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William Taft: The Reluctant President

Taft never wanted to be president – his great love was the judiciary.

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William Taft (1857-1930) was the 27th president of the United States. He was the only president to also serve as chief justice. Born on September 15, 1857, Taft was raised in a political family. His father, Alphonso, was a Republican attorney who served as secretary of war and attorney general under President Ulysses S. Grant. Under President Chester A. Arthur, the elder Taft was an ambassador to Austria-Hungary and Russia. It’s not surprising that the son followed somewhat in his father’s political beliefs, but his real love was the judicial system, which Taft likely got from his father too, who happened to be a judge as well.

Becoming president was not really a goal, but he always had his “plate the right side up when offices were falling,” Taft said of himself. After graduating from Yale, he went to Cincinnati to study and practice law but was derailed when President William McKinley sent him to the Philippines as a chief civil administrator in 1900. This is where his career really took off.

Taft was very sympathetic towards the Filipinos. Since 1898, the U.S. military had been governing the people and the tactics were not very gentle. Taft built roads and schools, improved the economy, and also helped the citizens to be able to have at least a little say in their politics. He created a Constitution which included a Bill of Rights much like that of the United States and created the post of a governor – for which he became the first. Still, he felt the Filipinos were not yet able to self-rule and suggested it would be a long time before they wouldn’t need involvement from the U.S. His prediction came true; the Philippines did not get its independence until 1946.

President Theodore Roosevelt offered Taft a Supreme Court appointment – twice – but he turned it down because he wanted to stay in the Philippines. In 1904, he accepted the position of Roosevelt’s secretary of war, with the understanding he could still supervise the Philippines. For the next four years, Taft spent a lot of time traveling and even oversaw the construction of the Panama Canal as well as serving as a governor of Cuba.

Roosevelt had promised he would not run for office for a third term and started seeing Taft as his successor. Taft was not a fan of campaigning and said it was “one of the most uncomfortable four months of my life,” but he succeeded, partially by promising to follow the Roosevelt progressive plan. Progressives were happy with Taft’s election, saying “Roosevelt has cut enough hay. Taft is the man to put into the barn.” Conservatives, too, were pleased, glad to be rid of Roosevelt, whom they called the “mad messiah.”

However, Taft’s presidency didn’t go that smoothly and he ended up making Roosevelt so angry, the former president helped to start a new progressive party. Taft did not believe in his predecessor’s idea that more government is better and that presidents should have greater powers. He said Roosevelt “ought more often to have admitted the legal way of reaching the same ends.”

While progressives fumed because Taft was not doing near enough along with Roosevelt’s progressive plans, his administration still achieved many accomplishments, even though they went mostly unnoticed. He was able to initiate 80 antitrust suits, convince Congress to submit to a federal income tax, and made it so that senators were elected directly.

In 1912, Republicans renominated Taft, but Roosevelt left the party to lead the new Progressives which led to Woodrow Wilson winning the presidency. Taft was not too upset when he didn’t get re-elected. He turned to his greatest love and served as professor of law at Yale until becoming a Chief Justice, which he held until 1930 when he died. His final position was his greatest honor. Taft wrote, “I don’t remember that I was ever President.”

National Correspondent at and Kelli Ballard is an author, editor, and publisher. Her writing interests span many genres including a former crime/government reporter, fiction novelist, and playwright. Originally a Central California girl, Kelli now resides in the Seattle area.

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