Big Bill Taft

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Said Justice Brandeis to Professor Frankfurter, “It’s very difficult for me to understand why a man who is so good as Chief Justice, in his function of presiding officer, could have been so bad as President. How do you explain that?” To which Felix Frankfurter replied, “The explanation is very simple. He loathed being President and being Chief Justice was all happiness for him.”

Taft worked himself harder than he pushed his colleagues. He wrote an average of thirty opinions per term, while the other Justices averaged twenty. But as the years passed, the infirmities of age began to slow him down. He decided that he would have to celebrate his birthdays on “the Aunt Delia principle”—the old lady, who lived to be ninety-two, gave a dinner party on her eightieth birthday in order that people might not think she was ninety.

Finally, in early 1930, his health failed, and Bob Taft delivered his father’s resignation to President Hoover. The Supreme Court, speaking through the eloquent pen of Oliver Wendell Holmes, then wrote him: “We call you Chief Justice still—for we cannot give up the title by which we have known you all these later years and which you have made dear to us. We cannot let you leave us without trying to tell you how dear you have made it. You came to us from achievement in other fields and with the prestige of the illustrious place that you lately had held and you showed us in new form your voluminous capacity for getting work done, your humor that smoothed the tough places, your golden heart that brought you love from every side and most of all from your brethren whose tasks you have made happy and light. We grieve at your illness, but your spirit has given an impulse that will abide whether you are with us or away.”

William Howard Taft died on March 8, 1930, at the age of seventy-two. He had held public office for over forty years, and was the only person to have served as both President and Chief Justice of the United States.

Another tribute that would have greatly pleased him came from humorist Will Rogers: “ It’s great to be great but it’s greater to be human . He was our great human fellow because there was more of him to be human. We are parting with three hundred pounds of solid charity to everybody, and love and affection for all his fellow men.”

Will the Real Lady Howe Please stand Up?