Most presidential children have worked hard to avoid the glare of public life once their parents left the White House. There have been exceptions, most notably John Quincy Adams. Among these exceptions are the children of William Howard Taft. All of his children became leaders in politics or education, and one almost filled his father’s shoes by becoming president. (Although, at 350 pounds, none of his children could ever hope to fill William Howard Taft’s rather large shoes.)
William Howard Taft and his wife, Helen “Nellie” Taft, had three children. Both sons served in political positions, and their daughter became a leader in the field of education.
ROBERT ALPHONSO TAFT, 1889-1953. Robert was born in Cincinnati, Ohio on September 8, 1889. He attended Yale University, graduating in 1910. He was first in his class at Harvard law school, graduating in 1913. On October 17, 1914, he married Martha Wheaton Bowers in Washington, D.C. Because of his poor eyesight, he was not eligible for the U.S. Army during World War I. During the war, he served as the assistant general counsel to the Food Administrator, Herbert Hoover. (The Food Administrator coordinated national food conservation efforts during the war.) After the end of the war, Robert returned to Ohio and was elected to the Ohio House of Representatives, serving from 1920-1926. He was elected to the Ohio Senate where he served from 1931-1932.
In 1936, Robert Taft was the Ohio favorite son at the Republican presidential convention. Two years later, he was elected to the U.S. Senate, where he served from 1939 until his death in 1953. In the U.S. Senate, Robert quickly became a leader of the conservative faction of the Republican Party, earning the nickname of “Mr. Republican.” As a Senator, he opposed the New Deal program of Franklin Roosevelt, and later opposed the Fair Deal program of Harry Truman. Until the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor, he was a leading isolationist. After the war, he opposed U.S. participation in NATO and the United Nations. He was also the principal critic of the Nuremberg trial of Nazi leaders after the war. In a speech, he said, “The trial of the vanquished by the victors cannot be impartial no matter how it is hedged about with the forms of justice….About this whole judgment there is the spirit of vengeance, and vengeance is seldom justice. The hanging of the eleven men convicted will be a blot on the American record which we shall long regret.” This position hurt him when he ran for president in 1952.
In 1946, Taft became chairman of the Republican Policy Committee. In 1947, he sponsored the Taft-Hartley Act, which limited the activities of organized labor. He also endorsed the anti-Communist campaign of Senator Joseph McCarthy in the late 1940’s and early 1950’s.
As early as 1940, Taft had been a leading contender for the Republican presidential nomination, losing in a three-way race with Thomas Dewey and Wendell Willkie. In 1944 and 1948, he lost the nomination to Thomas Dewey. He was considered the front-runner for the 1952 nomination until his stand on the Nuremberg trial and Dwight Eisenhower’s entry into the race. In a hard fought convention contest, he lost the nomination to Dwight Eisenhower, who won easily in November.
That same year, the Republicans, benefiting from the coattails of the very popular Eisenhower, won control of both the Senate and the House of Representatives. This made Robert Taft the Majority Leader of the Senate, and a major power in national politics. Unfortunately, he was diagnosed with cancer and died several months later, July 31, 1953, in New York City.
HELEN HERRON TAFT MANNING, 1891-1987. Helen was born on August 1, 1891, in Cincinnati, Ohio. She earned her doctorate degree in history from Yale University. In 1917, she became dean of Bryn Mawr College. She also served as head of the history department. On July 19, 1920, she married Frederick Johnson Manning, a history professor, in Murray Bay, Canada. She died in 1987.
CHARLES PHELPS TAFT, 1897-1983. Charlie, as he was known in his childhood, was born September 20, 1897. Not yet twelve years old when his father was elected President, Charlie’s antics were often followed in the press. One famous story, which may or not be true, told of Charlie getting caught decorating a portrait of Andrew Jackson with spitballs (that part was true enough). According to the story, he asked his father if he was about to get a spanking. When told he was, he replied, “Then can I kiss you first?”
Charlie married Eleanor Kellogg Chase on October 16, 1917, in Waterbury, Connecticut. Like his grandfather, father and older brother, Charlie attended Yale University; he dropped out to serve in the army during World War I, rising to the rank of 1st lieutenant. After the war, he returned to finish his education, graduating in 1918. He earned his law degree in 1921. He practiced law in Cincinnati, where he became involved in local politics. He gained his reputation as a leading opponent of local corruption, and was a leader in the movement to pass a home-rule charter for the city. This was accomplished in 1925, making Cincinnati the first major city in the nation to adopt the city manager form of government. He served as Hamilton County prosecutor during 1927-1928.
While he was a leading Republican, he did not share his brother’s conservative views. He not only supported the Franklin Roosevelt Administration, he served in it. During World War II, he served as director of U.S. Community War Services for the Federal Security Agency. He later served as Director of Economic Affairs at the State Department. After the war, he was named the first layman president of the Federal Council of the Churches of Christ in America.
In 1952, he ran for governor of Ohio, but lost to the Democratic candidate, Frank J. Laushe. He remained active in Cincinnati politics for his entire adult life. He served for many years on the Cincinnati City Council, 1938-1942, 1948-1951, and again from 1955 until 1977. He was Mayor of Cincinnati from 1955-1957. Among the books he authored was “City Management: The Cincinnati Experiment” in 1933 and “You and I and Roosevelt” in 1936. Charlie died in Cincinnati on June 24, 1983.
All the Taft children were successful and happy. Unlike most children who grow up in the White House, they did not withdraw from public life. All served their community and nation. Robert almost won the Republican nomination for president in a year when the Republicans were heavily favored to win, no matter who their candidate was. They continued their long family tradition of service in a most distinguished manner.