William Howard Taft (1857-1930)

Figure 1.--This is William Taft at about age 6 years. It would have been taken about 1863. He wears a collar buttoning suit with long pants.

President Taft was the 26th president of the United States. He was the only president to go on to seve as Chief Justice of the Supreme Court. Distinguished jurist, effective administrator, but poor politician, William Howard Taft spent four uncomfortable years in the White House. Large, jovial, conscientious, he was caught in the intense battles between Progressives and conservatives. As president, Taft came to be regarded by the progressives as as conservative. His record, however, was more complex and many important progressive reforms were implemented during his administration. In particular more trusts were dismantelled during the 4 years of the Taft administration than the 8 years of the Roosevelt administration. His wife Nellie was a particularly interesting first lady was has been largely ignored by historians.



The Taft family had a long history beginning in colonial America. Robert Taft I was the first Taft to reach America. They settled in Colonial Mendon and later in Uxbridge, Massachusetts. Alphonso Taft moved to Cincinnati to open a law practice (1839).


The Tafts were an old and distinguished family, which traced its roots back to the 17th-century Puritan settlers of the Massachusetts Bay Colony. William's father was Alfonso Taft. He moved to Ohio as a young man just out of law school. Ohio was the frontier at the time. He was a Baptist who became emersed in Emersonian idealism. He became a distinguished Cincinatti judge and one of the founders of the new Republican Party. Alfonso Taft was in Grant's cabinent (Secretary of War and Attorny General) and an Ambassador in the Arthur cabinent. The children who had grown did not travel with their father to his foreign postings, Vienna and St. Petersburg. Alfonso was a very honest man and stressed a high moral code to his children. While Taft would be later generally viewed poorly as a president, no one has ever questioned his personal integrity and honesty.


William's mother was Alfonso's second wife. She reportedly stressed the need for the children to do their very best. Like many cultured women at the time, she tried to interest the boys in music, but with little success. Like many of the Taft women, William's mother was a strong-willed woman and a great influence on her son.


There were five surviving siblings, but we know very little about them.
Horrace Dutton:
Charles: Bob's brother Charlie mairred into money. He helped finance his brother's presidential campaign.
Henry Watson??: Henry became a corporate lawyer.
Peter Rosen: Peter also became an attorney.
Frances Taft Edwards: Frances was the only surviving sister. She was quite an educated woman, becomoing the president of Brenmyr University.


William was born near Cincinati, Ohio (September 15, 1857). We have been able to find little very little about Taft's boyhood. He suffered a slight skull fracture and a bad cut on the head when he was 9 years old. The horses drawing the family carriage ran off. It left a 'a deep depression' in his skull. Modrn doctors speculation that this boyhood injury damaged his pituitary gland and contributed to his obesity. Others disaagree because Taft was large from birth. And some authors report that his weight went up and down affected by his heneral state of mind. A year later, he and his brotherscontracted typhoid fever after a visit to Middle Bass Island, He was 10 years old at the time. It does not seem to haveen a serious event. As a boy he would go swimming in a nbearny canal. In his last year he wrote about an incident tht clearly made an impression on him. "I remember one occasion... when the sun was very hot and... the next day my back was so burned that I had to have a doctor and remain in bed.... I am sure that an examination of my back will still show the freckles that were the result of that day's excursion." Taft had fair skin, blue eyes and light hair and thus ws suspectble to sun burn. William was a very dutiful son. Reading was a big part of family life. His father loved reading and passed the love of books on to his son. The library was the family room and center of family life. Bill later courted Nellie in the library where they read to each other. Their favorite book was Mill on the Floss.

Boyhood Clothes

I have seen one photogtraph of Taft as a boy . He was 11 years old in 1868 and already wearing long pants. I have no other information concerning his clothes.


Young William was intelligent and excelled at his studies. He attended Woodward High School in Cincinnati and would later lay the cornerstone of the new Woodward High School, now the site of the School for Creative and Performing Arts (SCPA). He entered Yale University, fgollowing a family tradition. He was active at Yale and successful academically. He joined the Linonian Society, a literary and debating society. He also was accepted into the Skull and Bones, the secret society that his father, Alphonso Taft, had founded (1832). And he joined the Beta chapter (meaning second) of the Psi Upsilon fraternity. He got the knick name 'Big Lub' because he was tall and already gaining weight. His cloest friends called him 'Old Bill'. His size drew joking comments. Taft capitalized on his size and became Yale's intramural heavyweight wrestling champion. Wrestling was a more popular sport at the time than is the case today. He graduated from Yale College (1878), an impresive second in his class of 121. After Yale, he returned to Cincinnati and entered the Cincinati Law School. The Law School would later join the University of Cincinnati. Taft graduating with a Bachelor of Laws (1880). While studying law, he dabbled in journalism. H worked on The Cincinnati Commercial a paper of considerable localmimootance.


Bill attended Cincinnati's First Congregational-Unitarian Church with his parents. He joined the congregation at an early age and became an active member. After achieved important Government posts, he spent little time in Cincinnati. He lived not only in Washington, but the Philippines as well. He thus attended the church much less frequently than he had as a boy and young man, but worshiped there when he was in Cincinati. Taft was a unitarian at a time when such a non-traditional religion was not well received by many. He was quite honest about his religious beliefs.

Political Career

After Law School he was admitted to the Ohio bar (1880) and entered private practice. Historians report that Taft was afable and warmhearted, but prone to laziness. His academic brilliance, however, enabled him to become made him a successful lawyer. and he demonstrated an intrest in politics from an early point. Taft cam from a well-positioned Republican family. Thus his family connections were very important to his early political career. He did not practice law long. He received an appoitment as Assistant Hamilton County Prosecutor (1881).

Judiciary appointments

He rose in politics through Republican judiciary appointments, through his own competence and availability, and because, as he once wrote facetiously, he always had his "plate the right side up when offices were falling." Taft much preferred law to politics. He was appointed a Federal circuit judge at 34. He aspired to be a member of the Supreme Court, but his wife, Helen Herron Taft, held other ambitions for him.

Administrative posts

Taft's route to the White House was via administrative posts.
The Philippines: President McKinley sent him to the Philippines in 1900 as chief civil administrator. Sympathetic toward the Filipinos, he improved the economy, built roads and schools, and gave the people at least some participation in government. He called the Philippino people, "our little brown brothers". This has a destinctly patrionizing sound today, but in the parlance of the racist attitudes of the day a somewhat progressive attitude. This open attitude toward race was a hallmark of both Tafy and his wife. Nellie Taft pursued an active social role including Philippinos and not just Americans. This was to play a very important role in eventually winning over the Philippino people despite the brutal campaign waged by the Army. The military campaign was a bitter one. About 4,000 Americans were killed and many more Philippinos. The Army set up concentration camps. Many in the Army disliked Taft's tempered approach to the Philippinos. The soldiers sang referring to the Philippinos, "He may be a brother to Big Bill Taft, but he ain't no brother to me." Taft disagreed with General Arthur McArthur, the Military Governor, and was instrumental in destroying his career. One of the primary points of discension was the very brutal anti-guerilla campaign that the army was employing in the Philippines. Taft sought to reign in the Army and MacArthur objected. Later Taftt as Secretary of War prevented MacArthur from obtaining the coveted post of Army Chief of Staff. The General's quarels with politicans were instrumental in fixing his son's (Douglas's) attitudes toward politicians and legendary confrontations followed with Hoover, Roosevelt, and of course Truman. Ironicall Douglas became very popular in the Philippines.
Roosevelt Administration: President Roosevelt repected Taft and was personally close to him. He turned to Taft for several difficult assignments, in both the Philippines and Panama. He appointed Taft Secretary of War, and by 1907 had decided that Taft should be his successor. This appears to be in large measure based on Taft's congeniality and inclination to accept Roosevelt's policies. The presidency was not an office he especially coveted.

Election of 1908

The Republican Convention with Roosevelt's backing nominated Taft in 1908. Taft was not a naturally gifted politican. It was no accident that he had risen with judicial and administrative appointments. He disliked political campaigns. He was not a talented public speaker. His speeches were usually well reasoned, but tedious and emotionless. He described the camaign as "one of the most uncomfortable four months of my life." He pledged his loyalty to the Roosevelt progressive program, popular in the West. The Republican Party was badly divided in 1908 between progressives and conservatives, but Taft managed to keep it together. His brother Charles reassured old guard eastern Republicans. William Jennings Bryan, running on the Democratic ticket for a third time, complained that he was having to oppose two candidates, a western progressive Taft and an eastern conservative Taft. Progressives were pleased with Taft's election. "Roosevelt has cut enough hay," they said; "Taft is the man to put it into the barn." Conservatives were delighted to be rid of Roosevelt--the "mad messiah."

Presidency (1909-13)

There have been few presidents who differed so much personally from him predecesor. The largee, overwight traft was seen by the public to be in stark contrast to his dynamo predecesor. President Taft was a huge man, weighing more than 300 pounds. After he got stuck in the White House bathtub, a special bathtub was installed for him--big enough to hold four men. In many ways, however, Taft began to define the modern concept of the presidency. He was the first president to throw out the first ball at the opening of the baseball season. William Taft gave the White House its first set of "wheels." He had the stables convertedinto a garage for four cars, Pearce Arrows all ordered in 1909. Here Nellie played a key role and became the first First Lady to drive. [Anthony]

Domestic affairs

Taft recognized that his techniques would differ from those of his predecessor. Unlike Roosevelt, Taft did not believe in the stretching of Presidential powers. He once commented that Roosevelt "ought more often to have admitted the legal way of reaching the same ends." Taft alienated many progressive Republicans who later formed the Progressive Party, by defending the Payne-Aldrich Act which unexpectedly continued high tariff rates. A trade agreement with Canada, which Taft pushed through Congress, would have pleased eastern advocates of a low tariff, but the Canadians rejected it. He further antagonized Progressives by upholding his Secretary of the Interior, accused of failing to carry out Roosevelt's conservation policies. In the angry Progressive onslaught against him, little attention was paid to the fact that his administration initiated 80 antitrust suits and that Congress submitted to the states amendments for a Federal income tax and the direct election of Senators. A postal savings system was established, and the Interstate Commerce Commission was directed to set railroad rates.

International affairs

Taft persued an active role in Latin America. He shidted the emphasis of Roosevelt's "big stick" approach with what he called "dollar diplomacy". He supported the idea of a World Court, an idea that Roosevelt,who had a different concept of war, thought foolish.

Election of 1912

The election of 1912 was one of the most important in American politics. Roosevelt and Taft considered themselves friends. Taft never could have become president without Roosevelt's personal intervention. Roosevelt soon found himself missing the presidency after he left office. This personal feeling was amplified when progressives began to complain to him about President Taft. Gradually the personal relationship between the two men ruptured. Here Mrs. Taft was a factor. She did not like Roosevelt and this affected Taft's opinions. Roosevelt saw Taft as weak and abandoning his legacy to conservative party boses. Taft came to see Roosevelt as a dangerous man and a threat to American democracy. Roosevelt deciced to contest the Republican nomination. Still emensely popular, Roosevelt won state primary election, including the Ohio primary. The Republican machine politicans, however, succeeded in renominated Taft. A majority of Republicans favored Roosevelt and he did well in the states with primaries. But most delegated to the Republican Convention were chosen in state conventions dominated by the party bosses. Roosevelt was angered that he and his supporters were ignored by these Republican bosses. He thus bolted the party to lead the Progressives. The Party under Roosevelt became known as the Bull Moose Party. Taft considered the Roosevelt candidacy as a personal affront from a former friend. The Republican split guaranteed the election of the Democratic candidate, Woodrow Wilson.

After the Presidency

The Tafts returned to Ohio after President Wilson was inagurated. Taft although he came in third in the 1912 election looked on it as a victory as he denied the presidency to Roosevelt. Had Roosevelt won the Republican nomination, he almost certainly would have won the election. Taft at the time considered him a very dangerous man. Taft largely stayed out of the public eye. The Tafts moved to Connecticut where the former president served as Professor of Law at Yale. He did become a critic of men like Henry Ford who published vicicious tracts targetting Jews, in a way making anti-Semitism respectable. Taft was the first president to use the term "anti-Semitism" and to object to this trend in American political discourse.

Chief Justice (1921-30)

President Harding appointed Taft Chief Justice of the United States (1921). This was the position that he had always coveted. Te appointment was his greatest honor; he wrote: "I don't remember that I ever was President." Other jusices viewed him term as Chief Justice much more favorably than his presidency. He was in fact a very effective Chief Justice. There were no monumental decisions. Perhaps his best known case delt with the President's power to fire appointed officials confirmed by the Senate. He was not a masterful author of opinions, he was a very effective manager. He helped get the Supreme Court building built at its current location. More importantly, he was a superb adminitrator and was instrumntal in helping to bring the court calendar under control. He also helped changed the character of the Chief Justice and the relationship of the Supreme Court to other Federal Courts. He served as Chief Justice until he died (1930).


Helen Herron Taft (1861-1943)

Nellie Taft is one of the more interesting First Ladies and generally unknown to the American public today. Nellie was the fourth child of Harriet Collins and John W. Herron. She was born in 1861 during the Civil war. She grew up in Cincinnati, Ohio. She attended a Cincinatti private school. She was especially interested in music. As a teenager 17 years old, she visited the White House at the invitation of President and Mrs. Hayes who were personal friends of her parents. Only a year after that visit, she met the young William Taft. She described "that adorable Will Taft," at a sledding party. Taft at the time was a lawyer, he was tall and much more slender than the Taft that we are familiar with. They became friends and enjoyed intellectual discussions. They married in 1886. Taft called her a "treasure". His discription of his wife was "self-contained, independent, and of unusual application." Nellie Taft was no skrinking violet. In fact she liked to drink, smoke, and play poker. She was known to go into German bars in Cinacinatti. [Anthony] The drinking in particular was to be a bone of contention with her usband after Prohibition was passed. here was never any suggestion, however, that she over drank or was an alcoholic. Taft when they met was already thinking of a political or judicial career. They discussed the future, possibly going to Washington in an "official capacity". Taft suggested to Nellie that they might -- when she became Secretary of the Treasury! Of course, women at the time could not have political careers. They could not even vote. No politician could hope for a strnger advocate than Nellie Taft. She supported his career as a state judge, Solicitor General of the United States, federal circuit judge. President McKinely chose Taft for a very difficult assignment in the Philippines (1900). He was placed in charge of the American civil government in the newly acquired Philippine Islands. What this meant for Nellie Taft is often overlooked. She had three children (Robert, Helen, and Charles). America at the time was a very provincial country. The idea of moving to the Philippine Islands was like going to end of the world. Many women would have refused. Nellie took up her husband's new assignment with enthusiasm. She was a strong support to her hisband's attempt to win over the Philippino people. She made sure that Philippino's were included in social functions at a time when most Americans held strong racist views. [Anthony] Nellie in fact loved to travel. There were trips to China and Japan as well as a pecial diplomatic mission to the Vatican. Taft returned home and was appointed Secretary of War by President Roosevelt (1904). This brought Nellie into the Washington social swirl and a sophisticated circle of friends. Nellie unlike some other First Ladies welcomed her husband's election and the position she had apparently long desired. In fact Mrs. Taft was more interested in politics and the presidency than the newly elected president. She showed this interest from the very beginning. When former President left for Union Station immediately after the Inaguration, she became the first First Lady to ride back to the White House with her husband after the inaguration. Like many First Ladies, she emersed herself in the Washington social swirl. Mrs. Taft had much more open attitudes than previous First Ladies. Mrs. Roosevelt refused, for example, to allowed divorced women to attend White House functions. Mrs. Taft ended this. [Anthony] Nellie Taft, however, did not confine herself to White House socail functions. She used her influence to create West Potomac Park and began planting cherry trees around the Tidal Basin. She also set up a bansatand and selected an Afro-American bandmaster. Mrs. Taft broke presidence by becoming involved in actual policy ininitatives. She persued labor policy by conducting spot inspections of working conditions in Federal agencies. Her efforts resulted in an executive order on working conditions in Federal agencies. She also emsersed herself in the Congress' work on a new tariff. All of this was a radical departure for a First Lady. There was no criticism of this as Elenor Roosevelt and Hilory Clinton were criticised. I'm not sure why this was. I think it was primarily because Mrs. Taft only 2 months after the inaguration experienced a stroke which left her unable to speak. She had partiaslly recovered within a year allowing her to appear in public. The most grand social event of the Taft presidency was an evening garden party for several thousand guests on the occassion of the Tafts' silver wedding anniversary (June 19, 1911). A huge quantity of silver items were sent to the Taft's. Her children kidded her that afterwards she no longer had to buy wedding and anniversary gifts. Mrs Taft continued to involve herself in political and socail issues after she recoverd, but in a less public way. She would act on letters that people sent her. One such letter asked for assiastance in setting up a Kingergarden for Black children in the South. [Anthony] Her opinion on women's sufferage was at forst equivoval, but she came to be a string supporter. Mrs. Taft was very disappointed with her husband'd loss of the 1912 election, adding fuel to her dislike of Roosevelt. The Tafts returned to Washington when Harding appointed her husband Chief Justice (1921). There were family spats after the passage of prohibition. Nellie liked her drink and her husband, now Chief Justice, was embarassed because every drink she took was a viloaltion of Federal Law. Mrs. Taft stayed in Washington after her husband died (1930). She had no desire for public life as a former First Lady. In fact after her husband's death she got rid of his books and many personal possessions. She did seem very interested in Mrs. E. Roosevelt, the activist Democratic First Lady. She also continued to enjoy travel. She went to Mexico to see Mayan ruins. Her children were concerned, but one waggihly offered as long as she knows how to say "cerveza" she will be alright. She died quietly in her home (May 22, 1943).


The Tafts had three children: two boys and a girl. The children went with their parents to the Philippines. They were quite young at the time. It was a real lark for them. They all had successful lives. Robert attended Harvard and Yale He became the Republican leader in the U.S. Senate after World War II and was referred to as Mr. Republican. He served as both Speaker in the House and majority leader in the Senate. He became a luminary in the Republican Party. Helen acted as the White House hostess for her ailing mother despote the fact that she was still a teenager. She married Yale profesor FrederickJohnson Manning. They had two daughters. Helen herself had a career in both educatuin and oublic life. She taught history abnd served as the acting oresident of Bryn Mawr, one of America's most prestigious woman's college. She was a strident spokesman for women's sufferage and women's rights. Charlie had a career as a lawyer, atlrkete, soldier, author, politican, and civic reformer. He was elected Cincinati Mayor, leading the reform movement. He was deeply religious and help found the World Council of Churches. He became the youngestvpresident of the International YMCA (1935).

Children's Clothes

EWe have few images of the Taft boys. One image of Charlie at about 11 or 12 shows him wearing a knicker suit. Other images show a small boy in a sailor suit, but this may be one of the grandchildren.


Anthony, Carl Sferrazza. Nellie Taft: The Unconventional First Lady of the Ragtime Era (2005).

Wead, Doug. All the President's Children: Triumph and Tragedy in the Lives of America's First Familirs (Atria: New York, 2003), 456p.


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Created: June 25, 1999
Last changed: 7:07 AM 3/9/2014