From Chief Executive to Chief Justice

On this date in 1921 the largest man to ever be President of the United States became the only man to serve as both President and Chief Justice of the Supreme Court. That man was the corpulent Cincinnatian William Howard Taft. Taft was nominated by then President Harding, a fellow Buckeye, and on the same day Taft was confirmed by the Senate as the Supreme Court’s Chief Justice. As President, Taft had named six justices the high court; a record for a one term president. The largest man ever to occupy the White House was also one of the biggest disappointments as a Chief Executive.

Alphonso Taft’s third son, first with second wife Louise, was born in Cincinnati, OH on September 15, 1857 and named William Howard. Unlike his affluent contemporaries William Howard attended a local public school, Woodward High, from which he would graduate second in the class of 1874. From there he would follow the family tradition of attending Yale; Taft’s father and two older half-brothers were Yale men. At Yale the affable and avoirdupois Taft was a class favorite. Having already reached his full height of six feet two inches and tipping the scales at 225 pounds, Taft was an extraordinarily large man for his day. Despite his considerable frame, Taft was light on his feet and was a good wrestler and dancer. As a senior he was selected to the prestigious Skull and Bones society and, once again, finished his studies as the class salutatorian. Taft singled out William Graham Sumner, the high priest of social Darwinism in America, as his most influential teacher. Sumner was also an advocate of laissez-faire government. The adherence to this style of government would be a hallmark of the Taft presidency and a stark contrast to the leadership of Theodore Roosevelt. Yale evidently had a great impact on Taft. Not only did he teach at his alma-mater for eight years subsequent to leaving the White House, but during his term as President Taft said, “I love Yale as I love my mother.”

William Howard Taft was the scion of family devoted to the practice of law; his father Alphonso and grandfather Peter Rawson Taft both having served as judges, the later as an Ohio superior court judge and the former judge in a Vermont county. This love of the law may have been hereditary for a seven year old Will Taft is reported to have said “To be Chief Justice of the United States is more than to be President in my estimation.” This is an opinion that Taft carried throughout his life and career, and it is the opinion of most, if not all, historians that Taft should only have been a Chief Justice and never the Chief Executive. Upon his graduation from Yale Taft returned to Cincinnati to study law. He earned his law degree from the Cincinnati Law School and admission to the bar in 1880.

In 1881 William Howard Taft was appointed as the assistant prosecuting attorney of Hamilton county Ohio. This appointment inaugurated Taft to a life of public service and set a precedent for the manner in which Taft would gain an office. Taft won only two elections in all his life as a public servant. His first was to the Ohio Superior Court, of which he was an incumbent due to his appointment following the retirement of Judge Judson Harmon. The second win was for the Presidency of the United States!! Taft jokingly commented that

“Like every well trained Ohio man I always had my plate right side up when offices were falling.”

Taft’s rise to the top political office in the land is comparable to that of George Herbert Walker Bush. Both rose in the political ranks via appointments rather than elections. Both men were members of the upper-class, Yale graduates, lackluster leaders, had activist predecessors, never articulated a vision for the country, and both were denied a second term because a third party candidate split the Republican vote.

No doubt Taft’s presidency has suffered for the mere fact that he followed one of the most dynamic presidents in the nation’s history. Theodore Roosevelt was the first president since Lincoln to lead instead of being led. Andrew Johnson had been neutered by Congress, and, for the most part, every succeeding president until Roosevelt had abdicated leadership to the legislature. TR was an active progressive, pushing his reforms through Congress by the force of his personality and popularity; he stretched the Executive powers to the limit.

Taft was the antithesis of his predecessor. While Taft was a mild progressive, he was dedicated to the letter of the law and personally disagreed with Roosevelt’s heavy handed leadership. During the 1912 fight for the Republican nomination Taft contrasted himself against Roosevelt by articulating that he

“represent[ed] a safer and saner view of our government and its Constitution than does Theodore Roosevelt.”

Roosevelt walked softly and carried a “big stick”. Taft sleep-walked and traded in the big stick for dollar diplomacy, an initiative that the Wilson administration quickly disbanded upon coming to office.

William Taft would not have accepted or even sought the Republican nomination for President in 1908 had it not been for his wife. Nellie Taft was the one who desired to reside at 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue, and she made certain that her husband would not do anything to deny her that dream. Nellie had aspirations of being more than the wife of a Supreme Court Justice. On three different occasions TR offered a seat on the Supreme Court bench to Taft. Each time he declined, mainly at the instigation of his wife. Roosevelt finally decided that Taft should be his successor, much to the relief of Nellie but much to the chagrin of Louise Taft, William’s mother. In his book Nellie Taft: the Unconventional First Lady of the Ragtime Era, Carl Anthony cites Louise Taft as supporting Elihu Root, TR’s Secretary of State, for the GOP nomination. Louise Taft said,

“I do not want my son to be president. His is a judicial mind and he loves the law.”

In this case history has proven the old adage that “mother knows best”.

William Howard Taft may not have been as dynamic a president as his predecessor of his successor, but Taft did achieve several firsts as President. He was the first President to be an avid golfer. He was the first president to throw out the opening pitch to begin the baseball season. He was the first president to have an automobile. He was the first President (and maybe the only one) to get stuck in the bath-tub. He had to have an over-sized model brought in for his use. Taft was the first president to be buried in Arlington National Cemetery.

He also enjoyed a most productive post-presidential career; perhaps more productive than any other Chief executive before or since. He was an immensely popular law professor at Yale for eight years. During that time Taft was asked about the possibility of a return to politics, to which the robust former president turned professor replied

“I am now in a respectable profession! I love judges, and I love courts…They are my ideals, they typify on earth what we shall meet hereafter under a just God.”

Taft was ideally suited for the judicial bench, and it was not until 1921 that his dream of being the Chief Justice of the U.S. Supreme Court would be fulfilled. President Warren G. Harding, who had delivered Taft’s nomination speech in 1912, appointed Taft to the position he had always coveted. His sluggishness as the Chief Executive was contrasted by his activity as the Chief Justice. Taft wrote 253 opinions and obtained Congressional approval for the Supreme Court building. He left the bench in February of 1930 due to poor health and died one month later.

William Howard Taft was the Chief Executive who became Chief Justice.

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About Travis

Christ follower. Husband of one woman. Father of three young men. Former 11B. Blessed to pastor the Bible Baptist Church of Mount Vernon, KY.
This entry was posted in Presidents, Supreme Court, Willian Howard Taft. Bookmark the permalink.

3 Responses to From Chief Executive to Chief Justice

  1. Kent Brandenburg says:

    Taft for a short period was general governor of the Philippines, a fact I thought might be interesting to our Filipino-Americans.

  2. Travis says:

    Another government position to which he was appointed! From what I've read he was an adequate territorial governor.

  3. Hi I enjoyed the post which is most informative! I recently did a couple of posts on Taft and his ongoing family influence on American politics together with his less well known family connections to the Lippitts and Chaffee’s of Rhode Island. Lincoln Davenport Chaffee being just the latest scion of this clan. If your interested they are at http://theoligarchkings.wordpress.com

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