The Presidents of the United States, 1789-1914/William H. Taft
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William H. Taft
William Howard Taft twenty-sixth president of the United States, was born in Cincinnati, Ohio, September 15, 1857. He was the son of Alphonso Taft by his second wife, Louisa Maria Torrey. Through both parents his ancestry goes back to the Massachusetts Bay colony of the earlier half of the seventeenth century. From his father's line he inherits his interest in scholarship and his love of the law; from his mother's, probably, his bodily strength and stature, tradition representing one of his maternal great-grandfathers as six feet and seven inches tall. Alphonso Taft was an able lawyer and a distinguished public servant. He first attracted national attention when, as judge of the superior court of Cincinnati, he rendered an opinion sustaining the right of the local board of education, in deference to the feelings of the Roman Catholic and Jewish taxpayers, to abolish the reading of the Bible in the common schools. Although this stand, taken at a time when religious prejudice was most bitter, undoubtedly cost him the governorship of Ohio, its independence also commanded widespread respect, a sentiment freely expressed when President Grant made him successively secretary of war and attorney-general of the United States.
When, after a preparatory course at the Woodward High school in his home city, William joined the class of 1878 at Yale university, he frankly entered the lists for scholastic honors, and avoided the distractions of competitive athletics, in which, with his powerful muscular equipment, he might have made a mark. Nevertheless, he soon won and always held the good will of his classmates, proofs of which have followed him everywhere through his career. At the close of his four years he stood second in a class of 121, and returned to Cincinnati to study for the bar. On his admission he became a newspaper law-reporter, to familiarize himself with court procedure. Almost from the start he attracted the notice of the republican party managers, and was made first an assistant county prosecutor and then collector of internal revenue; but neither position afforded him the professional scope he desired, so he went back to private practice till called to the assistant county solicitorship. There he was when, in 1887, a vacancy occurred in the superior court, and Governor Foraker, though head of a hostile faction, appointed him to fill it temporarily. When his term expired he was reëlected; but in 1890 President Harrison invited him to Washington as Solicitor-General, and introduced him to the whole American people.
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Mr. Taft's brief judicial experience had chanced to fall in a period when the labor field was in a state of unrest, and one case brought before him involved the right of a trade-union to boycott a firm which was not a party to any dispute, and whose sole offence lay in continuing to have dealings with an employer whose men had gone out on strike. The opinion he rendered was very broad, upholding the right of laborers to quit work in order to coerce their employer into paying higher wages, and of a trade-union to punish or expel its disobedient members; but on the other hand declaring unlawful a combination to injure the business of a stranger to the dispute, since such indirection obscured the original intent of the strike and became merely malicious and oppressive. The supreme court of Ohio sustained this decision on appeal without comment, and it is frequently quoted in labor cases to this day.
As second in command in the federal department of justice, Mr. Taft was given charge of the Sayward case, then before the United States supreme court. This was a suit brought by the Canadian ministry of justice to test the whole question of the authority claimed by the United States over sealing in Bering Sea, which had been the subject of a diplomatic wrangle lasting many years; and the brief of the young solicitor-general, which cleared up every point and convinced the court, gained him recognition abroad as well as at home. His next conspicuous case was in defence of the constitutionality of the McKinley tariff law of 1890, which had been attacked on the ground that it was passed in the house of representatives by a quorum counted by the speaker but not shown by the responses to the roll-call. Mr. Taft won his case by citing the clause of the constitution under which a minority of either house may “compel the attendance of absent members in such manner and under such penalties” as it may provide — a proceeding which would be futile if the returned absentees could still prevent the transaction of business by sitting silent.
After two years of service as solicitor-general, Mr. Taft was appointed a United States Circuit judge for the sixth circuit, which embraced his old home and other important districts of the middle west. Here he prepared a few decisions that hold a high place in the annals of the court. The engineers of the Toledo, Ann Arbor & Northern Michigan railroad company had struck for higher wages, and several connecting lines were afraid to handle freight billed to or from the road under siege, because their own engineers had threatened to desert them if they did. Hence, the Toledo company had sued out injunctions against the connecting roads, forbidding them to refuse its freight, and now applied for one against the chief of the brotherhood of locomotive engineers, who had ordered the boycott. Judge Taft's opinion weighed all the considerations entering into the case, including the probability that the engineers, not being learned in the law, were unaware that their course was in violation of the interstate commerce act, which imposed a fine of $5,000 on any representative or employee of an interstate railroad who wilfully interfered with the reasonable and equal interchange of traffic between carriers. His decision granting the injunction was the first to define thus the relations of interstate railroads with their employees, and established a universal standard for American courts.
In another case, where a labor union, boycotting a railroad which was in the hands of a receiver, had definitely disobeyed the orders of the court, the situation was tense, and the atmosphere charged with the spirit of riot; but Judge Taft punished the chief ringleader in the incident for contempt, after showing in an exhaustive opinion that the boycotters were violating both the interstate commerce and the anti-trust laws; and he served notice upon all concerned that the business of that road should not be interfered with as long as power enough remained in the United States army to run the trains. The strike did not last a great while after that; and as soon as quiet had been restored the judge proved his freedom from personal prejudice by asking the receiver to put the strikers back upon the pay-roll as fast as suitable places could be found for them.
A third notable decision was that in the Addyston Pipe & Steel company case. This was a government suit to break up a cast-iron pipe monopoly. Efforts to enforce the anti-trust law had up to that time been spasmodic, with few broad results. One suit had been dropped because the complainant joined the combination he was attacking; in another the prosecution failed to make clear the interstate character of the defendant's business; in a third there was unquestionably a combination, but lacking the monopolistic feature; in a fourth the offenders were freight-carriers, and the decision would not necessarily cover the conduct of producers uniting to control prices; in others the relief prayed for was temporary, and so on. Hence, signal value attached to Judge Taft's decision, which reviewed the whole history of this typical trust, including a combination whose effectiveness depended on its restraint of trade; a system where by products manufactured in a few states were disposed of in many, constituting interstate commerce; secret scheming which publicity would defeat, constituting conspiracy; and collusive bidding for public contracts, constituting fraud. It was so complete a deliverance that the supreme court, in sustaining it on final appeal, incorporated it bodily in the decree of affirmation.
THE BIRTHPLACE OF WILLIAM HOWARD TAFT, CINCINNATI, OHIO
In the midst of this service on the bench, Judge Taft shouldered a further responsibility by becoming dean of the Cincinnati school of law at which he had been prepared for the bar; and it was while he was doing this double duty that his career took a portentous turn.
The treaty with Spain which ended the war of 1898 ceded the Philippine Islands to the United States. The change of sovereignty was no sooner effected than the intermittent struggle for independence which the islanders had been carrying on for many years against Spain was revived against her successor. Until the beginning of 1900 it was necessary to keep the military arm of the government most active in the disaffected quarters; there had been a civil commission, also, sitting at Manila, but its functions were more in the line of investigation than of administration. When the rebel leaders had become pretty well convinced of the hopelessness of their cause, President McKinley realized the need of giving a more definite guaranty, both to the Filipinos and to the world, that his policy in dealing with the adopted colonies contemplated only benevolence; he accordingly set about the reorganization of the civil commission, with someone at its head whose name and personality would be accepted everywhere as representative of a new order of affairs. The man on whom he settled as most nearly meeting all the requirements in education, honesty, conservatism, courage and gentleness was Judge Taft.
Flattering as was this choice, it was no light task to convince the object of it that it pointed to his path of duty. In the first place, his one ambition had always been for promotion on the bench; in the second, there was nothing in his conception of the destiny of his country to which the idea of a colonial system appealed. The president deplored as frankly as he this feature of the situation, but here it was, staring them in the face. Whatever anyone might have preferred, the islands did belong to the United States, an armed insurrection among their people had been suppressed at great cost, and the time had arrived when they must be brought under civil government as be fitted a peaceful province. Ill-ruled, they would surely be exploited for the benefit of their conquerors; well-ruled, they could be developed for the benefit of their natives. This was the argument which settled the question. Judge Taft read in the plan a probable end to his most fondly cherished dreams of a future for himself, but, recognizing in that fact a greater obligation, he yielded.
In his new place, though nominally at the head of a commission of five members, he virtually possessed despotic powers. His first official act on reaching the islands was to assure the people that he had come not to bring them present independence, or a definite promise of independence, but to aid them in acquiring whatever measure of progressive self-government they were capable of maintaining, and he invited the co-operation of all parties and the most candid criticism of every law he proposed. It took some time to convince doubters and intractables that he was sincere in this announcement, but, by receiving all suggestions for the common welfare soberly, and holding the balances level between factional advisers, he succeeded finally in winning general confidence. Even the Spaniards engaged in business in the islands were surprised into commending him when, instead of showing the antagonism they had expected, he expressed his wish that they would remain and help the Americans develop the resources of the country. With his commission he made a tour of the archipelago, to learn its needs at first hand and to set up local governments wherever the people were ready to support them. On July 4, 1901, everything being ripe for such a step, he was formally proclaimed first civil governor of the Philippines.
Once during his governorship he returned to America for a few months. President McKinley had been assassinated, Vice-President Roosevelt had assumed the duties of the presidency, and a new congress would need expert counsel in shaping legislation for the colonies. Moreover, he was ill, and required a treatment he could not procure in Manila. During his visit, President Roosevelt mentioned a possibility that he might be offered a seat in the supreme court, but Mr. Taft would not consider the subject even tentatively, say ing that he had promised his “little brown brothers,” as he affectionately styled the Filipinos, to stay with them till they were sure of a stable administration. He was still an invalid when he boarded his steamer for the far east, and few of his friends expected to look upon his living face again. But by degrees he recovered his strength in spite of the trying climate and incessant hard work. Not the least of the difficulties with which he had to deal was the solution of the friar lands problem.
Under Spanish rule, four great missionary orders managed the religious and charitable interests of the Roman Catholic church in the Philippines. Their members were in intimate relations with the Madrid government, for which they were suspected of acting as spies; and they had acquired title to large tracts of land, which they rented for revenue. Among them, doubtless, were both good and bad men; but their unregulated landlordism had given rise to a multitude of scandals, with or without foundation in fact. These reached in time a point where the natives revolted, drove most of the friars out of their holdings, and sent them hunting for places of refuge. With only elementary notions of justice, in which a desire for retribution outfigured all else, the natives wished their new rulers to confiscate the missionary estates outright; but, as that was out of the question, Governor Taft was deputed by the president to confer with the pope about the purchase of these lands by the government. Although this was not accomplished at once, it was later, and the church began replacing the objectionable friars with a contingent of more enlightened and modern religious teachers, while the great agricultural tracts were gradually broken into parcels small enough for individual native farmers to hold and till.
Other reforms undertaken during this period were the institution of minor courts in various parts of the islands, within easy reach of the people; the introduction of a satisfactory system of land records and of vital and social statistics; the enforcement of sanitary regulations, the establishment of common schools, and the substitution of a uniform coinage for the antiquated mixture then passing for a currency. In the midst of these activities occurred a vacancy on the supreme court, and the president cabled the governor an offer of it. The answer was characteristic: “Great honor deeply appreciated, but must decline. Situation here most critical from economic standpoint. Change proposed would create much disappointment and lack of confidence among people.” Later the offer was renewed, more in the tone of a command. Again it was declined, though this was the honor to which Mr. Taft had looked forward as the crowning prize of a lifetime of public service.
By degrees the administrative horizon cleared, and when his work had reached a fairly safe stage the governor was called once more to Washington, this time to become secretary of war. No other office would have tempted him; but as the Philippines were still under the jurisdiction of the war department, he felt that, as secretary, he could continue to direct their affairs to a large extent.
The first task which fell to him now was to start the construction of the Isthmian canal, a gigantic enterprise on lines entirely novel, and assumed by the nation under peculiar circumstances. Colombia had negotiated, but failed to ratify, a treaty granting the United States a lease of a right-of-way for an interoceanic canal; the state of Panama, whose territory this traversed, at once seceded and set up an independent republic, which was recognized at Washington, and from which a treaty was obtained substantially identical with that with drawn by Colombia. The whole transaction was so suddenly begun and so speedily ended as to call forth violent criticism, and this was used by some of the politicians of Panama as a basis for prophesying that the new treaty was only a forerunner of forcible annexation. What Mr. Taft had to do, therefore, was not only to build the canal, but to reëstablish the shaken faith of the Panamans. To this intent he visited the isthmus, taking with him as many as practicable of those members of Congress who would handle canal legislation later. The party went over all the ground, looked into the problems then apparent, and satisfied the local authorities that the American government was dealing fairly with them, and was anxious and able to fulfil all its obligations under the lease.
The founding of a government in the canal strip resembled in some particulars the corresponding work in the Philippines. The resident population had never been educated in that respect for law and order which prevails in the United States; neglect of public sanitation had given the isthmus a bad name for yellow fever and malarial epidemics; and it was so far from headquarters in Washington that Americans drawn to it officially or as wage-earners might be tempted to relax their standards of conduct. Clothed, for these reasons, with a practical dictatorship, the secretary distributed his various responsibilities among a group of experts. For purposes of civil administration a governor was appointed who had already had experience in handling a similar situation; the construction plans were committed to a leading engineer officer of the army, and the sanitary supervision of the colony to a military surgeon who had won fame in pest-ridden Cuba. As a result, a population of about fifty thousand souls, four-fifths of whom belong to the laboring class, have been kept effectively employed in good health and comfort and under a reign of justice, for the ten years it has taken to bring the canal to completion.
Meanwhile, other matters outside of the regular routine of his office had been forced upon the secretary's attention, the most momentous being a crisis in Cuban affairs. It had always been a favorite saying of Mr. Taft's that the faculty of any people for civil self-government was not a natural instinct but the fruit of special training. The early breakdown of the Cuban experiment proved this true. At the cost of a war, the United States had set the island free, and enabled the people to form the republic they had so long craved; yet, within two years and six months of the end of the American occupation, the clash of parties, personal rivalries, and bad management had got the affairs of the infant government into such a snarl that civil war was imminent, and nothing was left for the United States, as protector and patron, but to intervene and restore order. To this undertaking the president assigned Mr. Taft.
In September, 1906, the secretary entered the city of Havana, and, pursuing the same policy of candor which had cleared the ground for his affirmative work in the Philippines, invited information from all parties. He had hoped to avoid any radical measures, but to adjust the pending differences and then take his hands off. A little probing exposed the futility of such a program. The simple fact was that the Cubans had only exchanged a Spanish master for one of their own blood, scarcely less overbearing. Their elections were shallow forms, registering the will, not of the people, but of a handful of factional leaders. Obviously, the republic must be started anew.
The intervention was distorted by a malcontent element into a veiled threat of annexation, and this effect was momentarily heightened when the Cuban congress, in special session, accepted the resignation of President Palma but was unable to elect a successor, and Secretary Taft took charge of the island as provisional governor. His proclamation was therefore couched in terms designed to make clear the unselfish intentions of the United States. After a brief survey of the existing entanglement, it went on: “The provisional government hereby established . . . will be maintained long enough to restore order and peace and public confidence, and then to hold such elections as may be necessary to determine those persons upon whom the permanent government of the republic should be devolved. . . . This will be a Cuban government, conforming, as far as may be, to the constitution of Cuba. The Cuban flag will be hoisted as usual over the government buildings on the island. All the executive departments and the provincial and municipal governments . . . will continue to be administered as under the Cuban republic. The courts will continue to administer justice, and all laws not in their nature inapplicable by reason of the temporary and emergent character of the government will be in force.”
The pledge was kept to the letter. Charles E. Magoon, who had been helpful in bringing order out of chaos in the canal zone, was installed presently in the provisional governorship and Mr. Taft returned to Washington. An American “army of pacification” was sent to the island to prevent rioting; a cabinet was appointed, composed of Cubans, each with an American “adviser” at his elbow; the various local governments were reorganized, and pains were taken everywhere to instruct both officers and citizens in the fundamental principles of self-rule. Little by little, as these ideas seemed to be assimilated, the American instructors released their hold, till, early in 1909, the provisional governor turned over the reins of authority to a lawfully elected president, and the Cuban republic entered upon the second era of its history.
Another memorable expedition was made by Mr. Taft while secretary of war. This was a voyage around the world, having for its primary object a visit to the Philippines. He had assured the Filipinos, before leaving them, that he would come back to take part in the opening of their first national assembly. The serious condition of his mother's health would have amply excused his failure to keep this engagement; but, though both knew how improbable it was that she would live to see him again, she protested so urgently against his disappointing his dependent people that he repressed his first inclination and went. Their forebodings proved true. Mrs. Taft died while her son was on the high seas, homeward bound. His journey had been fruitful, however, for it had fortified the loyalty of the “little brown brothers” to whom he had been teaching self-control and true patriotism; and it had enabled him to warn them once more, face to face, that, in spite of what some agitators were telling them, they would undoubtedly have to remain in a state of tutelage longer than another generation. In Japan, where he broke his journey, he took occasion to remind the people who were resentful of certain recent occurrences in America, that “war between Japan and the United States would be a crime against modern civilization,” and to set forth the reasons why; as well as to put an end to the persistent rumor that the United States wished to sell the Philippines, by enlarging on the gross breach of national honor such a sale would involve. In China he was able to investigate a quarrel among the American residents over the conduct of an extra-territorial court there, and to explain at length the American policy of an “open door” in the orient.
Soon after his retirement from the governorship of the Philippines, the republican managers had begun to consider Mr. Taft as a possibility for the presidential ticket of 1908. To all such suggestions he made a discouraging response. For one thing, he had no aspirations in that direction; for another, he would make a poor candidate. Some of his decisions as a judge had been twisted by demagogues into evidence of his hostility to organized labor. Once, when he visited Ohio to make an address, he had improved the occasion to denounce the most powerful boss in his own party — an act which, while its boldness pleased the general public, was regarded by most politicians as extinguishing his last chance of support from his home state. His defence of the president's course in dismissing from the regular army, “without honor,” three companies of negro troops, because some of their members had been concerned in a riot and the rest were suspected of trying to shield them, had caused a commotion among colored voters all over the country.
Nevertheless, the talk of his candidacy would not subside. When the president joined with his other friends in pressing him for a direct declaration of his position, he reluctantly prepared one for the press. “I wish to say,” he wrote, “that my ambition is not political; that I am not seeking the presidential nomination; that I do not expect to be the republican candidate, if for no other reason, because of what seem to me to be objections to my availability, which do not appear to lessen with the continued discharge of my official duty; but that I am not foolish enough to say that in the improbable event that the opportunity . . . were to come to me, I should decline it.” He followed this, a year later, with a speech on President Roosevelt's enforcement of the interstate commerce and anti-monopoly laws, which had been widely charged with bringing on the financial panic of 1907, saying: “The question you have ultimately to meet is not whether we shall return to a condition of unregulated railways and unregulated trusts, but whether we shall turn the country over to the advocates of government ownership and state socialism. Anyone who seeks a retrograde step from the policy of the administration, on the theory that it would be a real step toward conservatism, is blind to every political sign of the times.” This was intended as a warning of what his fellow citizens must expect if they elected him to the presidency.
The decisive vote in the republican national convention of 1908 was taken on June 18. It gave Mr. Taft 702 of the 980 delegates, against six competitors with votes ranging between 16 and 68. James S. Sherman, of New York, was named for vice-president. The platform, among other things, called for an immediate revision of the tariff so as to equalize the difference in cost of production at home and abroad, with a margin of profit to the domestic producer; a more elastic currency; a fearless enforcement of the law against trusts; a postal savings system; additional legislation in the interest of wage-workers; the admission of New Mexico and Arizona as states of the union; the arbitration of international controversies, and the protection of all American citizens in their rights of travel and sojourn in friendly countries.
The campaign was not exciting, though Mr. Roosevelt worked untiringly, planning the great strokes, vouching for the candidate in every exigency, and forcing the fighting wherever the enemy's line was weak. The democratic candidate was William J. Bryan, who had been twice defeated already, and who fell this time under an increased plurality. Mr. Taft did little speaking in his own behalf, his principal address being a dispassionate review of the cases in which he had rendered judicial decisions affecting the labor interests, to offset misrepresentations from hostile sources. This speech included a simplified exposition of the nature and uses of an injunction, and a defence of the power to punish contempt of court by summary process, without the trial by jury which the democratic platform demanded, and which he declared would so hamper the administration of justice as to make it a laughing-stock. Although the republican platform, while favoring tariff revision, did not say in so many words whether duties were to be raised or lowered, Mr. Taft gave the demand this interpretation: “The Dingley tariff has served the country well, but its rates have become generally excessive, because conditions have changed since its passage. Some of the rates are probably too low, due also to the change of conditions. But, on the whole, the tariff ought to be lowered.” The conservatism of his statement must be kept in memory in order to understand the speaker's attitude when he had the question to deal with in the concrete.
Accepting the platform as a mandate, President Taft convened Congress immediately after his inauguration, for the enactment of a new tariff law. The session lasted from March till August, and brought forth a bill sponsored by Representative Payne and Senator Aldrich, which did not meet the president's hopes, but which, after a careful analysis of its details, he approved. Thereupon a long-gathering storm broke. Throughout the west the bill was in intense disfavor. The charge was made that in the main it was the handiwork of the same interests which had dictated the least acceptable rates in the McKinley and Dingley tariffs. Mr. Taft undertook to stem the tide of censure by making a tour of the disaffected states, to reason directly with the voters about some phases of the matter on which he suspected they were misinformed. At Winona, the home of the one congressman from Minnesota who had voted for the bill, he made a speech emphasizing the fact that the Payne-Aldrich act lowered the duties on 654 items, of which Americans consumed $5,000,000,000 worth in a year, while it increased duties on only 220 items, of which they consumed $300,000,000 worth, so that on the whole the tariff had been lowered; and this argument he capped with the sweeping assertion that, with all its faults, the new act was “the best tariff bill that the republican party has ever passed, and therefore the best tariff bill that has been passed at all.” At this superlative phrase the democrats and the insurgent republicans grasped as soon as it was uttered, and the changes rung on it constantly for a year gave it prominence in the next congressional campaign.
Meanwhile, Mr. Taft had appointed as his secretary of state Philander C. Knox, a senator from Pennsylvania, during whose term the cabinet salaries had been increased, and who therefore was ineligible till a makeshift law could be passed to cover the case. For secretary of the interior he named Richard A. Ballinger, of Washington, between whom and Gifford Pinchot, chief of the federal forest service, a feud soon broke out, beginning with a difference of opinion over the national conservation policy, but drifting later into personal channels. In the midst of it Mr. Pinchot committed a breach of discipline for which the president, who had been his warm friend for years, dismissed him summarily from office. A joint committee of congress which had started an inquiry into Mr. Ballinger's conduct brought in a divided report, the republican majority acquitting him of wrongdoing, the democratic minority insisting on the opposite view, and the next spring he resigned his portfolio. This incident played a part only second to the tariff agitation in the congressional campaign of 1910, which resulted in dispossessing the republicans of their control of the house of representatives and seriously damaging their prestige in the senate.
In the new tariff act Mr. Taft had tried to procure a provision for a permanent commission of economic experts, whose duty it should be to investigate various industries so as to ascertain the actual difference between foreign and domestic costs of production. By revising their data from time to time, he believed that the commission could help congress to keep the tariff abreast of the times, and avoid trade upheavals such as now attend every attempt to modernize the schedules. Failing in this, he took advantage of a clause in the act which, after prescribing a special scale of duties on importations from countries where there is any discrimination against American products, authorized him “to employ such persons as may be required” to assist him in this matter, and appointed five assistants, whom he designated his tariff board, and whom he set at substantially the same work he had intended for the commission. But, having no legal status, being only about one-fourth the size of the proposed commission, and being composed rather of students of commerce than professional economists, the board labored against great difficulties, not the least of which was the resentment shown by a considerable element in congress at the president's manner of gaining a part of his end when refused the whole of it.
Another plan on which Mr. Taft had set his heart was a reciprocity treaty with Canada. A bill reducing rates on a long list of commodities exchanged between the two countries, contingent on the acceptance of the arrangement by the Dominion government, was passed by the house of representatives under a closure rule. It had a harder time in the senate, and not till an extra session of congress was called in the spring of 1911 was it possible to obtain the ratification of the treaty negotiated with Canada in accordance with the new law. Most of the opposition came from states and districts where the farmers were politically powerful, because so many of the items on which tariff charges were lowered were agricultural products. In Canada the project met with disaster, partly due to a suspicion that reciprocity was only the entering wedge of a scheme for annexation; a general election drove out of power the liberal ministry who had negotiated the treaty, and gave the whole subject its quietus for the time being.
The assumption of control by the democrats in the house of representatives was marked by the beginning of a partisan guerilla war which went on for two years without a truce. The president having expressed his hope that modifications might be made in a few individual tariff schedules when data enough could be collected to serve as a guide, the democrats pushed through the house a bill reducing duties on wool and woolens, which, with some amendments by the insurgent republicans, passed the senate also. The stroke was shrewdly timed, for the president vetoed the bill on the ground that the tariff board had not yet finished its investigation of the wool industry. A move to override the veto failed of the necessary two-thirds majority; but at the following session, the board having made an elaborate report on wool and woolens, another bill was passed, which was vetoed in turn because its provisions were inconsistent with the findings of the report. Meanwhile, a bill had been framed covering the cotton schedule, which met the same fate as the wool bills, and for like reasons, with the additional objection that it had been so hastily drawn that some of its provisions were practically unworkable. Thus bill after bill was put through in pursuance of the tactical plan of the opposition to force the president's hand.
In spite of these vicissitudes, President Taft was able to get much that he asked for. Included in the catalogue of legislation enacted during his term were laws creating a commerce court, to expedite the decision of appeals from rulings of the interstate commerce commission; establishing a postal savings system and a parcels post; submitting to the states a constitutional amendment empowering congress to impose an income tax; compelling publicity of campaign contributions in national and congressional elections; authorizing withdrawals of land from the public domain by executive order, a long step forward in the conservation movement; establishing a department of labor separate from the department of commerce; providing for the organization of a bureau of mines and a children's bureau, both designed for the improvement of labor conditions as to safety, health and morals; prescribing penalties for the white slave traffic; facilitating the collection of damages for injuries suffered by an interstate railroad employee in the line of his duty; and other equally progressive measures.
What will probably be longest remembered as the distinguishing feature of the Taft administration was its impartial pursuit of the trusts. Former administrations had picked out for punishment, here and there, a particularly flagrant violation of the Sherman law, or one committed by a corporation whose greed had made it widely disliked, or one in which the chief offenders were personally conspicuous. Mr. Taft refused to make distinctions of any sort. In George W. Wickersham, of New York, he had chosen for his attorney-general a lawyer who had long been prominent as an adviser of corporations, believing that one who had studied these organizations from the inside would know best how to bring them to book when they transgressed the law. Mr. Wickersham organized a bureau whose sole business was to hunt down suspicious cases and marshal evidence. The sugar, beef, lumber, paper, window-glass, bathtub, wire, steel, electric-light, harvester, shipping, and shoe-machinery combinations were among the important concerns he attacked, his bills in equity and indictments reaching a total of more than seventy, as against an aggregate of sixty-two to the credit of his predecessors since the enactment of the Sherman law.
In 1911 the supreme court decided the final appeals in the Standard Oil and Tobacco trust cases. The opinions rendered, and the dissolution plans adopted thereunder, were bitterly assailed by radical critics in congress and the press, because the court had given what it styled a “reasonable” meaning to the restraint of trade whose prevention was contemplated by the statute; but the president took pains, wherever he discussed the trust question, to uphold the court by explaining this phraseology. He also rebuked every confusion of mere size with monopoly, insisting that the natural trend of trade was toward breadth of scale, and that this differed essentially from one concern's absorbing most of the machinery of production in a given line, driving competitors to the wall, and thus laying the whole consuming public under tribute.
The purpose of congress to embarrass the president was shown in other ways than tariff-baiting. Knowing his repugnance for legislation by indirection, it began to load the annual supply bills with obnoxious “riders,” so as to compel him, if he would get rid of these, to veto all the appropriations to which they were attached; but he accepted every challenge. One such bill would have legislated out of office the head of the army, and compelled a reorganization of important branches of the military establishment; he promptly vetoed it, and its authors had to revise it so as to exclude the items open to complaint. Another contained riders limiting the tenure of civil service employees to seven years, and wiping out the commerce court; he vetoed it on both grounds. Congress struck out the civil service item and repassed the rest. Although the session was near its close, he sent the bill back once more with a veto based on its failure to provide for the commerce court, and congress was driven to a confession of defeat by making good its default. At the next session, however, the same tactics were renewed, a paragraph abolishing the commerce court, and another exempting farmers and laborers from the penalties of the anti-trust law, being tacked to appropriations for the ensuing fiscal year. This was within a few days of the end of his administration, so he let the appropriations lapse, and left his successor to grapple with the sequelæ.
Equally resolute was his stand against dictation on matters which in his opinion fell within his executive discretion. A commission appointed by him to consider plans for reducing public expenditures recommended an annual budget, such as is in common use among civilized governments, showing for what every dollar is needed, and also how it can be raised. Congress, which had before manifested its impatience of commissions and their recommendations, immediately attached to one of the appropriation bills a rider virtually forbidding the use of the budget. The president's retort was an order to his secretary of the treasury to disregard this prohibition and adopt the budget system forthwith. His letter conveying the order called attention to the fact that authority is granted by congress every year for the expenditure of a billion dollars “without any thought as to where the money is coming from,” and protested against continuing longer “to operate the government under ninety different statutes, passed at ninety different times, which describe two hundred different forms of preparing and submitting financial data to congress and the public.” Congress was not won over by this exposure of its unbusinesslike methods, but it was silenced, and received the estimates as they were submitted.
Beside his endeavor to establish reciprocity with Canada, a few noteworthy incidents in the handling of foreign affairs during Mr. Taft's presidency were the preservation of peace with Mexico, the abrogation of the oldest existing treaty with Russia, an effort to mate arbitration the rule of the world for the settlement of international disputes, and the inauguration of a policy currently styled “dollar diplomacy.” In the spring of 1911 an insurrection in Mexico attained proportions so threatening that the American ambassador visited Washington to say that the Diaz government was probably doomed, and that something might happen at any moment to embroil the two countries. Congress was out of session, the secretary of state was absent, and President Taft was thrown upon his own resources. Instantly, as commander-in-chief of the army, he ordered 15,000 troops to the southern frontier, at the same time notifying the Mexican government that the act had no purpose of intervention behind it, and admonishing the American officers to guard carefully the conduct of their men. By its moral effect the demonstration saved the situation, and probably averted a collision which a suspicion of hesitancy could easily have brought about.
As an advocate of universal peace, Mr. Taft had arbitration treaties negotiated with England and France as models for a series which should embrace all the leading powers. The senate, however, refused to consent to their ratification unless they could be amended in sundry particulars which, in the president's view, would so mar their value that he was unwilling to lay the proposal before the governments concerned. One point raised was as to the scope which should be allowed to international arbitration, and a matter which came up during the last months of the administration illustrated the difficulty of deciding such a question to the satisfaction of everyone. Legislation enacted by congress concerning the tolls to be levied on vessels using the Panama canal contained a provision empowering the president to exempt the coastwise shipping of the United States from paying anything for the privilege, and the British government remonstrated against this as in violation of the neutrality clause of the Hay-Pauncefote treaty which had made possible the construction of the canal. The president signed the bill nevertheless, arguing that the neutralization clause was incorporated in the treaty, not for the purpose of preventing the nation that owned the canal from granting special privileges to the shipping under its flag, but to prevent its discriminating between other nations. He favored submitting the controversy, if Great Britain persisted in it, to arbitration; but the senate would not entertain any such suggestion, regarding the question as belonging to the class which, from their nature, were not arbitrable.
The demand of the republican platform for the protection of American citizens in their rights of travel and sojourn in foreign countries was especially aimed at the treatment American Hebrews complained of when visiting Russia, due to racial prejudice. In December, 1911, persuasion having failed to alter the Russian government's attitude, President Taft gave notice of intention to abrogate the treaty of commerce which had been in existence between the two nations for eighty years, and congress confirmed his action in a joint resolution. Russia's claim was that her Jewish policy was a purely domestic matter, with which no other government had any business to meddle.
The “dollar diplomacy” invented by Secretary Knox may be defined briefly as a reversal of the old practice of using diplomacy to advance the trade interests of the nation, by using trade to advance the nation's diplomatic prestige and usefulness. In the case, for instance, of the loan made by the six great powers to China, Mr. Knox did not wait for the American bankers to pray for a chance to participate, and then bring all the forces of diplomacy to bear in their aid, but advised their joining with the foreign bankers, and thus securing for the United States a proportional weight of influence in the governmental affairs of China. In Nicaragua and Honduras the situation presented still another aspect. The Monroe doctrine, under its most modern interpretation, advertises the United States to the world as sponsor for the weaker republics of the western hemisphere, and Mr. Knox felt that it was but fair to put a practical measure of power behind this theoretical accountability. To that end he wished to aid Nicaragua and Honduras in borrowing the money, and give confidence to intending lenders by treaties authorizing the United States government, should it choose, to appoint collectors of taxes, and conceding such terms as would justify American protection to those collectors in case of rebellion.
The friendship between Mr. Taft and Mr. Roosevelt had been so manifest throughout the latter's presidency, and Mr. Roosevelt had taken so large a part in making Mr. Taft his successor, that there was a general disposition to forecast Mr. Taft's administration as virtually a continuation of Mr. Roosevelt's. To dispel this impression, and to relieve himself of importunities to which he feared he would be subject, Mr. Roosevelt went abroad as soon as possible after Mr. Taft's inauguration, and on his return in the summer of 1910 announced his intention of keeping aloof from politics for the present. The menace of republican disaster in the elections of that fall, however, and the solicitations of some of his old associates in public life, overcame his resolution, and he entered the campaign with characteristic vigor, trying to check the adverse drift, but to little purpose. Reading in the result at the polls a notice that Mr. Taft could not hope for reëlection, several western republican leaders urged Mr. Roosevelt to allow them to make him their candidate for a third term of the presidency. He discouraged such a movement, and for a while seemed to have suppressed it. But early in 1912 the governors of seven states in which the insurgent spirit was particularly strong united in a formal appeal that he would consent to their use of his name, and he agreed.
To Mr. Taft, who had already committed himself to run for reëlection, this news came with a painful surprise, but he refused to make any comment on it which could impair his personal relations with his old friend, and issued an order to his political lieutenants that in all their public utterances they were to treat Mr. Roosevelt with respect. This rule he continued in force till within two months of the date set for the national convention, when, Mr. Roosevelt having taken the open field with a series of speeches reflecting on his conduct and motives, he broke silence with an address at Boston in which, taking his stand as the head of a great party, he met every charge with an answer and a counter-charge. From that point a warfare of personalities went on till about the middle of October, when Mr. Roosevelt's activities were suddenly cut short by a lunatic's attempt on his life, and all the asperities of the campaign were forgotten in the nation-wide outburst of horror.
Meanwhile the republican convention had met at Chicago on June 18, and remained in session five days. It was a scene of turmoil from first to last. The Roosevelt spokesmen on the floor contested the admission of delegation after delegation, alleging unfair methods in their choice. The complaints were generally dismissed, however, and on the conclusive ballot Mr. Taft received 561 of the 1,078 votes, to Mr. Roosevelt's 107; 344 of the Roosevelt men refused to vote, sixty delegates divided their strength between other candidates, and six were absent. Elihu Root, who presided, was so resolute in his rulings that the anti-Taft delegates raised a half-cynical, half-humorous protest against being crushed under a “steam-roller,” and the phrase acquired a certain historical significance in the campaign that followed.
At a mass-meeting held in one of the Chicago theatres immediately after Mr. Taft's nomination, Mr. Roosevelt was hailed by acclamation as the head of a progressive party, for which a general scheme of organization was adopted at once. In the same city, on August 5, a delegate convention of the new party assembled to nominate him formally for president and adopt a platform. In the interval, the democratic national convention which met in Baltimore on June 25 had nominated Woodrow Wilson, of New Jersey, for president. In the November elections the democrats were victorious, the progressives coming in second. Mr. Taft received 8 electoral votes in a total of 531. He bore his defeat with a philosophic calmness of temper which commanded general admiration, and on his retirement he removed to New Haven to become Kent professor of law in Yale university.
Reviewing his administration as a whole, and recognizing all its high aims, future historians can hardly fail to be impressed with its tragic atmosphere. It came unsought and undesired, and was born to a perilous inheritance. Hard times had settled upon the country. The national treasury was badly depleted. The enormous popularity of Mr. Roosevelt, which had enabled him to accomplish much that would have been impossible to anyone less favored, was in striking contrast with the hesitant and half-suspicious reception accorded his successor. Mr. Roosevelt's picturesque personality, his exuberant energy, his lightning-like grasp of new things, his natural pugnacity, his political shrewdness and trained sense of publicity values, were bound to put into eclipse the studious habit, the more deliberate decisions, the lenient temperament, and, if the phrase be permissible, the judicial indolence, of Mr. Taft. All Mr. Roosevelt's career had followed executive lines; no such experience had come to Mr. Taft, even his governorship of the Philippines calling into play the qualities of a paternal judge and lawgiver rather than those of an administrator. During Mr. Roosevelt's last four years in office there had been more or less talk about tariff revision, but, with the medley of other projects in view, the time had never seemed ripe for undertaking a task which all the political portents indicated would be fraught with vexation for the next president who should lay hand to it. Mr. Taft appears to have been not unconscious of the stake he was hazarding, but his platform left him no alternative.
In his desire to come into personal touch with the people, President Taft exceeded all his predecessors in journeys away from Washington, and punctuated his trips with many speeches. He had no native gift of eloquence, and the discipline of the courts had wrung out of his style every atom of the dramatic. Although realizing his shortcomings as an orator, and willing to take pains with his choice of words in expounding a principle which he deemed of real consequence, he was indifferent as to forms in his ordinary utterances, preferring an off-hand and often careless phraseology to one that betrayed any weighing of effects. As a result, his opinions are today quoted in every court, while his political speeches neither produced any notably happy effect at the time of their delivery, nor cling now in the memory of their hearers. For politics in the narrower sense, he proved during his presidency that he had little taste and less talent. His private virtues were unstintingly honored, he won the liking of men wherever their contact with him was intimate enough to establish terms of mutual understanding, and some of his implacable partisan foes were his good friends in social life. Notwithstanding his northern birth and anti-slavery ancestry, he had a warm spot in the heart of the south; yet at the polls he failed to break the solidarity of that section, even when its leading people were anxious to cut loose from tradition and take a new departure in national affairs.
As contemptuous of mere forms in etiquette as in self-expression, it seemed almost irksome to him to have others show him special deference in their common intercourse. But let the judicial ermine be touched by so much as a breath of disparagement, and all the combativeness that lurked in the depths of his nature sprang to the surface in an instant; for the courts appeared to him the innermost sanctuaries of human right, the rock-based bulwarks of the social order. Far from blind to their imperfections, he never ceased seeking to procure improvements in their procedure which would eliminate needless delays and promote the dispensation of real justice. Nor was anyone readier to admit that bad men, and inefficient, occasionally found their way into judicial places; but in that event, he insisted, the obvious remedy was removal by impeachment: he had no patience with any proposal to destroy or cripple so excellent a piece of public machinery as the present judicial system because it needed oiling now and then, or the readjustment of some wheel or lever to make it work smoothly. His own selections for appointment to the federal bench rank, in the opinion of the foremost lawyers at the American bar, with President Harrison's, which is as high praise as could be given them.
The positiveness of his convictions on the judicial question was displayed in an incident which is unique in American history. A law had been passed in 1911 to enable the territories of Arizona and New Mexico to become states. New Mexico adopted a constitution in all essentials satisfactory, but Arizona incorporated in hers a provision for the recall of judges. Without hesitation, and regardless of the fact that the impending recess of congress might put the whole matter over till the following winter, President Taft vetoed the joint resolution for the admission of the two territories, thus suspending action in the case of New Mexico as well as in that of her neighbor. There was considerable ill-feeling among the lawmakers over what they called his unlawful usurpation of power, but nevertheless nobody ventured to test the issue with him, and a new joint resolution was hurried through, making statehood for Arizona contingent upon her expunging the offending paragraph from her constitution. This she did, though with an undisguised purpose of restoring it after she had acquired sovereignty. The threat did not disturb the president, who felt that he had done only his duty in refusing his sanction to a fatal heresy, no matter what might come later.
Mr. Taft's published volumes are: “Four Aspects of Civic Duty” (1906), “Political Issues and Outlooks” (1909), “Present-day Problems” (1908), “Presidential Addresses and State Papers, from March 4, 1909, to March, 1910” (1910), and “Popular Government, Its Essence, Permanence and Perils” (1913). Several biographies of him have been written, including R. L. Dunn's “William Howard Taft, American” (1908), and O. K. Davis's “William Howard Taft, The Man of the Hour” (1908).
William H. Taft married, in 1886, Miss Helen Herron, daughter of John W. Herron, a prominent citizen and lawyer of Cincinnati. They have three children: Robert Alphonso, Helen Herron, and Charles Phelps. The elder son was graduated from Harvard Law School in July, 1913, with the highest honors ever obtained there; the younger son was named for his father's half-brother, a leading newspaper editor in Cincinnati. In religious faith the Tafts are Unitarians.