Term in Office: 27th president, 1909-1913
Political Party: Republican
Home State: Ohio
If Hayes at #16 made people scratch their heads, putting Taft at #15 may produce epileptic seizures. “TAFT?!?” you are probably shouting at your computer screen right about now. “The fatty luncheon meat sandwiched between Theodore Roosevelt and Woodrow Wilson?” you say. You think I’ve lost it, but I haven’t.
Here’s why Taft ranks so highly: respectable, though hardly overwhelming, common sense progressive legislation that finally addressed the manifold problems of unchecked corporatism. Taft dialed down the scale of American imperial power after its lofty heights during the McKinley and Teddy Roosevelt days. Using the criteria I established at the beginning of this project, Taft hits many of the marks of a good president, committing few atrocities, governing competently if unspectacularly, and furthering the progressive project of the 20th century with an almost foreign sense of humility.
Public service was virtually Taft’s birthright. His father had served as Grant’s attorney general, and young Bill Taft received a fine education at Harvard, where to the delight of conspiracy theorists across the nation, he joined the secretive Skull & Bones Society. Taft was, naturally, the salutatorian, presaging his lifelong tendency towards solid, respectable work, but being outshone by someone just a little bit better. (The Taft line continued on for some time; his son was the country’s best conservative voice in the 1940s, his grandson served as a senator, and his great-grandson was the disgraced governor of Ohio about ten years ago.) In public life, Taft was the point man and troubleshooter for multiple Republican administrations, serving as Solicitor General (under Benjamin Harrison), Governor of the Philippines (McKinley), and Secretary of War (T. Roosevelt), earning accolades for his competence and fairness along the way. While a number of Roosevelt favorites made enemies along the way, Taft did not, and so was chosen as Teddy’s successor in 1908, after TR had somewhat rashly promised to serve only two terms.
Taft was grateful and all, but the presidency just wasn’t his bag.* It required motivating a cabinet, corralling recalcitrant congressmen, public speaking. Altogether, the presidency lacked the grace and the patience of the law. He clamored for the Chief Justiceship of the Supreme Court, a position far more suited to his temperament (and under Warren Harding, he finally achieved his lifelong goal).
Taft’s worldview was informed by those who favored regulating business and reforming society, not out of the goodness of their hearts, but to temper what they saw as dangerous radicalism. (To give an example, a number of Socialists did strikingly well in 1910, even electing a mayor of Milwaukee.) So, looking at the body of Taft’s decision-making, a consensus emerges where reform is more of a pre-emptive measure, rather than what one might call a thirst for justice. Even so, there’s a list of respectable decisions. Taft vetoed a bill requiring immigrants to be literate, wisely realizing that the bill was empty nativist-bait (the early 20th century equivalent of a flag-burning amendment or English-only education), and signed into law the 8-hour workday for federal employees, creating a standard that put pressure on private industry to conform. He lobbied for the 16th Amendment, permitting a federal, progressive income tax, which as I argued in my writeup on Wilson, is the fairest way of distributing the costs of running society based on ability to pay. He signed into law the Federal Children’s Bureau, which used modern science and mass communication to curb infant mortality, promote children’s’ health, and clamp down on illegal child labor. Come on now, isn’t this essentially Theodore Roosevelt Lite? (Well, not so “lite” in Taft’s case, he weighed 350 pounds when he was inaugurated, but you know what I mean….) None of this was quite as visionary as the Bull Moose platform in 1912, but I am happy to give credit where it is due. We need to stop putting Taft in the 20s with these rankings and bump him up based on the sheer volume of accomplishment in one term, all without empty Rooseveltian self-promotion.
Taft’s right-hand man in these endeavors was his attorney general, George Wickersham, a badly underrated figure in early 20th century politics. Indeed, he is my favorite Attorney General of all time.** As Wickersham later wrote, “it is because of the increase in the number and character of our concerns that we are turning more and more to the source of national power for the principles which permit of its application to new evils as they arise, and to the extension of benefits and advantages which are of common concern to all.” This was a little wordy, but a good example of the moderate form of Taft progressivism. It was simply an acknowledgment that Americans were no longer living in the 1700s, that the rise of industry and the subsequent rise of monopoly created a set of problems that localities and even states were not well equipped to address. He acknowledged that Jeffersonian quibbles about natural economic law meant little when the only railroad company in town could ruinously underpay Farmer Brown for his crops and ruinously overcharge for prices. To this end, Wickersham was Taft’s trust-buster extraordinare, doing far more as attorney general in four years than Theodore Roosevelt did in eight as president to curb monopolies. Altogether, the Taft administration oversaw the breakup of Standard Oil, the American Tobacco Company, and the American Sugar Refining Company and sundry railroad monopolies. Theodore Roosevelt often differentiated between “good trusts” and “Bad trusts” based on his own instincts. Taft consulted the experts and looked at the evidence.
As far as foreign policy goes, Taft is a welcome respite from the saber-rattling of Theodore Roosevelt and the moralizing warmaking of Woodrow Wilson. Instead, Taft emphasized expanding American trade in Latin America and East Asia, known vaguely in high school history classes as “dollar diplomacy.” Unfortunately, by encouraging American investment and lending abroad, Taft also created a kind of back door to imperialism, and obligating his successors to intervene abroad to (say it with me now) “protect American business interests.” Taft didn’t invent this rationale (just wait til my blistering review of Benjamin Harrison) but it was still a poor excuse when used from Wilson to Reagan (and arguably later). And yet, is trade not preferable to the naked imperialism of some of Taft’s predecessors?
In addition to this inchoate foreign policy, Taft’s lack of political acumen in domestic affairs also singed his presidency. He failed to use mass communication effectively to reach out to America’s citizens, to project his views and hear theirs. He lacked a deft touch as well– when he called a congressional session to reduce tariffs, the resulting bill, Payne-Aldrich, actually raised tariffs on many goods considerably. Taft signed it anyway, proclaimed it the best tariff in U.S. history, and alienated the progressive voting bloc all at once. While he never lost political support on the catastrophic level of, say, John Quincy Adams or John Tyler, he ended up in the worst of both worlds, distrusted by conservatives and progressives alike.
Taft also earns demerits for a small army of bad Supreme Court appointments. You’d never guess it, but of all presidents, only Washington and Franklin Roosevelt appointed more people to the Supreme Court (and each of them had at least two terms to work with; Taft had only one.) It must have pained him to keep appointing men to an office he desired himself, but good heavens! With the exception of Charles Evan Hughes, who was both moderately conservative and unquestionably one of the best jurists in American history, these guys were reactionary tossers, Edwardian Scalias, persistently favoring rights of property over rights of labor, and not infrequently falling short in civil liberties.
It is a good thing that losing re-election doesn’t matter that much in my rankings, because boy, did Taft lose re-election. Even getting nominated was difficult, and Taft found himself running against his former boss Theodore Roosevelt, with Roosevelt as a progressive candidate, and Taft as the conservative, both misnomers. To win the nomination, Taft had to make deals and alliances with the corporatist wing of his party, forfeiting his progressive credentials in the eyes of many Americans, and contributing to a deep schism within the party. The GOP was decimated in that election. In Woodrow Wilson, the Democrats had nominated a viable candidate for the first time in 20 years, and Theodore Roosevelt’s Progressive, or Bull Moose Party served as a spoiler, drawing away many votes Taft otherwise might have won. Taft’s Republican Party won just two states, Vermont and Utah, in the poorest election-day performance of any incumbent president. A sad ending to a decent presidency. Teddy Roosevelt giveth, and Teddy Roosevelt taketh away.
What to make of this presidency of half-measures, and mild reform? I wrestled with where to put Taft in the ranking, and he ended up much higher than I would have ever thought at first. On reflection, justice itself seems to resemble Taft: slow, lumbering, and frustratingly cerebral and legalistic. Taft recognized intrinsic, unsustainable flaws in how society was structured, and worked, diligently and lawyerlike, to correct them within the law. That’s a good legacy, one that presidents who served twice as long and weighed half as much could envy.
*Mount Rushmore of reluctant presidents: Gerald Ford, Harry Truman, William Taft, and Franklin Pierce.
**Why yes, I do have an “All Star Cabinet” in mind. Thanks for asking. John Quincy Adams as Secretary of State, Albert Gallatin as Secretary of the Treasury, Edwin Stanton as Secretary of War/Defense, George Wickersham as Attorney General, Stu Udall as Secretary of the Interior, Henry A. Wallace as Secretary of Agriculture, Frances Perkins as Secretary of Labor, and Herbert Hoover as Secretary of Commerce.