William Howard Taft served as the 27th president of the United States of America. His term began in 1909 after his predecessor, Roosevelt pushed for his nomination as the Republican Party presidential nominee. However his term ended unceremoniously after opposition from his party members led to a loss in the general election even a bitter and divisive second Republican Party nomination.
Before going into his term at White House, it is important to look at his career in the public service prior to his ascension to presidency in 1909. Taft attended Yale College in New Haven, Connecticut after which he was admitted to the bar in Ohio. Taft was then appointed Assistant Prosecutor of Hamilton County, Ohio. In 1882, he was promoted to be the local Collector of Internal Revenue. (Duffy, Herbert S, 1998)
In 1887, he was appointed as a judge of the Ohio Superior Court. In 1890, President Benjamin Harrison, appointed him as the Solicitor General of the United States. Harrison was to later promote him to the newly created United States Court of Appeals for the Sixth Circuit, a post he held until 1900. It was here that he met with Theodore Roosevelt.
His political career began in 1900 when President William McKinley appointed him as the chairman of a commission to organize a civilian government in the Philippines. This was after Spain ceded the Philippines to the United States following the Spanish-American War and the 1898 Treaty of Paris.
From 1901 to 1903, Taft served as the first civilian Governor-General of the Philippines. Taft negotiated with Pope Leo XIII for the purchase of lands in the Philippines owned by the Roman Catholic Church. He managed to persuade Congress to apportion funds for the purchase of the lands, which were then he sold to Filipinos on agreeable terms. (Duffy, Herbert S, 1998)
In 1904, President Roosevelt appointed him to the position of Secretary of War. This was more of a ceremonial position as Roosevelt made the basic policy decisions regarding military affairs. In 1905, Taft met with Japanese Prime Minister Katsura Taro where they signed a secret diplomatic memorandum commonly referred to as the Taft-Katsura Agreement.
In 1906, Taft temporarily became the Civil Governor of Cuba. This was after Roosevelt sent troops to restore order in Cuba after General Enrique Loynaz del Castillo led a revolt against the government. Taft personally negotiated with General Castillo for a peaceful end to the revolt. In 1907, Secretary Taft helped supervise the beginning of construction on the Panama Canal.
Taft became a close confidant of President Roosevelt and by the end of his term, he had decided that it was Taft who going to succeed him. He considered him the ideal candidate to carry on with his progressive reforms. Roosevelt was a champion of the progress movement and earned a name for his trust bursting activities.
In the early twentieth century a powerful shift from a laissez-faire system of government to government activism swept across America. This shift is referred to as the Progressive Movement. The proponents of the movement wanted rid politics of corruption and inefficiency, reduce the power of the business trusts, and protect the general welfare of the public. Their argument was that the government should also be an agent for social justice besides protecting the interests of private business and individual freedoms. Most of the leading progressives were white, middle-class urban professionals who felt alienated and frustrated by the uncontrolled growth of big business and the widening gap between the rich and poor in American society.
Theodore Roosevelt, like his fellow progressives, believed that the accumulation of power and wealth in the hands of private interests threatened the morality and stability of the nation. ( Mowry, Edwin G. 1946 ) In his first bid to enforce federal antitrust laws, in 1902 Roosevelt’s Attorney General, Philander Knox, took on J. P. Morgan’s Northern Securities Company for violating the Sherman Antitrust Act. After a two-year court battle, the giant railroad trust was busted. Roosevelt’s administration further initiated antitrust proceedings against over 40 more corporations including; the American Tobacco Company and Standard Oil.
The Progressive Movement succeeded in transforming the federal government into a powerful agent for economic stability and equality, just labor practices, proper management of natural resources, consumer protection and made it more honest, efficient and democratic. Women also played a vital role in the progressive movement, focusing on social issues like child labor, education, nutrition, health care, alcoholism and also won the right to vote in federal elections. (Gould, Lewis L.,1974)
Taft as stated earlier had been chosen by Roosevelt essentially to carry on with the progressive policies. In campaigning for Taft, he labeled him as a genuine progressive. The progressives famously quoted as stating that Roosevelt had cut enough hay, Taft was the man to put it into the barn. (Blum, John M., 1993) He did try to push the progressive agenda. To begin with he instituted and completed more antitrust cases. While Roosevelt managed to burst forty corporations, Taft managed eighty corporations.
He supported the proposed income-tax amendment to the U.S. Constitution commonly referred to as the sixteenth amendment. In addition he helped enact a system of postal savings and strengthened the Interstate Commerce Commission through the Mann-Elkins Bill. He supported social reforms, which included an employer’s liability law for work done on government jobs and a mandatory 8-hour day in federal employment. Through these reforms he was able to enlarge the civil service.
With regard to foreign policy, Taft instituted the Latin America policy commonly referred to as dollar policy. The emphasis was on improving the stability of Latin America governments so as to provide trade opportunities for the rapidly growing US economy.
One of Taft’s main goals while President was to enhance the idea of world peace. Given his judicial background, he believed that international arbitration was the best means to effectively the end of war on Earth. With this in mind, he championed several reciprocity and arbitration treaties. In 1910, he convinced congressional Democrats to support a reciprocity treaty with Canada. In 1910 and 1911, he secured the ratification of arbitration treaties with Britain and France. Taft is regarded as one of the greatest advocates of world peace and arbitration.
Taft was not a political leader. He was a lawyer by profession and his real ambition was to become a justice of the Supreme Court of the United States. When president McKinely appointed him the Civilian Governor of Philippines, he reluctantly agreed as he saw himself more suited to serve the judiciary.
Taft’s woes began with the tariff reform, which he had promised in his pre election campaigns. He called Congress into special session in 1909 and urged for a reduction in duties. This led to a protracted battle in the Senate. The Payne Bill was consequently amended leading to an increase in tariff rates on manufactured goods. This favored the industrial Northeast and led to resentment among Midwest progressives. By defending the Payne-Aldrich Act which led to high tariff rates, Taft alienated many progressive Republicans.
The progressive movement was a thorn in Taft’s flesh. It divided the Republican Party right in the middle. Taft was unable to arbitrate the differences between the Eastern conservatives and the Midwestern progressives and find compromise solutions. He moved closer to the old guard as opposed to Roosevelt who broke ranks with the old guard.
Taft also clashed with the progressives on other matters. He gave them the impression that he would support an attempt to oust authoritarian Speaker of the House of Representatives, Joseph Gurney Cannon. He however did not offer his support to them. He and the insurgents started out in basic agreement on railroad legislation but ended up disagreeing on the matter.
Most important, they disagreed on conservation policy. One of the major achievements of Roosevelt as a progressive leader was the successful conservationist policies he introduced. Taft’s Chief Forester, Gifford Pinchot, a conservationist in the Roosevelt camp, accused Secretary of the Interior Richard A. Ballinger of having turned over rich coal deposits in Alaska to a syndicate. A congressional investigation followed and Ballinger was exonerated. Taft to the shock of the progressives fired Pinchot.
Taft’s battles with the progressives eventually led Roosevelt into open opposition to the administration. In early 1912, Roosevelt, who now even more radical, decided to challenge Taft for the Republican presidential nomination. Taft used the party machinery which he controlled tightly to defeat Roosevelt although the latter won most of the state primaries. Roosevelt’s, who was not the type to let go without a fight, formed the Progressive party (or Bull Moose Party). This divided the Republican vote and leading to the election of Democrat Woodrow Wilson. Taft finished a poor third, the first ever for a sitting president.
Blum, John M. The National Experience: A History of the United States. Eighth Edition. Forth Worth, Texas: Harcourt Brace, 1993.
Duffy, Herbert S. William Howard Taft. Eastern National, 1998
Anderson, Donald F. William Howard Taft: A Conservative’s Conception of the Presidency. Cornell University Press, 1973
Gould, Lewis L. The Progressive Era. Syracuse University Press, 1974
Mowry, Edwin G. Theodore Roosevelt and the Progressive Movement. The University of Wisconsin press, 1946