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William Howard Taft

William Howard Taft

William Howard Taft (1857-1930) served as the 27th president of the United States (1909-1913) and as the tenth chief justice of the United States (1921-1930). Taft was from Cincinnati, Ohio, the son of a cabinet officer who served under President U.S. Grant. After graduating from Yale University in 1878, Taft in 1880 became an attorney in Ohio. His first love was always the law, and his highest aspiration to serve as chief justice, not as president.

Taft entered local politics as a young man, and soon became a judge in Ohio. His star rose further under President Benjamin Harrison, for whom Taft served as solicitor general of the United States before accepting appointment as judge of the U.S. Sixth Circuit Court of Appeals, a post he held from 1892-1900. While he served as a judge, the labor movement decried some of Taft's decisions, which the unions thought weakened their ability to achieve collective bargaining contracts.

In 1900 fellow Ohioan President William McKinley persuaded Taft to resign his judgeship in favor of leading a Philippine Commission. In this role Taft was in charge of ending military rule setting up the civilian government of the islands as an American colony. Taft became the first governor of the Philippines in 1901. Viewed as a success in that role, President Theodore Roosevelt appointed Taft Secretary of War (a cabinet position in charge of the army) in 1904.

Taft and Roosevelt were friends. They shared a common commitment to imperialism, as well as a belief that the power of the executive branch should expand, especially to regulate the investment decisions of large corporations. When Roosevelt decided not to run for another term in 1908, he threw his support to Taft, who defeated the Democratic nominee, William Jennings Bryan in the general election.

Taft proved a much less adept politician than was Roosevelt. While Taft served as president, his Republican Party, which controlled the Congress, divided over a number of issues. The president faced an insurgency, or rebellion, of some outspoken Republican figures in Congress, some of whom began to oppose the president openly. At issue were the controls exercised by party leaders in the Congress, and their refusal to allow consideration of legislation desired by reformers. These issues included measures in support of labor unions, prohibition, and lower tariffs.  (Eventually in 1910 the insurgents in the House of Representatives, in coalition with Democrats, succeeded in reducing the power of the Speaker of the House, and the power of committee chairman, by creating a 10 member rules committee to set that agenda for that body.)

With respect to the tariff, Taft proved especially inept. Many Republicans had traditionally supported a highly protective tariff to retard the importation of foreign goods and thereby protect American manufacturers and workers. However, some active Republicans, especially persons from states in the upper Mississippi and Missouri river valleys, sought lower duties on manufactured goods (which farmer constituents purchased) and higher duties on the importation of Canadian grain. Taft and other established Republican leaders refused to address their concerns, and in 1910 enacted the highly protective Payne-Aldrich tariff. Taft was conspicuous in his defense of that measure, even traveling to Des Moines, Iowa, a center of the agrarian region whose leaders opposed such a tariff, to speak on its behalf. His actions fueled the growing rebellion within the Republican party known as insurgency.

As president, Taft was especially noted for vigorous enforcement of anti-trust legislation. (Although Roosevelt had earned a reputation of "trust buster," in fact Taft was much more aggressive in launching suits against business consolidations.) With the Taft administration pushing the suit, for instance, the Supreme Court ordered the break up of the John D. Rockefeller's Standard Oil Company, which dominated the nation's oil refining industry, into seven firms. This landmark decision ended a period of uncertainty in anti trust decisions, for the court applied the "rule of reason" to Standard Oil. This standard meant that if the court found that a company had grown large through unreasonable and unfair practices, it would be broken up.

Taft's commitment to the cause of anti trust soon led him into a conflict with his friend Roosevelt. The Roosevelt administration had approved the merger of U.S. Steel, the world's largest steel company, with the Tennessee Coal and Iron Company, a merger that gave the steel giant control over the southern iron ore fields; it already enjoyed control over the northern iron ore mines. Taft, however, launched an anti trust prosecution of U.S. Steel because of this merger, a prosecution that enraged Roosevelt. (The government's suit eventually failed in the Supreme Court in 1921.) At about the same time, a controversy over conservation policy erupted. Taft's Secretary of the Interior, Richard A. Ballinger, allowed the private exploitation of mineral resources on public lands in Alaska and elsewhere. Gifford Pinchot, the chief forester of the United States in the Department of Agriculture, objected, and accused Ballinger of corruption and of policies hostile to scientific conservation. Taft supported Ballinger, and dismissed Pinchot, who joined the rebellion against Taft. These and other events led Roosevelt eventually to oppose the nomination by the Republican Party of Taft for reelection in 1912.

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