- 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
Although he was not there, his mother, his Aunt Delia, and two of his brothers gathered in New York City early in January, 1903. and, after due deliberation, drafted a report: William Howard Taft was to be President of the United States.
For two reasons this was a remarkable, if not amazing, decision. First, the occupant of the White House at the moment was Theodore Roosevelt, who showed no disposition to move out for another six years to accommodate William Howard Taft or anyone else; and second. William Howard Taft did not want to be President.
From the time Will Taft was a child his family never had any doubt that its honor and destiny were bound up in him. When he grew up and married, his wife was equally determined that TaIt would be President. Mrs. Taft, the former Helen Herron, was a bright, attractive girl, but she had a stubborn mouth. Moreover, she was reserved and literary, and didn’t make friends easily. As with everything that Mrs. Taft put her mind to, her ambition for her husband was not arrived at frivolously. “Nellie,” as she was called, knew the White House well. Her father had been a college classmate of Benjamin Harrison’s and the law partner of Rutherford B. Haves; her mother was the daughter and sister of congressmen. At the age of seventeen, while the houseguest of President and Mrs. Hayes, Nellie announced that she was so taken with the White House that she would marry someone destined to be President.
But William Howard Taft, the man in whom all family ambition centered, was hardly a piece of putty to be manipulated by petticoat politicians. His path to the White House was paved with greater public service than that of any President since Martin Van Buren. If one were to plot Taft’s career on a graph, the line would rise sharply and steeply, without a single dip, until it marked the summit of American political life.
He became assistant prosecutor of Hamilton County. Ohio, at the age of twenty-three. Collector of Internal Revenue in Cincinnati two years later, judge of the state superior court at twenty-nine. Solicitor General of the United States at thirty-two, a federal circuit-court judge at thirty-four, first U.S. Civil Governor of the Philippines at forty-two, Secretary of War in the Cabinet of Theodore Roosevelt at forty-six, and President of the United States at fifty-one. Each job seemed to be a logical outgrowth of the one before; each new opportunity seemed only to await the successful conclusion of the preceding episode.
The man who possessed this impressive public record was tall and round, with a ruddy complexion, a blondish mustache, and dark hair. His legs seemed too short for his torso. His weight sometimes climbed to over 325 pounds. Yet despite this great bulk he was light on his feet and a nimble dancer. He was also quick to joke about his generous proportions. When offered the Kent Chair of Constitutional Law at Yale he replied that it would be inadequate but that “a Sofa of Law” might be all right. Then Taft probably chuckled a rapturous, subterranean, incomparable chuckle: “the most infectious chuckle in the history of politics,” wrote his biographer, Henry F. Pringle. Said the wife of a Texas congressman, “It reminded me of the cluck a whippoorwill gives, a laugh to himself, when he has been whistling with special vim and mischief.”
The popular image of the jolly fat man fooled many into believing that Taft’s core was of petroleum jelly rather than tempered steel. William Allen White, the perceptive Kansas editor, knew otherwise. Once after having crossed Taft, White described the “eye behind his smile veiling … almost the hint of a serpentine glitter.” And T. R., while they were still friends, said that Taft was “one of the best haters” he had ever known.
On the day in 1890 that Will Taft came to Washington to be sworn in as Solicitor General, he was visited by William M. Evarts, distinguished senator from New York and leader of the American bar. “Mr. Taft,” said the Senator, “I knew your father … I valued his friendship very highly.” Evarts went on to say that he was presuming on this friendship to ask Taft to a dinner party that evening at which he was short one man. So the young lawyer ended his first day in the capital by dining between Mrs. Henry Cabot Lodge and Mrs. John Hay, neither of whom had the faintest clue as to who he was. Even after Taft became Secretary of War he frankly replied to an interviewer who asked him to explain his rapid political ascent, “I got my political pull, first, through father’s prominence. …”
The father whose name opened brass-plated doors was Alphonse Taft, dour and industrious Yankee, and holder at various times in a long public career of such illustrious positions as Secretary of War, Attorney General of the United States, and Envoy Extraordinary and Minister Plenipotentiary to Austria-Hungary and to Russia.
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.
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.
The Filipinos had lived under colonial rule since 1565, but never had they known an outsider quite like this first American viceroy. He made it clear from the start that color lines would not be tolerated at his social functions. The proud natives could almost feel his innate sympathy: he appointed them to high office, could be seen enjoying himself at their cockfights and concerts, even toured the remote interior where headhunters were still known to exist.
More tangibly, Taft achieved tax revisions, established municipal governments in many communities, put through harbor and other public improvements, increased educational facilities, instituted a civil service, and reformed land distribution and the judiciary. All this was performed in a tropical climate that was considered murderous to foreigners of much trimmer proportions. During his three years in the Philippines, Taft suffered from dengue fever and amoebic dysentery and underwent three operations for abscesses.
In 1901, when Theodore Roosevelt was Vice President and had a great deal of time on his hands, he wrote an article for The Outlook entitled “Governor William H. Taft.” It began: “A year ago a man of wide acquaintance both with American life and American public men remarked that the first Governor of the Philippines ought to combine the qualities which would make a first-class President of the United States with the qualities which would make a first-class Chief Justice of the United States, and that the only man he knew who possessed all these qualities was Judge William H. Taft of Ohio. The statement was entirely correct.” By the time the article was published, McKinley was dead, the author was President of the United States, and the subject was working for him.
Roosevelt now offered his friend the pinnacle of his ambition—a seat on the Supreme Court. But Taft, deeply and emotionally involved in managing the affairs of the Philippines, felt duty-bound to decline the appointment. It was only when the President asked Taft to become Secretary of War, the officer with jurisdiction over the Islands, that he consented to leave Manila and return to Washington. Outside the gates of Malacanan Palace 6,000 Filipinos paraded with signs, “¡Queremos Taft! [We want Taft!]”
Once in the Cabinet, Taft was preferred over all others; Roosevelt made him in fact, if not title, Assistant President. His duties extended far beyond the confines of the War Department; he was the President’s principal troubleshooter. Editorial-page cartoonists loved to draw Taft’s massive dimensions, usually carrying a suitcase, rushing off to put out some far-off fire—to Panama to get “the dirt flying,” to Cuba to bring an uneasy peace, to the western states to campaign for a Roosevelt Congress.
Then Roosevelt took the step that was bound to end their friendship: he made Taft President.
At William Howard Taft’s inauguration, his youngest son, eleven-year-old Charlie, was seen carrying a copy of Treasure Island . “This affair is going to be pretty dry,” he told his sister, Helen, “and I want something to read.” Robert Taft, on the other hand, watched with rapt attention as his father was sworn in. After the ceremony, Mrs. Taft shattered precedent by insisting on riding to the White House with the new President. “Some of the Inaugural Committee expressed their disapproval,” reported Nellie, “but I had my way and in spite of protests took my place at my husband’s side.”
Every new administration brings its own cast of characters to the national scene, and none are more interesting to the American public than the presidential children. Of the three young Tafts, little Charlie was the extrovert and general mischief-maker. The future mayor of Cincinnati had travelled twice around the world with his parents before he was eight, and, according to his sister, “gave interviews to the newspapers and posed for photographers at every stop!” When his father joined the President’s Cabinet, he joined that Peck’s Bad Boy of the White House, Quentin Roosevelt, in such Executive Mansion diversions as pasting spitballs that looked like warts on the portrait of Andrew Jackson.
Charlie had inherited his father’s dimple and chuckle, but it was Helen, in the opinion of the President, who was most like him in character. She was now a student at Bryn Mawr College, where she would later serve as professor of history, dean, and acting president. While more liberal than her father—she had made headlines by speaking in favor of aggrieved shirtmakers—she usually remained quiet and discreet.
It was Robert A. Taft, the future Republican leader, who was most uneasy in the limelight’s glare. During his father’s administration he graduated from Yale first in his class, and entered Harvard Law School. A young lady at a Boston party who had failed to catch his name had an impossible time trying to detect his identity by adroit questioning: Where did he live? His family home was in Ohio. Did he go back there for holidays? No, the family was now in Washington and he spent his holidays there. What did the family do in Washington? His father had a government job. And where did they live in Washington? “On Pennsylvania Avenue,” answered Bob. He did not mean to be coy; it was just that he would rather not be known as the President’s son if he could help it.
The salary-plus-expenses of the President had just been raised from $75,000 to $100,000; at last William Howard Taft would make enough to support his family luxuriously. He took to motoring with a passion. “Well, children,” he would say, “enjoy this all you can, for in four years more you may have to begin to walk over again.” He playfully told Nellie that after the White House they would go back to the “lower middle class,” and insisted that she not scrimp on her wardrobe, a suggestion which, to his surprise, she followed. Mrs. Taft filled the Executive Mansion with furniture, tapestries, and screens from the Orient. She covered the floors with petates , and filled the rooms to overflowing with plants, ferns, and exotic flowers, so that the servants, in concealed rebellion, were soon referring to the White House as “Malacañan Palace.”
The Tafts entertained lavishly. The lawn party they gave on their silver wedding anniversary was one of the largest affairs ever held at the White House. When Aunt Delia arrived, the Washington Star editorialized that now the party was “an assured success” because she would superintend the making of her famous apple pies. The old lady enjoyed the notoriety, but confessed to the family that “she had not made an apple pie for forty years and never did know how to make one properly.” The President and his First Lady greeted the crush of guests under a flowery arch inscribed “18861911,” while searchlights from the Treasury and State Department buildings played on the White House; paper lanterns were everywhere. The effect, commented Mrs. Ellen Slayden, was “crude like a fair or circus,” which surprised her, since “the Tafts have such excellent taste usually. …”
But Mrs. William Howard Taft, who had felt destined to be First Lady since she was seventeen, was not destined to enjoy her reign. Three months after the inauguration she had a stroke. The President lovingly taught her to speak again, but, although she was to live until a week short of her eiehtv-second birthday, surviving her husband by thirteen years, after her slow recovery she would have a speech impairment for the rest of her life. In 1910 Helen Taft dropped out of college for a year, to replace her mother as the official White House hostess.
The President’s office during Roosevelt’s occupancy had been a cluttered reflection of a cultured man with a craving for the strenuous life. There was a riding crop and a tennis racket in the corner, and piles of books—history, fiction, even poetry. But when reporter Ray Stannard Baker went to interview the new President he discovered a transformation had taken place. “Now the office had become, and not without significance, a law-office. On all sides of the room were cases filled with law-books, nothing but law-books.” And the new Cabinet, of which Taft was extraordinarily proud, now contained five “good, first-class lawyers,” including Henry Taft’s partner George Wickersham. “The law to President Taft,” wrote Archie Butt, “is the same support as some zealots get from great religious faith.”
It soon became apparent that Roosevelt and the man he had chosen as his successor held diametrically opposite views of the Presidency. Taft felt that the Chief Executive had no power that was not specifically spelled out in the Constitution or in an act of Congress. “There is no residuum of power which he can exercise [wrote Taft] because it seems to him to be in the public interest. …” “I declined to adopt this view,” said Roosevelt. “My belief was that it was not only his right but his duty to do anything that the needs of the nation demanded unless such action was forbidden by the Constitution or by the laws.”
Yet Taft, despite his strict interpretation of presidential functions, proposed and, in some areas, achieved even greater reforms than Roosevelt. He secured a tariff revision which on balance was a liberalization of existing schedules; put through the postalsavings-bank system; became “the Father of the Federal Budget”; got Congress to approve a reciprocity treaty with Canada, later defeated by the Canadian legislature; brought more prosecutions under the Sherman Antitrust Act than ever before (ninety as compared with forty-four instituted under Roosevelt); drafted constitutional amendments for the direct election of U.S. senators and for the income tax; started a Department of Labor; and tried to get nations to settle disputes through international arbitration.
But as a politician Taft was all thumbs. “The honest greenhorn at the poker table” is what he was called by a New York Times reporter. Said Speaker Cannon, in disgust: “If Taft were pope he’d want to appoint some Protestants to the College of Cardinals.” The President was incapable of arousing the public conscience, his relations with the press were atrocious, his speeches were long-winded and stodgy. He justified his actions in legalistic pronouncements; and then, having said all he felt there was to say on a subject, he said no more.
Taft didn’t know how to humor the insurgents in his own ranks, and midway in his term he lost control of the Congress altogether. The new Democratic House had no intention of making life comfortable for the Republican President. One congressional committee sought to embarrass him by digging up a minor scandal that had taken place ten years before in the State Department. Taft said it reminded him of the man who was asked in a restaurant whether he wanted oxtail soup, which the waiter explained, was merely soup made from the tail of the ox. “Neighbor,” the patron replied, “don’t you think that’s going a hell of a long way back for soup?”
The presidential years, Taft’s daughter concluded, “were the only unhappy years of his entire life.”
Teddy Roosevelt had sincerely wished his successor well and was determined to allow him to run his own show. So, immediately after the Taft inauguration, he went off to Africa to hunt big game. (And as T. R. left Washington, some congressmen lifted their glasses in a toast: “To the lions!”) But the trouble with Roosevelt was that he was too young—only fifty-one when he vacated the White House—and he knew that his rightful place would always be at the head of the charge. Then too, after he returned home, there were so many old friends who hurried to Oyster Bay with tales of personal or ideological slights by the President. Others were running to Taft with the same sort of self-serving gossip. Minor incidents were blown up into major differences. “It is hard, very hard, Archie, to see a devoted friendship going to pieces like a rope of sand,” said Taft. Henry L. Stimson declared, “It was not principle but personality, not purpose but method, that divided Mr. Taft and Mr. Roosevelt.” Many, like Stimson, were torn between their loyalties to the two men. The daughter of Maggie, the second maid at the White House, reported that “half the servants were for Taft; half for T. R.”
At the 1912 Republican convention, Taft, unpopular as he might be, was still the incumbent President, and therefore in control of the party machinery. With Taft’s renomination, Roosevelt bolted the party, announcing that he would “stand at Armageddon” and run on a third-party ticket. The cynical railroad czar Chauncey Depew pronounced: “The only question now is which corpse gets the most flowers.”
Taft received only eight electoral votes, those of Vermont and Utah. “I regard this as something of an achievement,” commented reporter Charles Willis Thompson, “and should be disposed to compliment Utah and Vermont if it were not that the Mormon machine pulled Utah through and that it’s a capital offense to vote a third party ticket in Vermont.”
Often it would be said of Taft, “He was a bad President, but a good sport.” The judgment of his character cannot be faulted; the judgment of his Presidency is more debatable. Perhaps it is fairer to say that he was at least an average President whose achievements tend to be overshadowed because he had the historical misfortune to be sandwiched between two great Presidents, Roosevelt and Wilson.
At a “school of journalism” conducted by Washington’s elite Gridiron Club in February, 1913, the “professor” was asked to define a remarkable coincidence. “The most remarkable coincidence of the year 1913,” came the reply, “is that at the very moment Professor Wilson becomes President Wilson, President Taft becomes Professor Taft.”
The years at Yale would be happy and productive for the ex-President. He had saved $100,000 during his presidential term, and its income, along with a $5,000 salary as professor of law, would be enough, he felt, “to keep the wolf from the door, especially in view of the fact that I do not expect to eat as much after leaving the White House.” He also supplemented his income by public speaking, and anyone requesting his services was sent a list of thirty subjects to choose from, ranging from “Duties of Citizenship” to “The Initiative and Referendum.” Taft’s fees ran from $150 to $1,000, averaging $400 an appearance.
Yale gave a royal welcome to its only alumnus to have been President, “second to no triumphal procession of any Caesar and surpassing any such celebration in the history of the college of the bulldog,” wrote the New Haven Journal-Courier . The school provided oversized chairs, with twenty-five inch seats, for its new faculty member, who set up an office at brother Charlie’s hotel, the Taft. Soon he was coaching the freshman debate team (which, however, lost to Harvard and Princeton), and was enjoying himself at junior proms, banquets, smokers, and ball games.
After a lifetime of deferring to family wishes and to his sense of duty, William Howard Taft finally realized his ambition. In 1921 he was appointed Chief Justice of the United States. “At last Mr. Taft has come to his journey’s end,” wrote a Washington correspondent. “He has been a long time on the way.”
Days on the Supreme Court proved to be everything that Taft always dreamed they would be. “The truth is,” he wrote in 1925, “that in my present life I don’t remember that I ever was President.” An apocryphal tale was told of a little boy who stopped him during his daily walk to the Court, and said, “I know who you are. You used to be President Coolidge!”
He proved to be a conservative, just as expected. Jurisprudentially he wasn’t able to win over Holmes, Brandeis, and Stone, but his affable nature won them as friends, and he was particularly surprised to discover how much he liked Brandeis, whose appointment he had bitterly opposed.
For a man who viewed so narrowly the functions ot the Presidency, Taft held a broad and free-wheeling concept of the Chief Justice’s role, “investing his office,” wrote Professor Alpheus T. Mason, “with prerogatives for which there were few, if any, precedents.” He lobbied blatantly and with considerable success for increasing the number of federal judges, constructing a separate building for the Supreme Court, and tightening the administrative machinery of the federal judiciary, and for procedural changes that would increase the Court’s efficiency.
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.”