- Historic Sites
Big Bill Taft
The only American ever to be both President and Chief Justice of this country was jolly, energetic, and weighed over three hundred pounds.
October 1966 | Volume 17, Issue 6
Yet, as a contemporary Taft has put it, “The Tafts were not big shots or tycoons; they were carpenters, innkeepers, farmers—in other words, plain ordinary people.” Although they arrived in Massachusetts around 1678, Alphonso was the first in the family to have graduated from college. When he was a student at Yale in the 1830’s, he sometimes walked from his father’s farm in Vermont to New Haven. In 1839 he moved to Cincinnati, where he founded a law practice and a political dynasty. He was more interested in public service than private profit, and when he died in 1891 his entire estate consisted of $482.80 and a house. (The house was eventually sold for $18,000.)
Louise Torrey Taft, whom Alphonso married in 1853, after the death of his first wife, was a serene, happy person who also possessed rare executive ability. Her presidential son was to write, “When woman’s field widens, Mother, you must become President of a Railway Company.” Like her husband, she claimed sturdy New England roots. Her father, Samuel Torrey, was a Boston merchant who, at the age of forty, moved to the village of Millbury, Massachusetts, after a physician advised that he had only a short time to live. With characteristic Yankee stubbornness, he remained in vigorous good health for the next forty-nine years.
When they were boys, William Howard Taft and his brothers and half-brothers often spent their summers at Millbury with Crandfather Torrey. The house was presided over by a maiden aunt, Delia, a believer in the dubious proposition that “ladies of strong minds seldom marry.” Her sense of humor was later to receive national attention when her nephew entered the White House and the press gleefully reported the opinions of “Aunt Delia.” At one time, when people were adopting fancy place-names such as “Manchester by the Sea,” Aunt Delia chose to protest the befouled Hlackstone River by dating her letters. “Millbury by the Sewer.” Grandfather Torrcy. however, was of sterner stuff, believing that the best way to bring up boys was by “the Puritanical maxim that it is good for the soul to take one’s pleasures sadly.” A typical dinner table conversation at grandfather’s went:
“Henry, will you have mince pie or apple pie?”
“Oh. I don’t care, Grandpa.”
“If you don’t care, we won’t cut the pie.”
“To be the founders of a family,” wrote Alphonso Taft, “is a great matter.” He took this responsibility seriously, and while he loved his sons deeply, he was also a stern disciplinarian. Encouragement was spiced with criticism. When the boys were not at the top of their classes, Alphonso wanted to know why. A typical letter to young William Howard Taft from his father read: “I do not think you have accomplished as much this past year as you ought with your opportunities. Our anxiety for your success is very great and I know that there is but one way to attain it, & that is by self-denial and enthusiastic hard work. …”
For one son, Peter Kawson Taft, the paternal spur may have been too sharp. Although he was valedictorian of his class at Yale, he seemed to be plagued with a deep sense of guilt, which led to breakdown and an early death in a sanitarium. But the other four sons of Alphonso Taft went on to outstanding careers in the fields of publishing, industry, education, politics, and law.
According to Archie Butt, a skillful celebrity-watcher, there never were brothers more devoted to each other than these Tafts. Even when William Howard Taft was asked to head the civil government of the Philippines, the young man told President McKinley that he would just have to wait a week for his answer—first he had to consult with his brothers.
Of Will Taft 1S brothers, Henry Waters Taft became one of the nation’s most prominent attorneys as senior partner in Cadwalader, Wickersham & Taft, as well as author of ten books ranging in subject matter from Japan to the art of conversation; Horace Dutton Taft founded the Taft School at Watertown, Connecticut, and was called “headmaster of headmasters” by Williams College when it granted him one of his many honorary degrees; and Charles Phelps Taft published the Cincinnati Times-Star , served in Congress and in the Ohio legislature, and became a major investor in many corporations, including the Chicago Cubs.
Charlie was to play a unique role in his younger brother’s career by supplementing Will’s meager public salary and underwriting his drive for the Presidency. From the time William Howard Taft was Solicitor General until he entered the White House, a period of eighteen years, Charles Phelps Taft subsidized his brother in amounts ranging from $6,000 to $10,000 a year, and the 1908 presidential campaign was said to have cost him $800,000.
The desire to allow his brother the freedom to pursue public service was Charlie’s, but the ability to do so was his wife’s. For Charlie Taft had married one of the great heiresses of Ohio. Fun-loving and witty, Annie Sinton was described by a contemporary as “so natural and kindly that one would never suspect her of either great wealth or high position.” She once dropped a suitor because he tried to dazzle her by lighting a cigar with a dollar bill.