William Howard Taft
President William Howard Taft holds the unique position of being the only person to serve as both the President and the Chief Justice of the United States. He served as the 27th President, from 1909 to 1913, and the tenth Chief Justice of the Supreme Court, from 1921 to 1930. His four years in the White House was largely uncomfortable, as he was caught in battles between Progressives and conservatives.
Over the course of his life, Taft always preferred law to politics. He was born in Cincinnati in 1857, the son of a distinguished judge. After graduating from Yale, he practiced law in Cincinnati, rising through the field with Republican judicial appointments. At 34 years old, he became a Federal circuit court judge. In 1900, he was sent to the Philippines by President William McKinley as chief civil administrator. While there, Taft improved the economy, funded the construction of roads and schools, and provided some participation in government for local Filipinos. With the ascension of V.P. Theodore Roosevelt to the Presidency following McKinley’s assassination, Taft was appointed as the Secretary of War.
By 1907, Roosevelt had decided Taft should be his successor as President, and the following year, he was nominated by the Republican National Convention as their candidate. Taft called the campaign “one of the most uncomfortable four months of my life,” but ran a successful one, appealing to both western progressives and eastern conservatives.
Unfortunately, his presidency was less successful. He alienated many liberal Republicans, primarily through his defense of the Payne-Aldrich Act, which continued high tariff rates. A trade agreement with Canada, which would have pleased eastern advocates of a low tariff and which Taft pushed through Congress, was rejected by Canada. After Progressives accused his Secretary of the Interior of failing to continue the conservation policies of Roosevelt, he defended him, further angering Progressives.
Taft had some successes, however. He established a postal savings system, and directed the Interstate Commerce Commission to set railroad rates. Congress, under Taft, crafted and sent to the states for approval Constitutional amendments to establish a Federal income tax and the direct election of Senators. Taft’s administration also initiated 80 antitrust suits over the course of his time in office. Much of this, though, was overshadowed by the Progressive criticism of him.
Republicans renominated Taft in the 1912 election. Roosevelt, who had become a staunch critic of Taft, left the Republicans to form the Progressive Party. This split the vote, and the Democratic candidate Woodrow Wilson won the presidency.
Just before the end of his presidency, Taft signed a bill establishing the United States Children’s Bureau. On April 8, 1912, the U.S. became the first country in the world to have a federal government department dedicated solely to the welfare of the nation’s children. As its first director, Taft nominated Julia Lathrop, who served in that position until 1921, when she was succeeded by Grace Abbott. This Bureau would lead the way to the failed first national child labor legislation, the Keating-Owen Act, as well as the Shepard-Towney Act of 1921, the Social Security Act of 1939, and the landmark Fair Labor Standards Act of 1938, which outlawed child labor nationwide.
After leaving office, Taft served as a Professor of Law at Yale University. In 1922, he was made Chief Justice of the United States under President Warren G. Harding, a position he served in until just before his death in 1930. After his appointment to the Supreme Court, he wrote, “I don’t remember that I was ever President.”
Photo: Library of Congress