History in Ohio: Birthplace of William Howard Taft

Hailed as the youngest solicitor general in American history, a wrestling champion, and an exceptional political figure who led two government branches, William Howard Taft was a U.S. president who left an indelible mark on American history. From his notable achievements in law and politics to his troubled yet impactful presidency, Taft’s legacy resonates through the corridors of power and justice. Understanding the pivotal moments of his life and career is important to truly appreciate who he really was and how he shaped the nation.

Early Life and Education

William Howard Taft was born on Sept. 15, 1857, to Alphonso Taft and Louisa Maria Torrey. Before Taft was born, his family was already entrenched in law and held important positions in the U.S. government. His father, Alphonso Taft, had served under President Chester A. Arthur as an ambassador and as an attorney general and secretary of war under President Ulysses S. Grant. Young Taft attended Yale College (later Yale University), like his father, and he even joined Skull and Bones, a student secret society that his father co-founded in 1832. He graduated second in his class in 1878 and went on to attend Cincinnati Law School. In 1880, he was admitted to the Ohio State Bar Association.

Career as a Lawyer and Judge

In 1881, Taft became Hamilton County’s assistant prosecuting attorney. He would work as an attorney until 1887, when he was appointed to the Cincinnati Superior Court. Taft soon began pressing those he was close to to recommend him to President Benjamin Harrison for a position on the Supreme Court. That goal would have to wait, but in February 1890, Harrison did name him solicitor general, the chief attorney representing the federal government before the Supreme Court. In this position, he won 15 of the 18 cases he argued. He was then appointed to the United States Court of Appeals for the Sixth Circuit in 1892, a position he held until 1900. During this time, he made several significant decisions related to labor and antitrust laws. In general, Taft was known for his conservative nature as a judge in Ohio, and he outwardly distrusted any radical reform legislation.

In 1900, Taft received a telegram that would change the course of his career. President William McKinley summoned him to Washington and asked him to go to the Philippines, handed over to the United States after the Spanish-American War, to set up a new government. Taft moved his family there and threw himself into the task, drafting a constitution modeled on the American one and establishing public schools, a transportation system, health clinics, and a judicial system. He would stay here for four years, until another presidential request: President Theodore Roosevelt wanted Taft to be his secretary of war. This would be his final stepping stone to the White House.

Taft’s Presidency

Roosevelt picked Taft to be his successor, and in 1908, he was elected the 27th president of the United States. Taft set out to continue building on Roosevelt’s progressive Republican agenda, especially in the West, where it was most popular. However, he faced a difficult task, aiming to please more liberal Republicans as well as conservatives in the East. After pushing for tariff reform, Taft ended up supporting the Payne-Aldrich Act, which upset progressives because it did not lower tariffs enough. Then, he tried to make a trade deal with Canada that would appease his critics, but Canada rejected the deal. Taft also appointed a secretary of the interior who re-opened areas to development that Roosevelt had protected, fracturing the relationship between Taft and Roosevelt and dividing the Republican Party, so much so that when Taft was nominated for re-election, Roosevelt quit the party and formed a new one, the Progressive Party.

Taft’s presidency did include many accomplishments as well. Under his leadership, 80 trust-busting suits were initiated against big businesses and the Interstate Commerce Commission was given the power to regulate the prices railroads charged passengers. He also supported a constitutional amendment that allowed people to elect their senators, rather than having them be appointed by state lawmakers. But these positives were largely overlooked, and when Taft sought re-election, he was soundly defeated, earning only eight electoral votes. Roosevelt, seeking a third term while running as the Progressive candidate, received 88 votes; Democrat Woodrow Wilson won 435.

Appointment to the Supreme Court

After he left the White House, Taft returned to law, taking a teaching position at Yale. But in 1921, he would finally achieve his lifelong dream. That’s when President Warren Harding nominated Taft to be chief justice of the Supreme Court. He was swiftly confirmed by the Senate and subsequently sworn into office on July 11, 1921, becoming the only president to also serve on the Supreme Court. He served alongside two justices that he had appointed, Willis Van Devanter and Mahlon Pitney. Taft would remain on the Supreme Court until Feb. 3, 1930, when he resigned due to ill health. He died on March 8, 1930.

During Taft’s time on the court, he wrote 253 opinions, most of them conservative-leaning. For instance, his court ruled against a law that taxed goods made by children in order to curb child labor (Bailey v. Drexel Furniture Company), and in a case where restaurant owners sued picketing union members (Truax v. Corrigan), Taft wrote that the restaurant owners had the right to run their business without interference from picketers, limiting the union’s ability to protest.

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