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William Howard Taft - 27th President of the United States

Portrait of William H. Taft (National Archives)
Portrait of William H. Taft (National Archives)

William Howard Taft (1857-1930 ), the twenty-seventh President of the United States, was born in Cincinnati, Ohio, on the 15th of September 1857. His father, Alphonso Taft (1810-1891), born in Townshend, Vermont, graduated at Yale College in 1833, became a tutor there, studied law at the Yale Law School, was admitted to the Connecticut bar in 1838, moved to Cincinnati in 1839, and became one of the most influential citizens of Ohio. He served as judge of the Superior Court (1865-72), as secretary of war (1876) and as attorney-general of the United States (1876-77) in President Grant's cabinet; and as minister to Austria-Hungary (1882-84) and to Russia (1884-85).

William Howard Taft attended the public schools of Cincinnati, graduated at the Woodward High School of that city in 1874, and in the autumn entered Yale College, where he took high rank as a student and was prominent in athletics and in the social life of the institution. He graduated second (salutatorian) in his class in 1878, and began to study law in Cincinnati College, where he graduated in 1880, dividing the first prize for scholarship. He was admitted to the Ohio bar in 1880. For a few months he worked as a legal reporter for the Cincinnati Times (owned by his brother C. P. Taft), and then for the Cincinnati Commercial.

Early in 1881 he was appointed assistant prosecuting attorney of Hamilton county (in which Cincinnati is situated), but resigned in 1882 on being appointed collector of internal revenue of the United States for the first district of Ohio. The work was distasteful, however, and in 1883 he resigned to return to the law.

From 1885 to 1887 he served as assistant solicitor of Hamilton county, and in the latter year was appointed judge of the Superior Court of Ohio to fill a vacancy. He was elected by the people in the next year and served until 1890, when he was appointed solicitor-general of the United States by President Benjamin Harrison. His work in connexion with the drafting of the Sherman Anti-Trust Act and with the Bering Sea controversy attracted attention. In 1892 he was appointed a judge of the Sixth Circuit. United States Court, and became known as a fearless administrator of the law.

Several decisions were particularly objectionable to organized labour. The first of these, decided in 1890, upheld the verdict of a jury awarding damages to the Moores Lime Company, which had sustained a secondary boycott because it had sold material to a contractor who had been boycotted by Bricklayers Union No. 1. The second decision grew out of the attempt of the Brotherhood of Locomotive Engineers to prevent other roads from accepting freight from the Toledo, Ann. Arbor & North Michigan railroad, against which a "legal" strike had been declared. Judge Taft granted an injunction (7th March 1893) against the Pennsylvania railroad, making P. M. Arthur, chief of the Brotherhood, a party, and called Rule 12, forbidding engineers to haul the freight criminal.

During the great railway strikes of 1894, Eugene V. Debs, president of the American Railway Union, sent one Frank V. Phelan to tie up traffic in and around Cincinnati. The receiver of the Cincinnati, New Orleans & Texas Pacific railway applied for an injunction against Phelan and others, which was granted. Phelan disobeyed the injunction and on July 13, 1894 was sentenced to jail for six months for contempt. The doctrine that "the starvation of a nation cannot be the lawful purpose of a combination" was announced, and Judge Taft said further that "if there is any power in the army of the United States to run those trains, the trains will be run."

In 1896—1900 Judge Taft was professor and dean of the law department of the University of Cincinnati. A movement to elect Mr Taft president of Yale University gained some strength in 1898—99, but was promptly checked by him, on the ground that the head of a great university should be primarily an educationalist.

In 1900 he was asked by President McKinley to accept the presidency of the Philippine Commission charged with the administration of the islands. Though he had been opposed to the acquisition of the Philippines, he did not believe that the inhabitants were capable of self-government, and he foresaw some of the difficulties of the position. Yielding, however, to the urgent request of the president and his cabinet, he accepted and served from the 13th of March 1900 to the 1st of February 1904. On the establishment of civil government in the islands, on the 4th of July 1901, he became governor, ex officio. The task of constructing a system of government from the bottom, of reconciling the conflicting and often jealously sensitive elements, called for tact, firmness, industry and deep insight into human nature, all of which Governor Taft displayed in a marked degree.

The religious orders had been driven out during the insurrection, but held title to large tracts of land which many Filipinos and some Americans wished to confiscate. This delicate matter was arranged by Mr Taft in a personal interview with Pope Leo XIII in the summer of 1902. The pope sent a special delegate to appraise the lands, and the sum of $7,239,000 was paid in December 1903. Mr Taft gained great influence among the more conservative Filipinos, and their entreaties to him to remain influenced him to decline the offer of a place upon the Supreme bench offered by President Roosevelt in 1902.

Finally, feeling that his work was accomplished, Mr. Taft returned to the United States to become secretary of war from February 1, 1904. With a party of congressmen he visited the Philippines on a tour of inspection July-September 1905, and in September 1906, on the downfall of the Cuban republic and the intervention of America, he took temporary charge of affairs in that island (September—October). In the next year (March—April) he inspected the Panama Canal and also visited Cuba and Porto Rico. He again visited the Philippines to open the first legislative assembly (16th October 1907), and returned by way of the Trans-Siberian railway. On this tour he visited Japan, and on the 2nd of October, at Tokyo, made a speech which had an important effect in quieting the apprehensions of the Japanese on the score of the treatment of their people on the Pacific coast.

With the approach of the presidential election of 1908, President Roosevelt reiterated his pledge not to accept another nomination, and threw his immense influence in favour of Mr Taft. At the Republican convention held in Chicago, in June, Mr Taft was nominated on the first ballot, receiving 702 out of 980 votes cast. James S. Sherman of New York was nominated for Vice-President. During the campaign many prominent labour leaders opposed the election of Mr Taft, on the ground that his decisions while on the bench had been unfriendly to organized labour. In the campaign Mr Taft boldly defended his course from the platform, and apparently lost few votes on account of this opposition. At the ensuing election in November, Taft and Sherman received 321 electoral votes against 162 cast for William Jennings Bryan and John W. Kern, the Democratic candidates.

In his inaugural address (March 4, 1909) President Taft announced himself as favouring the maintenance and enforcement of the reforms initiated by President Roosevelt (including a strict enforcement of the Sherman Anti-Trust Act, an effective measure for railway rate regulation, and the policy of conservation of natural resources); the revision of the tariff on the basis of affording protection to American manufactures equal to the difference between home and foreign cost of production; a graduated inheritance tax; a strong navy as the best guarantee of peace; postal savings banks; free trade with the Philippine Islands; and mail subsidies for American ships.

In accordance with his pre-election pledge, Congress was called to meet in extra session on the 15th of March to revise the nation's tariff rates. Hearings had been previously held by the Ways and Means Committee of the House of Representatives, and a measure was promptly reported. After passing the House it was sent to the Senate, where it was much changed. The final Payne-Aldrich Act was approved by the President on the 5th of August 1909, though in many respects it was not the measure he desired. The wish to meet people of the different sections of the country and to explain his position upon the questions of the day led the President to begin (14th September 1909), a tour which included the Pacific coast, the South-west, the Mississippi Valley and the South Atlantic states, and during which he travelled 13,000 miles and made 266 speeches.

Reference: Excerpts of the above History article are from the 1911 edition Encyclopedia.


Photographs and Documents of President William Howard Taft

Political cartoon Taft Boom., 12/21/1907 (National Archives)
This cartoon features William Howard Taft and the support for his presidency. Taft has just returned from his Russian trip. Political cartoon - “Taft Boom.”, 12/21/1907 (National Archives)

Message of President William H. Taft nominating Knox to be Secretary of State, 03/05/1909 (National Archives)
Message of President William H. Taft nominating Knox to be Secretary of State, 03/05/1909 (National Archives)

They're Good Things! Push 'em Along., 01/01/1908 (National Archives)
This cartoon is a New Year's Day cartoon featuring, among others, William Jennings Bryan, Joseph G. Cannon, and William Howard Taft. “They're Good Things! Push 'em Along”., 01/01/1908 (National Archives)

Quick Facts about President William Howard Taft

Rank: 27th (1909-1913)
Followed: Theodore Roosevelt
Succeeded by: Woodrow Wilson
Date of Birth September 15, 1857
Place of Birth: Cincinnati, Ohio
Date of Death: March 8, 1930
Place of Death: Washington, D.C.
First Lady: Helen Herron
Profession: lawyer
Political Party: Republican
Vice President: James S. Sherman

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