William Howard Taft, President and Chief Justice

William Howard Taft (1857-1930)

William Howard Taft never wanted to be President. He wanted to be Chief Justice of the United States.

On election night 1904, Teddy Roosevelt promised not to run for a third term, a decision he later regretted. At the end of his second term, he wanted his faithful Secretary of War William Howard Taft to run for president. After a dinner party one evening, Teddy and the Tafts went into the library, and Teddy sat down in a big chair, closed his eyes and said, “I am the seventh son of a seventh daughter. I have clairvoyant powers. I see a man standing before me weighing about 350 pounds. There is something hanging over his head. I cannot make out what it is…At one time it looks like the Presidency—then again it looks like the Chief Justiceship.” Mrs. Taft cried, “Make it the Presidency!” William Howard Taft declared, “Make it the Chief Justiceship!” In the end, Teddy and Mrs. Taft talked William Howard Taft into running for the White House.

Taft’s father was a prominent Republican who had served as Attorney-General and Secretary of War. Taft’s early career included positions as an assistant prosecuting attorney of Hamilton County, Ohio and collector of internal revenue appointed by President Chester Arthur. In 1887, Taft was appointed to a vacancy on the Cincinnati Superior Court. The next year, he was elected to a five-year term on the court. This was the only elected position other than the presidency held by Taft.

Taft resigned from the Superior Court to accept appointment as Solicitor General of the United States. In his first year in the post, he won 15 of his 18 cases. Taft resigned this position when he was appointed a judge of the United States Circuit Court of Appeal, now the United States Court of Appeals. He served in this position for eight years. During this time, he also served as dean of the University of Cincinnati Law School.

Taft’s next position was as the first civil governor of the newly acquired Philippines. When he had a chance to become a member of the Supreme Court, which is what he really wanted, he turned it down because he felt his work in the Philippines was not yet finished. Later, he accepted the position of Secretary of War under President Theodore Roosevelt. It was Roosevelt, along with Taft’s wife, who pushed Taft to turn down the Chief Justiceship and run for President.

Taft’s mother said “I do not want my son to be President. His is a judicial mind and he loves the law.” She was right, and Taft’s four years in the White House were not happy ones. When Taft left the White House in 1913 (he had carried only two states in his re-election bid), he told Woodrow Wilson “I’m glad to be going. This is the lonesomest place in the world.”

Taft’s most memorable accomplishments as President may well be starting the tradition of the President throwing out the first ball of the baseball season. During one game, after the 7th inning, the large Taft was growing uncomfortable in the hard chair, and stood up to stretch. The crowd, thinking the President was leaving, also stood (there was apparently a great deal more respect for the President in those days!). Then, Taft sat back down in his chair, and the game resumed. With that gesture, the tradition of the 7th inning stretch was born.

As President, Taft found himself in the position of having to appoint someone else as Chief Justice of the United States, the job he himself wanted above all others. He had always said that a President should only appoint a man young enough to be able to serve at least ten or twenty good years. Above all, he had always said, it should not become a reward to an associate justice in his last years. “I won’t make the position of Chief Justice a blue ribbon for the final years of any member of the Court.”

But if Taft appointed a younger man, he would probably never get to be Chief Justice himself. However, if he appointed an older man, there was a good possibility that a later Republican President would appoint him. Most people expected Taft to appoint Charles Evans Hughes (who later ran for President in 1916 and went on to become Secretary of State) but Taft appointed Edward White instead.

When Taft signed White’s commission, some thought he was very upset. He grieved aloud saying “There is nothing I would have loved more than being 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.”

When Democrat Woodrow Wilson was elected President, White (who was 66 years old when he became Chief Justice) agreed to hold on until a Republican was elected President. He held on until Harding was elected in 1921. White was half blind and half deaf, but he held on until he died in harness in May 1921.

Taft began a campaign to get the nomination; indeed, he virtually nominated himself. He used letters, friends, and newspapers to convince Harding to nominate him. Almost every leading paper in the nation called upon Harding to name Taft to the post. Letters from leading lawyers and law professors and support from major Republican leaders added to the pressure on Harding. The fact is that Harding would probably have named Taft anyway, but this campaign removed any doubt.

When named Chief Justice, Taft exulted, “I love judges and I love courts. They are my ideals on earth of what we shall meet afterward in Heaven under a just God.” He loved his years in charge of the Supreme Court. He wrote almost 20 per cent of the Court’s opinions, taking most of the important or controversial cases for himself. He also provided administrative and technical leadership second to none up to that time.

Taft sponsored and lobbied for the famous “Judges Bill” of 1925. This bill reorganized the federal court system. In addition, Taft “advised” Presidents Harding, Coolidge and Hoover on judicial appointments at every level. He truly had an unprecedented effect on the judicial system.

He was popular and respected by all the members of the Court, most of whom he had appointed. They called him “Big Chief” and followed his personal leadership even if one or two of them dissented from his opinions on occasion. “His orchestration of consensus, of massing the Court into a majority, was often spectacular; he was a superb judicial leader and architect.”

Taft resigned on February 3, 1930, and died on March 8 the same year. He was buried in Arlington National Cemetery. Taft and John Kennedy are the only Presidents buried there. William Howard Taft remains the only person to serve as both President and Chief Justice of the United States. He was much happier on the Supreme Court than he was in the White House. He called the position of Chief Justice “next to my wife and children…the nearest thing to my heart in life.”

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