1903, President Theodore Roosevelt offered Taft the seat on the Supreme Court to which he had for so long aspired, but he reluctantly declined since he viewed the Filipinos as not yet being capable of governing themselves and because of his popularity among them. This decision was one among many in Taft's career which demonstrated a compulsive dedication to the job at hand, without regard to his self-interest. (Roosevelt actually made the offer of a seat on the Court on several different occasions, being met with a decline every time.) This dedication to the task at hand was the source of much frustration of his political colleagues. According to biographer Anderson, contrary to the belief of Roosevelt and other allies, Taft's role as Governor-General in the Philippines did not serve to equip him with the political skills essential for the White House.
In 1904, Roosevelt appointed Taft as Secretary of War. This appointment allowed Taft to remain involved in the Philippines and Roosevelt also assured Taft he would support his later appointment to the Court, while Taft agreed to support Roosevelt in the Presidential election of 1904. Roosevelt made the basic policy decisions regarding military affairs, using Taft as a well-traveled spokesman who campaigned for Roosevelt's reelection in 1904. Of Taft's appointment, Roosevelt said, "If only there were three of you; I could appoint one of you to the Court, one to the War Department and one to the Philippines." Taft met with the Emperor of Japan who alerted him of the probability of war with Russia. In 1905, Taft met with Japanese Prime Minister Katsura Tarō. At that meeting, the two signed a secret diplomatic memorandum now called the Taft–Katsura Agreement. Contrary to rumor, the memorandum did not establish any new policies but instead repeated the public positions of both nations.
In 1906, President Roosevelt sent troops to restore order in Cuba during the revolt led by General Enrique Loynaz del Castillo, and Taft temporarily became the Civil Governor of Cuba, personally negotiating with Castillo for a peaceful end to the revolt. Also in that year Roosevelt made his third offer to Taft of a position on the Court which he again declined out of a sense of duty to resolve pending issues in the Philippines. Had it been for the Chief Justice seat, a different result may well have ensued.
Taft indicated to Roosevelt he wanted to be Chief Justice of the Supreme Court, not President, but there was no vacancy and Roosevelt had other plans – in 1907 he began touting Taft as the best choice for the Presidential nomination by the party. Taft's spouse was determined to gain the White House and pressured him not to accept a court appointment; other family members also strongly favored the Presidency for him. He gave Taft more responsibilities along with the Philippines and the Panama Canal. For a while, Taft was Acting Secretary of State. When Roosevelt was away, Taft was, in effect, the Acting President. While serving as the War Secretary Taft generally concentrated on major developments, including the Philippines and the Panama Canal, to the detriment of departmental housekeeping problems, including factionalism within the Department, of which Roosevelt was aware. In 1907 the Hay–Bunau-Varilla Treaty granted the U.S. construction rights for the Panama Canal, which Roosevelt delegated to the War Department, and Taft thereby supervised the beginning of construction on the Canal. Taft promoted a reduction in the tariffs on sugar and tobacco in the Philippines, a position with which Roosevelt disagreed; Taft offered to resign but this was refused by Roosevelt. Taft also had a disagreement with Roosevelt over the latter's conclusion of an executive agreement with the Dominican Republic, in lieu of what Taft thought should have been a treaty, requiring ratification by the Senate. Roosevelt dismissed the complaint as "trifling", and Taft, in his usual style, let it go.
Theodore Roosevelt became president after William McKinley was assassinated in 1901. After getting elected president in his own right in 1904, on election night on the lawn of the White House, Roosevelt publicly declared he would not run for reelection in 1908, a decision that he immediately regretted. But he felt bound by his word. Taft was the logical successor, but he was initially reluctant to run, as he had been earlier. As a member of Roosevelt's cabinet, he had declared that his future ambition was to serve on the Supreme Court, not the White House. Taft's efforts in stumping for the party in the 1906 mid-term elections made him aware of his deficiencies as an effective campaigner. Mrs. Taft even commented during this time, "never did he cease to regard a Supreme Court appointment as more desirable than the presidency." But,Taft conceded, with his extensive involvement as the most prominent member of the cabinet, that he was the most "available" man; thus he agreed that were he to be nominated for president, he would put his personal convictions aside and run a vigorous campaign.
Taft did not enjoy the easy relationship with the press that Roosevelt had, choosing not to offer himself for interviews or photo opportunities as often as the previous president had done. When a reporter informed him he was no Teddy Roosevelt, Taft replied that his main goal was to "try to accomplish just as much without any noise". Taft even made executive decisions (see below) demonstrating his indifference with the press. Indeed, Taft's administration marked a change in style from the political charisma of Roosevelt to the passion of Taft for the rule of law. Taft, in fashioning his cabinet, showed also that he was not unwilling to depart to some degree from Roosevelt's progressivism; he named an anti-progressive, Philander Chase Knox Secretary of State, who had primary influence over other appointments.
Taft considered himself a progressive, in part from his belief in an expansive use of the rule of law, as the prevailing device that should be actively used by judges and others in authority to solve society's, and even the world's, problems. But his devotion to the law also often made Taft a slave to precedent, and less adroit in politics than Roosevelt; he therefore lacked the flexibility, creativity and personal magnetism of his mentor, not to mention the publicity devices, the dedicated supporters, and the broad base of public support that made Roosevelt so formidable.
When Roosevelt realized that lowering the tariff would divide the Republican Party, he assumed a low profile on that issue. Taft ignored the political effects and kept the tariff rates on his agenda (he had raised expectations of lower rates in the campaign); he passively encouraged congressional reformers to draft bills including lower rates, while broadcasting a willingness to compromise with conservative leaders in the Congress, who wanted to keep tariff rates high. Taft described this approach as his "policy of harmony" with the Congress. The President displayed a more aggressive role early in the drafting of tariff legislation as it regarded the Philippines. He also assumed a similar role in pushing for a corporate income tax. On other matters, he was content to wait until legislation reached its final stage in a joint House - Senate conference committee. Once there, however, he jumped in with both feet, calling each and every member of the committee for a one-on-one meeting at the White House. The resulting tariff rates in the Payne - Aldrich Tariff Act of 1909 were too high for the progressives, based in part on Taft's campaign promises; but instead of blaming the act's shortcomings on Senator Nelson W. Aldrich and big business, Taft claimed the responsibility, calling it the best bill to come from the Republican Party. Again, due to his results-oriented style, politically he had managed to alienate all sides. The Bureau of Trade Relations later concluded the act overall was moderately successful in lowering rates. Congress refused however to fund the Tariff Board which the President included in the Payne - Aldrich Bill, which would have removed the setting of rates from direct continual Congressional manipulation.
Taft's administration got a political boost after 25 western railroads announced an intent to raise rates by 20%, and Taft responded, first with a threat to enforce the Sherman Antitrust Act against them; he then negotiated a settlement whereby they agreed to submit delayed rate requests to a new Interstate Commerce Commission having authority over rate requests.
In late 1911, President Taft called for a “central organization in touch with associations and chambers of commerce throughout the country.” Just four months later, on April 22, 1912, Taft created the United States Chamber of Commerce as a counterbalance to the rise of the labor movement at the time.
Taft's obsession with the law over politics created more trouble for him in the well noted dispute between his Interior Secretary, Richard Achilles Ballinger, and the Chief of the Forestry Service, Gifford Pinchot. Ballinger's job was to assure the proper legal form of land withdrawals made from the private sector as part of Roosevelt's conservation policy. Ballinger's review in many instances concluded that the legalities were lacking and lands had to be returned to private owners. Pinchot led the objections to these returns, and even convinced an Interior Department subordinate, Louis Glavis, to bring an accusation against Ballinger for fraud and collusion with corporate timber interests. Taft refused to intervene until the resulting discord in the cabinet forced him to act. The President reviewed the matter, then fired Glavis and Pinchot; Ballinger also tendered his resignation, which would have further served to end the matter were it not for Taft's refusal to accept it. By that time the political damage had been done, with further alienation of the Progressives from the administration.
In the area of federal spending, Taft initiated reforms which would revolutionize the Executive's role in the federal government's budget process. Previously, each executive department presented to the Treasury Dept. its own expense estimates, which were then forwarded to the Congress. Taft ordered each department to begin submitting its requests to the cabinet for review. The first such round of requests and cabinet reviews resulted in a reduction of $92 million, representing the first actual presidential budget in modern history. Taft then requested, and received, approval and funding to create the Commission on Economy and Efficiency to study the budgeting process. The study recommended the President be required early in the Congressional session to present the legislature with a comprehensive budget. This recommendation ultimately became law with passage of the Budget and Accounting Act of 1921.
Taft's "policy of harmony" with Congress facilitated passage of most of his legislative program. Nevertheless, in the 1910 midterm elections, the Democrats assumed control of the House for the first time in 16 years. At the same time, in the Senate, while the Republicans retained their majority, they lost 8 seats.
To solve an impasse during the 1909 tariff debate, Taft proposed income taxes for corporations and a constitutional amendment to remove the apportionment requirement for taxes on incomes from property (taxes on dividends, interest, and rents), on June 16, 1909. His proposed tax on corporate net income was 1% on net profits over $5,000. It was designated an excise on the privilege of doing business as a corporation whose stockholders enjoyed the privilege of limited liability, and not a tax on incomes as such. In 1911, the Supreme Court, in Flint v. Stone Tracy Co., upheld the tax. Receipts grew from $21 million in the fiscal year 1910 to $34.8 million in 1912.
In July 1909, a proposed amendment to allow the federal government to tax incomes was passed unanimously in the Senate and by a vote of 318 to 14 in the House. It was quickly ratified by the states, and on February 3, 1913, it became a part of the Constitution as the Sixteenth Amendment.
Taft met with and publicly endorsed Booker T. Washington's program for uplifting the African American race, advising them to stay out of politics at the time and emphasize education and entrepreneurship. A supporter of free immigration, Taft vetoed a law passed by Congress and supported by labor unions that would have restricted unskilled laborers by imposing a literacy test.
The results of the 1910 elections made it clear to the President that Roosevelt had departed his camp, and that he might even contend for the party nomination in 1912. On his return from Europe, Roosevelt openly broke with Taft in one of the notable political feuds of the 20th century. To the surprise of observers who thought Roosevelt had unstoppable momentum, Taft determined he would not simply step aside for the popular ex-President, despite the diminished support he had in the party. Taft acknowledged this, saying, "the longer I am President, the less of a party man I seem to become." Roosevelt declared his candidacy for the Republican nomination in February 1912; Taft soon decided that he would focus on canvassing for delegates and not attempt at the outset to take on the more able campaigner one on one. As Roosevelt became more radical in his progressivism, Taft was hardened in his resolve to achieve re-nomination, as he was convinced that the Progressives threatened the very foundation of the government. Taft ultimately outmaneuvered Roosevelt and Senator Robert M. La Follette, Sr. in delegate count, regained control of the GOP convention; and defeated Roosevelt for the nomination.
Upon leaving the White House in 1913, Taft was appointed the Chancellor Kent Professor of Law and Legal History at Yale Law School. While at Yale, Taft was initiated as an honorary member of the Acacia Fraternity. At the same time, Taft was elected president of the American Bar Association. He spent much of his time writing newspaper articles and books, most notably his series on American legal philosophy. He was a vigorous opponent of prohibition in the United States, predicting the undesirable situation that the Eighteenth Amendment would create. He also continued to advocate world peace through international arbitration, urging nations to enter into arbitration treaties with each other and promoting the idea of a League of Nations even before the First World War began. Taft was elected a Fellow of the American Academy of Arts and Sciences in 1914.
When World War I did break out in Europe in 1914, however, Taft founded the League to Enforce Peace. He was a co-chairman of the powerful National War Labor Board between 1917 and 1918. Although he continually advocated peace, he strongly favored conscription once the United States entered the War, pleading publicly that the United States not fight a "finicky" war. He feared the war would be long, but was for fighting it out to a finish, given what he viewed as "Germany's brutality."
Taft retired as Chief Justice on February 3, 1930, because of ill health. Charles Evans Hughes, whom he had appointed as an Associate Justice while President, succeeded him as Chief Justice.
Five weeks following his retirement, Taft died on March 8, 1930, the same date as Associate Justice Edward Terry Sanford's unexpected death. As it was customary for members of the court to attend the funeral of deceased members, this posed a "logistical nightmare", necessitating cross-country travel. The house at which Taft died is now the diplomatic mission of the Syrian Arab Republic to the United States.
Three days following his death, on March 11, he became the first president to be buried at Arlington National Cemetery. James Earle Fraser sculpted his grave marker out of Stony Creek granite. Taft is one of two presidents buried at Arlington National Cemetery, and is one of four Chief Justices buried there. Taft was the only Chief Justice to have had a state funeral.
Taft is often remembered as being the most obese president. He was 5 feet, 11.5 inches tall; his weight peaked at 335–340 pounds toward the end of his Presidency. The truth of the often-told story of Taft getting stuck in a White House bathtub is unclear.
Evidence from eyewitnesses, and from Taft himself, strongly suggests that during his presidency he had severe obstructive sleep apnea. His chief symptom was somnolence. While President, he fell asleep during conversations, and at the dinner table, and even while standing. He was also strikingly hypertensive, with a systolic blood pressure over 200.
Within a year of leaving the presidency, Taft lost approximately 80 pounds (36 kg). His somnolence problem resolved and, less obviously, his systolic blood pressure dropped 40–50 mmHg (from 210 mmHg). Undoubtedly, this weight loss extended his life.
Soon after his weight loss, he had a revival of interest in the outdoors; this led him to explore Alaska. Beginning in 1920, Taft used a cane; this was a gift from Professor of Geology W. S. Foster, and was made of 250,000-year-old petrified wood.
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