An Interview with Professor Donald Elder: The Presidents of the United States

Sep 24, 2013 by

 

William Howard Taft

Michael F. Shaughnessy –

  1. Today we will look at William Howard Taft, the twenty-seventh president of the United States. When and where was this President born and when did he serve-(during what time period or event or series of events?)

William Howard Taft was born September 15, 1857, just outside Cincinnati, Ohio. He was born into a politically prominent family, as his father had been both Secretary of War and Attorney General in the Grant Administration. Taft was educated in Cincinnati, graduating from Woodward High School in 1874. As his father had, Taft attended Yale, graduating second in his class in 1878. Taft then attended the Cincinnati Law School, receiving his degree in 1880. After he passed the bar, Taft was given the position of Assistant Prosecuting Attorney in Hamilton County, Ohio. Other judicial appointments soon followed, culminating in his being named the Solicitor General of the United States in 1890. Just 32 at the time of his appointment, Taft was (and remains to this day) the youngest ever Solicitor General.

In 1891 he was appointed to the Sixth Circuit of the United States Court of Appeals. In 1900 President William McKinley chose him to chair a commission tasked with the responsibility of creating a new government for the Philippines, which the United States had received from Spain as a result of the Spanish-American War. As part of the new arrangement, Taft became the first Governor-General of the Philippines, and served in this role from 1901 to 1904. In spite of inheriting a volatile situation, Taft soon won high marks from both Filipinos and Americans for his leadership.

In 1904 President Theodore Roosevelt appointed him Secretary of War, and during the next four years Taft occasionally served as the acting Secretary of State. Roosevelt, who had decided not to seek reelection in 1908, asked Taft to become the party’s nominee. Taft would have much preferred to be appointed Chief Justice of the United States Supreme Court, but acceded to Roosevelt’s wishes. Taft was elected in 1908, and was inaugurated on March 4, 1909.

  1. What was he MOST known for?

Unfortunately for Taft, he is best known for making Theodore Roosevelt regret his backing of Taft for president. After he left office Roosevelt left the country to hunt game around the world, and when he came he was dissatisfied with the way that Taft had handled his responsibilities as president. Roosevelt felt, for example, that Taft was not advancing the cause of conservation as enthusiastically as he should.

Moreover, Roosevelt believed that Taft was not sufficiently rigorous in prosecuting business monopolies. Roosevelt therefore sought to supplant Taft as the Republican nominee for president in 1912, but Taft refused to step aside. In an era when delegates to the nomination convention were chosen by the state political organizations and could support whomever they chose (unlike today, when delegates are bound by the result of their state’s primary election), Taft secured enough votes to win the nomination. Roosevelt then chose to run for president as an independent, and this split allowed the Democrats to capture the presidency in 1912.

  1. What would you say were his strengths?

Taft was a man of great intelligence and integrity, and possessed one of the finest legal minds of all the people who have occupied the White House. Indeed, after he left the presidency Taft was appointed as Chief Justice of the US Supreme Court, and to this day remains the only ex-president to have received that honor.

  1. What were his relative weaknesses- politically perhaps, personally?

While we have had a number of presidents who never seemed to comprehend how important their public image is to their effectiveness in office, Taft could have been one of the worst. Unlike Roosevelt, Taft chose not to cultivate a good working relationship with the press, and this policy meant that he could never effectively convey to the American public his rationale for his actions as president.

  1. What would you say was his impact on the United States and possibly the world?

In retrospect, Taft seems to have been a president out of step with the march of time. His two predecessors were activist in terms of foreign policy, as was his successor. But Taft refused to get involved in foreign affairs, choosing instead to try to influence the course of events through indirect methods. For example, when the effects of the Mexican Revolution spilled over into Arizona and resulted in the deaths of two US citizens, Taft stated that there would be no intervention without a specific authorization from Congress. Because of this attitude, Taft’s influence on the world would be minimal.

  1. In terms of his place in history- it seems to be secure- but could you summarize your views as a historian about him?

 

As things stand now, Taft is the most average of presidents. Barack Obama is our forty-fourth president, and of all the individuals to have served out their terms and left office Taft ranks twenty-second. This seems appropriate, as Taft was competent but not outstanding as president.

  1. What would you say were his greatest accomplishments?

Taft’s greatest accomplishment came before he became president. When Roosevelt appointed him as Governor-General of the Philippines, many Filipinos were extremely unhappy with the United States for not granting them independence in the wake of the Spanish-American War. Taft, however, proved able to win over the Filipinos, and by the end of his term the Philippines was well on its way towards becoming a loyal ally of the United States.

  1. Could you provide a summary statement about our twenty-seventh President?

Taft represents one of the notable trends in American political life in that he was part of a family that gave of itself to the American people. As we have seen, Taft’s father served in the Grant administration, and both his son and grandson became US senators. While some Americans are skeptical regarding the creation of political dynasties, others look at the Taft family as an example of how some American families believe in giving of themselves to their fellow citizens.

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