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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
The Sinton money, which was to bankroll a Taft to the Presidency, was made by Annie’s father, an Irish immigrant of irregular education. Rugged, close-fisted David Sinton went to Ironton, Ohio, at the age of eighteen, to work at a blast furnace. He soon had a furnace of his own, and, with every cent of his own and every cent he could borrow, he built up a stockpile of pig iron which he sold at inflated prices after the outbreak of the Civil War. When he died he left his only child an estimated fifteen million dollars.
After Will Taft reached the White House, reporters at a Washington Gridiron dinner poked fun at his brother’s lavish spending. In one skit a customer in a diner ordered “breast of chicken with wings attached and boiled dumplings.”
“Angel with dough,” called the waiter.
“Charles P. Taft, for one,” responded the chef from the rear.
The financier was equal to the joke. Later he told his brother’s military aide, “Huntington [of the Southern Pacific Railroad] thought it came high to get a prince in the family. Hc ought to have tried getting a President into one!”
Alphonso Taft felt that all his sons were destined for legal careers, and all five earned law degrees. Then when his youngest son deserted private practice to become a teacher, the father shook his head in disbelief. “I cannot comprehend Horace’s idea of founding a private school or what in the world he can hope from it,” Alphonso wrote, “The law is his proper field.”
But the father was never to be disappointed by William Howard Taft. “I love judges, and I love courts,” Will was later to say. “They are my ideals, that typify on earth what we shall meet hereafter in heaven under a just God.” Before his thirtieth birthday he had taken the first step up the judicial ladder—appointment to the superior court of Ohio—and, much to Alphonso’s delight, just before his death he saw his son named Solicitor General of the United States, the attorney charged with representing the federal government before the Supreme Court.
In Washington, Solicitor General Taft was brought together with another young man, Theodore Roosevelt, who had recently been made a Civil Service commissioner. The two second-echelon appointees were attractively different: Roosevelt so combustible, creative, so divinely illogical; Taft so harmonious, solid, so thoroughly logical. And their aspirations would carry them forward together. If ever a man conceived himself destined to be President of the United States it was Roosevelt; if ever a man felt chosen for Chief Justice of the United States it was Taft. They could serve each other well. Taft helped Roosevelt get appointed Assistant Secretary of the Navy, the post from which he would catapult to fame, and later encouraged his White House ambitions when they looked most remote to the Rough Rider.
Taft stayed in Washington only two years on his first appointment, resigning from the Justice Department to accept a federal circuit-court judgeship. Nellie, very much against leaving the rarefied atmosphere of the capital, told her husband, “My darling, it will put an end to all the opportunities you now have of being thrown with the bigwigs.” This argument failed to convince him, and “so once more,” she wrote in her memoirs, “I saw him a colleague of men almost twice his age and, I feared, fixed in a groove for the rest of his life.” She had to admit, however, that Will “was greatly pleased and very proud to hold such a dignified and responsible position at the age of thirty-four. I think [she wrote in 1914] he enjoyed the work of the following eight years more than any he has ever undertaken.”
As a jurist, Taft was heroically conscientious and hardworking, and almost always conservative. His tenure on the bench coincided with the rise of the Populists and the American Federation of Labor, and many of his most important decisions dealt with the labor movement. On rare occasions, such as the Addyston Pipe case, 1898, where Taft ruled that a combination of manufacturers was in restraint of trade, he could be found opposing the interests of business, and he did recognize the basic right of labor to organize. But most often, since he felt that private property was of “sacred character,” the Ohio judge wielded the injunctive power to beat back the incursions of the unions.
It took all of William McKinley’s persuasive powers, plus a hint of future preferment, to get Taft to leave the halls of justice to become head of the civil government of the Philippine Islands, recently acquired in the war with Spain. He finally succumbed to duty and the President’s assurance that “if you give up this judicial office at my request you shall not suffer.” To Taft this sounded very much like a promissory note for the next Supreme Court vacancy.
He went to the Philippines to rule a conquered nation; he returned, according to Carlos Romulo, “enshrined in the Filipino heart.” Taft established a policy that would eventually lead to self-government and independence, but in the meantime would be benevolent and responsive. In this he was opposed by General Arthur MacArthur, the American military commander, who felt that the islanders should be ruled bv the bayonet for at least a decade. MacArthur’s soldiers sang a song about “our little brown brothers” which ended: He may be a brother of William H. Taft, but he ain’t no friend of mine! Taft instinctively distrusted the military view.