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William Howard Taft as Chief Justice, 1921, Harris & Ewing, Library of Congress
August 30, 2021

Chief Justice William Howard Taft: A Dream Deferred

“I was engaged in the respectable business of trying to administer justice [but] I have fallen from that state now and am engaged in running for the presidency.” [1]

-William Howard Taft

There are six American presidents who failed to win reelection. Most recently, Donald Trump lost his bid for reelection in 2020. Before him, George Bush, Sr., Jimmy Carter, Gerald Ford, Herbert Hoover, and William Howard Taft all failed to win a second term. William Howard Taft is the only former president who made a public career comeback to serve on the Supreme Court. He remains today the only person who has served as both the President of the United States and Chief Justice. When Taft was appointed Chief Justice in 1921, he succeeded Edward Douglass White, whom Taft himself had elevated to Chief Justice when he was President in 1910. [2] Not many people can say they settled on the presidency after their first choice career didn’t pan out, but that is essentially what happened in Taft’s case. When he promoted White, Taft confided in George W. Wickersham, his Attorney General, that “There is nothing I would have loved more than to be Chief Justice of the United States. I cannot help seeing the irony in the fact that I, who desired that office so much, should now be  signing the commission  of another man.” [3]   Let’s step back for a moment and trace Taft’s trajectory to where he happily ended his career as a public servant: that of Chief Justice of the United States of America.

William Howard Taft was born in Cincinnati in 1857, the scion of the Taft family, who traced their origins to Ireland, but more recently, to Uxbridge, Massachusetts. Taft’s great grandfather, Samuel Taft, served in the Revolutionary War under George Washington and stayed at Samuel’s tavern at Uxbridge. A letter from the newly-elected Washington thanking Taft for his hospitality survives. When Taft was born, his father, Alphonso, started a law firm with William M. Dickson, who was one of the founders of the Republican party. Alphonso himself had written the platform of the Republican party the year before William’s birth, emphasizing, amongst other things, its commitment to the Constitution. William H. Taft studied at Yale from 1874-1878, where he was a member of the elite Skull and Bones society, which his father had co-founded. During the younger Taft’s time at Yale, his father served as a judge on the Superior Court of Cincinnati, lost a bid for the Ohio governorship to Rutherford B. Hayes, and was appointed by President Ulysses S. Grant as Secretary of War. Shortly thereafter, Alphonso became Attorney General. The confluence of law and politics ran deeply in the Taft family, to put it mildly, and both his father’s example and his counsel that it was greater to be Chief Justice than President were to impact William’s career path. 

In 1878, Taft finished Yale and moved back to Ohio to study law in Cincinnati, passing the bar in 1880, and entering his father’s firm. The following year, Taft was appointed Hamilton County’s Assistant Prosecuting Attorney [4] which he resigned the following year, in 1882, when he was appointed by President Arthur as Collector of Internal Revenue. All of these achievements and opportunities were attained by the time Taft was twenty-five.  [5] 

In 1886, Taft married fellow Cincinnatian Helen Herron, with whom they would eventually have four children. Helen’s father had also been active in the Republican party and had been legal partners with Rutherford B. Hayes. Helen’s political pedigree further fueled her aspirations for her husband to seek public office, ultimately becoming the driving force behind Taft’s political career. In the meantime, Taft continued working up the ranks of the legal profession, and in 1887, at age 29, he followed in his father’s footsteps and was appointed Judge of the Superior Court of Cincinnati. Two years later, Taft was tapped to join the Supreme Court, but was instead appointed by President Benjamin Harrison the following year as Solicitor General, and in short succession, Taft found himself a circuit judge, and dean of his alma mater, the Cincinnati School of Law. In 1900, President William McKinley appointed Taft the first head of the  civilian governor of the Philippines. Though this delighted his wife, who made no secret of her White House ambitions for him, Taft would have preferred to devote himself to the law. [6]

In 1902, Taft was informed by President Theodore Roosevelt that he wished to put Taft on the Supreme Court bench. He confided in then-Secretary of War Elihu Root “I long for a judicial career, but if it must turn on my present decision then I am willing to lose it.” [7] Taft was essentially bowing to his wife’s political aspirations for him.  Roosevelt didn’t give up, but Taft’s sense of duty to finish his work in the Philippines, combined with Helen’s urging that Taft’s career not be shelved on the Supreme Court bench, ultimately won out.

In 1904, Taft followed in his father’s footsteps yet again when President Roosevelt appointed him Secretary of War, bringing the Tafts to Washington. While there, Roosevelt tried his luck again to convince his old friend to join the Supreme Court. By now, though, there was a growing consensus that Taft would make an excellent president. Taft confided in his diary that Helen was “Bitterly opposed to my accepting the [court] position and that she telephoned me this morning to tell me that if I did, I would make the biggest mistake of my life.” [8] After a private half-hour meeting with Helen Taft, President Roosevelt became the most vocal proponent of Taft’s bid for the presidency.

In 1908, with Roosevelt’s help, Taft won the election. Though viewed as Roosevelt’s successor, Taft was different in temperament nearly across the board. Whereas Roosevelt stretched the limits of the constitution, Taft felt duty-bound to be constrained by them. In other words, his judicial temperament made him less suited for the expectations of a president. Taft was relieved to lose his bid for re-election in 1912 to Woodrow Wilson, ending a somewhat unpopular term in office. 

The former president still needed a source of income, and was delighted to begin teaching law at Yale. Finally, in 1921, Taft’s dream became a reality when President Harding appointed him Chief Justice of the Supreme Court. Taft served in his position until 1930, retiring shortly before his death. In the words of Jeffrey Rosen, Taft’s most recent biographer, “Taft’s constitutional restraint helped solidify his legacy as our most judicial president and most presidential chief justice.” [9]

  1. Caroli, Betty Boyd. The First Ladies “From Martha Washington to Michelle Obama” Oxford University Press, 2010, p. 131
  2. Grover Cleveland had appointed White as Associate Justice in 1894, and Taft’s elevation of White to Chief Justice was surprising, given that Taft was a Republican.
  3. Rehnquist, William H. “Remarks of the Chief Justice: My Life in the Law Series.” Duke Law Journal, vol. 52, no. 4, 2003, pp. 787–805. JSTOR, www.jstor.org/stable/1373198, p. 797. Accessed 19 Aug. 2021. 
  4.  The county seat of Hamilton is Cincinnati 
  5. Warren, Earl. “Chief Justice William Howard Taft.” The Yale Law Journal, vol. 67, no. 3, 1958, pp. 353–362, p. 355. JSTOR, www.jstor.org/stable/793882. Accessed 16 Aug. 2021.
  6. Ever since Helen Herron Taft visited the Hayes’s White House as a small girl, she was determined to return as First Lady, and passionately pursued her ambitions vicariously through her husband
  7. Warren, p. 356
  8. Caroli, p. 130
  9. https://www.theatlantic.com/politics/archive/2018/03/trump-william-taft/555656/
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