William Howard Taft was born on September 15, 1857 in Cincinnati, Ohio. He was one of six children of Louisa Maria Torrey and Alphonso Taft, who served under President Ulysses S. Grant as both secretary of war and attorney general, and as an ambassador under President Chester A. Arthur. William was raised in a large and stimulating family and was close to his five siblings, two half-brothers by his father’s first marriage and two brothers and a sister born to his mother. The family identified with the Unitarian Church and his father was a sensible, kind, gentle, and highly “Victorian” man who kept his emotions under rigid control.
William lived in constant fear of not meeting his parents’ expectations, no matter how well he performed, he was seeked their approval. He was an active child who took dancing lessons and loved baseball, he was a good second baseman and a power hitter. William studied at Woodward High School, a private school in Cincinnati and graduated in 1874.
After graduating from high school he went to the University of Cincinnati Law School and worked part time as a courthouse reporter for the Cincinnati Commercial. While in college, William earned the nickname “Big Lub” due to his size, he was almost 6 feet tall and weighed more than 240 pounds. William passed his bar exams and was admitted to the Ohio State Bar Association in 1880. Mainly due to his father’s political connections, William became assistant prosecutor of Hamilton County, Ohio.
William met a friend of his sister at a sledding party, Helen “Nellie” Herron, was the daughter of another prominent local lawyer and Republican Party activist. She accepted William’s proposal for marriage because she saw him as being able to fulfill her hope of a life in national politics. Her father had taken Nellie to the White House for President and Mrs. Hayes’s twenty-fifth wedding anniversary and young Nellie was so captivated that she vowed to one day be First Lady. They got married at her parents’ home in Cincinnati on June 19, 1886, he was twenty-eight and she was twenty-five. In 1911, she would celebrate her own silver wedding anniversary at the White House, filling the mansion with nearly 4,000 guests.
In 1887 William was appointed judge of the Cincinnati Superior Court setting him on course to a seat on the U.S. Supreme Court, a position he aspired to at the beginning of his career. In 1890 he became the youngest appointee as U.S. Solicitor General by President Benjamin Harrison (the third highest position in the Department of Justice). He moved his family to Washington for two years and to Nellie’s delight they met Theodore and Edith Roosevelt and William became a close friend to Mr. Roosevelt.
Against Nellie’s wishes, in 1892 William accepted appointment as a judge of the Sixth U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals with jurisdiction over Ohio, Michigan, Kentucky, and Tennessee. He also served as a professor of law and dean of the University of Cincinnati Law School from 1896 to 1900.
With the victory of the Spanish-American War, the Philippine Islands had become a U.S. protectorate in 1898. President William McKinley called William to Washington and tasked him with setting up a civilian government in the Philippines. Nellie urged him to take the job and the two traveled with their three children to the islands where they lived like royalty for the next several years.
William immediately clashed with the military governor, General Arthur MacArthur (the father of General Douglas MacArthur of World War II and Korean War fame). William viewed the military control of the islands as too brutal and unsympathetic to the islanders and obtained McArthur’s removal, William drafted the Island’s constitution which included a Bill of Rights that was nearly identical to the first ten amendments to the U.S. Constitution. He established a civil service system, a judicial system, English-language public schools, a transportation network, and health care facilities. He negotiated with the Vatican in Rome to purchase 390,000 acres of church property in the Philippines for $7.5 million and distributed the land by way of low-cost mortgages to tens of thousands of Filipino peasants.
William turned down President Roosevelt’s offer of a Supreme Court appointment twice while in the Philippines so he could finish his work in the Islands. He was loved and supported by many Filipino residents for his evenhanded governance. In his view the Filipinos were not able to govern themselves yet and believed it would take years before they could. The Philippines did not achieve self-rule and independence until 1946.
Back in Washington, D.C. by 1904, William became President Theodore Roosevelt’s secretary of war and chief agent, confidant, and troubleshooter in foreign affairs. William supervised the construction of the Panama Canal and made several voyages around the world for the President.
Concerned about how his weight affected his health and ability to serve he wrote to English physician and diet expert Nathaniel E. Yorke-Davies for advice in December 1905. He suffered from symptoms of restless sleep and indigestion that resulted from his excessive weight and wrote, “no real gentleman weighs more than 300 pounds.” He hired Yorke-Davies to create a weight loss plan for him and would continue his correspondence with the doctor for over ten years providing him with details of what he ate, how often he exercised, and even how frequently he had bowel movements.
He traveled so often and had a huge travel expenses that the press began questioning the expense, especially since he almost always took Nellie and at least one or two of his children. Roosevelt asked William to have his travel funded by his wealthy brother, Charles, who was already paying for much of William’s living expenses in Washington, D.C.. Charles had married a wealthy Ohio heiress and gave William 1,000 shares of Cleveland Gas Company stock, which added $8,000 a year to his income. Always eager to help his brother, Charles paid for the majority of William’s travel expenses.
By 1907 President Roosevelt had decided that William should be his successor and offered him the choice to serve as either president or chief justice. William chose his life’s goal to become chief justice, but after a meeting between Nellie and Roosevelt, he was swayed into running for president instead. A decision Roosevelt would later regret.
At his wife’s urging William to lose weight he retreated to the golf course at a resort in Hot Springs, Virginia. He stayed there for much of the next three months with the intention to drop thirty pounds off his 300 pound plus weight for the campaign fight ahead.
William disliked the campaign and commented that it was, “one of the most uncomfortable four months of my life.” His campaign depended upon Roosevelt for speech making, advice, and energy and journalists joked that William was just a substitute for Roosevelt. One columnist explained that T.A.F.T. stood for “Take Advice From Theodore.”
William won 321 electoral votes to his opponent’s 162 and 7,675,320 (51.6 percent) of the popular vote.
Toy manufacturers where worried that America’s Teddy Bear mania would evaporate after Roosevelt’s last term so they started producing stuffed “Billy Possums”, named in Taft’s honor. In January 1909, the president-elect was honored at a banquet in Atlanta and William requested the main course of “possum and taters,” a pile of sweet potatoes topped with an 18-pound whole cooked opossum. When William finished the entire meal he was presented with a small plush opossum. Fortunately the Billy Possum never became more popular then the teddy bear.
He assumed the office of president on March 4, 1909 and started the job that he never wanted to have, but he wanted to please his wife Nellie. William was the first president to have a presidential automobile and converted the White House stables into garages, he was the first to occupy the Oval Office. He was also the first president to throw the ceremonial first pitch at a baseball game in 1910 when the Washington Senators played the Philadelphia Athletics, the tradition continues today. He was the first President to play golf, even though some people thought that golf playing was indecent if not immoral and his critics said he should spend less time playing golf and more time at work in the White House. It caused a golf boom in the nation, doubling the number of players on public courses.
Along with all of his “firsts,” William was the last American president to have facial hair and to keep a cow at the White House to provide fresh milk, her name was Pauline.
Nellie also left her mark during William’s presidency, she initiated the planting of thousands of cherry trees along the avenues and banks of the Tidal Basin that where given to the United States by Japan, changing the face of Washington, D.C. each spring. Nellie was also the first First Lady to publish her memoirs, to own and drive a car, to support women’s suffrage, to smoke cigarettes, and the first First Lady to successfully lobby for safety standards in federal workplaces.
William’s 300 plus pounds offended some people and amused others. Although some claim the story to be false, William became stuck in the presidential bath tub, requiring six men to pull him free. The nation’s press had a field day and they made jokes like, “Taft was the most polite man in Washington. One day he gave up his seat on a streetcar to three women.” He suffered from sleep apnea and was seen snoozing at meetings, operas, funerals, and especially church services.
William’s misunderstandings about big business, and his approach to tariff proposals on goods entering the United States, resulted in the Payne-Aldrich Act and frustrated both supporters and opponents of the policy. He was also accused of failing to carry out Roosevelt’s conservation policies, which caused problems within the Republican Party, causing them to lose the majority in Congress in the midterm elections. This alienated many liberal Republicans, including his friend and ally, Theodore Roosevelt, who would become his opponent during the 1912 Presidential campaign.
After four years in the White House, William agreed to run for a second term, mainly because he wanted to defend himself against Roosevelt’s attacks on him as a traitor to reform. During the Republican National Convention Nellie sat in a front-row seat so she could stare down the presenters to discourage them to speak badly about her husband and soften their anti-Taft rhetoric. It was too hard to demean someone whose spouse was sitting right in front of them.
The primary elections showed Roosevelt to be the people’s clear choice. But due to political maneuvering, William received 561 votes to Roosevelt’s 187. Having lost the nomination, Roosevelt and his followers formed the Progressive Party, which was nicknamed the Bull Moose Party. This fractured the Republican Party which ultimately led to the Democrat Woodrow Wilson to defeat William in the November election with 435 electoral votes to 88 for Roosevelt and 8 for William. William and Roosevelt eventually reconciled their differences.
Taft left office on March 4, 1913 and in less than a year he dropped his weight to about 270 pounds by giving up bread, potatoes, pork, and liquor, it encouraged him to take a trip to Alaska. He commented, “I can truthfully say that I never felt any younger in all my life.” Although he did start to use a cane made out of petrified wood.
William taught at Yale University Law School until the summer of 1921 when President Warren Harding appointed him chief justice of the U.S. Supreme Court. William achieved his lifelong goal and is the only president to hold a seat on the Supreme Court. William served as chief justice until his death in 1930 and administered the oath of office to fellow conservatives Calvin Coolidge and Herbert Hoover.
On March 8, 1930, William died from complications of heart disease, high blood pressure, and inflammation of the bladder. His funeral was the first presidential funeral broadcasted on the radio and he was the first president to be buried at Arlington National Cemetery. The only other president buried there is John F. Kennedy. Nellie lived for another thirteen years and died in Washington, D.C. on May 22, 1943 and is buried next to her husband.
Two of their three children, Robert Alphonso and Helen Herron, attended college during the White House years with Robert graduating from Yale in 1910 and Harvard Law School in 1913. He became one of the most distinguished and powerful senators of the twentieth century, earning the nickname “Mr. Republican.” Robert’s son, William Howard Taft IV went on to accomplish various executive duties for Ronald Reagan and George W. Bush. Helen earned her doctorate in history from Yale in 1917 and became a Dean and professor of history at Bryn Mawr College until 1941, and taught history until she retired in 1957. The youngest sibling, Charles Phelps eventually served as Mayor of Cincinnati.
“Don’t write so that you can be understood, write so that you can’t be misunderstood.”
“Presidents come and go, but the Supreme Court goes on forever.”
“Next to the right of liberty, the right of property is the most important individual right guaranteed by the Constitution and the one which, united with that of personal liberty, has contributed more to the growth of civilization than any other institution established by the human race.”
“The world is not going to be saved by legislation.”
“Politics, when I am in it, it makes me sick.”
“No tendency is quite so strong in human nature as the desire to lay down rules of conduct for other people.”
“Enthusiasm for a cause sometimes warps judgment”
“It is important, of course, that controversies be settled right, but there are many civil questions which arise between individuals in which it is not so important the controversy be settled one way or another as that it be settled. Of course a settlement of a controversy on a fundamentally wrong principle of law is greatly to be deplored, but there must of necessity be many rules governing the relations between members of the same society that are more important in that their establishment creates a known rule of action than that they proceed on one principle or another. Delay works always for the man with the longest purse.”
“There is nothing so despicable as a secret society that is based upon religious prejudice and that will attempt to defeat a man because of his religious beliefs. Such a society is like a cockroach — it thrives in the dark. So do those who combine for such an end.”
“As the Republican platforms says, the welfare of the farmer is vital to that of the whole country.”
“Politics makes me sick.”
“The President can exercise no power which cannot be fairly and reasonably traced to some specific grant of power . . . in the Federal Constitution or in an act of Congress passed in pursuance thereof. There is no undefined residuum of power which he can exercise because it seems to him to be in the public interest.”
“I have come to the conclusion that the major part of the work of a President is to increase the gate receipts of expositions and fairs and bring tourists to town.”
“Failure to accord credit to anyone for what he may have done is a great weakness in any man”
“If this humor be the safety of our race, then it is due largely to the infusion into the American people of the Irish brain.”
“The President cannot make clouds to rain and cannot make the corn to grow, he cannot make business good; although when these things occur, political parties do claim some credit for the good things that have happened in this way”
“Anti-Semitism is a noxious weed that should be cut out. It has no place in America.”
“The diplomacy of the present administration has sought to respond to modern ideas of commercial intercourse. This policy has been characterized as substituting dollars for bullets. It is one that appeals alike to idealistic humanitarian sentiments, to the dictates of sound policy and strategy, and to legitimate commercial aims.”
“We live in a stage of politics, where legislators seem to regard the passage of laws as much more important than the results of their enforcement.”
“I do not believe in the divinity of Christ, and there are many other of the postulates of the orthodox creed to which I cannot subscribe”
“Socialism proposes no adequate substitute for the motive of enlightened selfishness that to-day is at the basis of all human labor and effort, enterprise and new activity.”
“[George] Washington intended this to be a Federal city, and it is a Federal city, and it tingles down to the feet of every man, whether he comes from Washington State, or Los Angeles, or Texas, when he comes and walks these city streets and begins to feel that this is my city; I own a part of this Capital, and I envy for the time being those who are able to spend their time here. I quite admit that there are defects in the system of government by which Congress is bound to look after the government of the District of Columbia. It could not be otherwise under such a system, but I submit to the judgment of history that the result vindicates the foresight of the fathers.”
“A government is for the benefit of all the people. . . .”
“We, as Unitarians, may feel that the world is coming our way.”
“Nobody ever drops in for the evening.”
“I think I might as well give up being a candidate. There are so many people in the country who don’t like me.”
“I love judges, and I love courts. They are my ideals, that typify on earth what we shall meet hereafter in heaven under a just God.”
“As a people, we have the problem of making our forests outlast this generation, or iron outlast this century, and our coal the next; not merely as a matter of convenience or comfort, but as a matter of stern necessity.”
“We are all imperfect. We can not expect perfect government.”
“A system in which we may have an enforced rest from legislation for two years is not bad.”
“I am afraid I am a constant disappointment to my party. The fact of the matter is, the longer I am president the less of a party man I seem to become.”
“I am president now, and tired of being kicked around.”
“Don’t sit up nights thinking about making me president for that will never come and I have no ambition in that direction. Any party which would nominate me would make a great mistake.”
“Substantial progress toward better things can rarely be taken without developing new evils requiring new remedies.”
“I’ll be damned if I am not getting tired of this. It seems to be the profession of a President simply to hear other people talk.”
“In the public interest, therefore, it is better that we lose the services of the exceptions who are good Judges after they are seventy and avoid the presence on the Bench of men who are not able to keep up with the work, or to perform it satisfactorily.”
“I am in favor of helping the prosperity of all countries because, when we are all prosperous, the trade with each becomes more valuable to the other.”
“Presidents may go to the seashore or to the mountains. Cabinet officers may go about the country explaining how fortunate the country is in having such an administration, but the machinery at Washington continues to operate under the army of faithful non-commissioned officers, and the great mass of governmental business is uninterrupted.”
“Don’t worry over what the newspapers say. I don’t. Why should anyone else? I told the truth to the newspaper correspondents – but when you tell the truth to them they are at sea.”
“The intoxication of power rapidly sobers off in the knowledge of its restrictions and under the prompt reminder of an ever-present and not always considerate press, as well as the kindly suggestions that not infrequently come from Congress”
“One cannot always be sure of the truth of what one hears if he happens to be President of the United States.”
“I don’t remember that I ever was President.”
“I hate to use the patronage as a club unless I have to.”
“. . . one of the most uncomfortable four months of my life.”
“There is only one thing I want to say about Ohio that has a political tinge, and that is that I think a mistake has been made of recent years in Ohio in failing to continue as our representatives the same people term after term. I do not need to tell a Washington audience, among whom there are certainly some who have been interested in legislation, that length of service in the House and in the Senate is what gives influence.”
“I feel certain that he would not recognize a generous impulse if he met it on the street.”
“The trouble with me is that I like to talk too much.”
“I am delighted to learn that the dastardly attack was unsuccessful. The resort to violence is out of place in our 20th century civilization.”
“The cheerful loser is a sort of winner.”
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