When Was Taft President? Reflections on a One-Term Presidency
Mr. Gould is the author of many books on American political history including Four Hats in the Ring: The 1912 Election and the Birth of Modern American Politics and, most recently, The William Howard Taft Presidency.“When exactly did Taft serve as president?” asked a friend who had heard that I had done a book on the twenty-seventh chief executive. After previous studies on the presidencies of William McKinley and Theodore Roosevelt, who had a foreign war and timeless celebrity to recall their names to people outside the historical profession, it was a change of pace to work on a president whom almost no one remembered. If they knew anything about Taft, it was that he was fat. Beyond that his four years had faded from memory.
Taft himself said later when he was Chief Justice of the United States that he had almost forgotten he was ever president. Historians have followed his example. Compared to the outpouring of biographies and analytical volumes on Roosevelt and Woodrow Wilson, Taft has been a laggard in the biographical sweepstakes. Mention Henry F. Pringle, Paolo Coletta, Donald Anderson, and Judith Icke Anderson, and one has called the roll of major books on his life in the White House up through 2000. Michael Bromley’s 2003 book on Taft’s motoring presidency contains more than its title suggests about the administration, and Jonathan Lurie is at work on a new biography. Yet, Roosevelt and Wilson have had single decades when that many books came out about their impact on American history and world affairs.
Making Taft into a great president would be a futile task. He settled into the middle rank among chief executives and has stayed there in all the polls of historians and political scientists. There were no great foreign crises to test his executive capacity and the country enjoyed economic good times during his four years. As he wrote to his wife in 1912, "I have strengthened the Supreme Bench, have given a good deal of new and valuable legislation, have not interfered with business, have kept the peace, and on the whole have led people to pursue their various occupations without interruption," all of which added up in the president’s mind to “a very humdrum, uninteresting administration.”
On that point Taft was too modest. In his four years there was the clamor over the Payne-Aldrich Tariff, the Ballinger-Pinchot controversy, revolution in Mexico, Dollar Diplomacy, the break with Roosevelt, and the rise of Woodrow Wilson. These events can be followed in Taft’s personal papers where he proved himself an intelligent and insightful commentator on the fate of his presidency. In his letters to his wife Helen, which I am editing for publication, the president was gossipy, sometimes indiscreet, and always frank in his opinions about political friends and foes.
What comes through about Taft and his first lady as well is their ambitions for the presidency when they came into the White House in March 1909. Taft hoped to revise the tariff, help the Republicans penetrate the South through appeals to white Democrats, regulate corporations, achieve arbitration treaties for international peace, and improve trade with Canada. Mrs. Taft wanted to make Washington the nation’s cultural center for serious music. A stroke in May 1909 set back Nellie Taft’s ambitions but she still managed a program of musicales that brought great artists to the White House over the next four years. Her contributions will be outlined in my forthcoming book “Helen Taft: Our Musical First Lady,” due out from the University Press of Kansas in spring 2010.
Her husband could not bridge the gap between Republican progressives and conservatives that Roosevelt had bequeathed to him, and his own failings as an electoral politician at first stalled his initiatives in 1909-1910 and then eroded support for his reelection in the country at large. His break with Roosevelt completed his difficulties and insured his defeat in 1912. He managed to deny Roosevelt the Republican nomination in 1912 and helped move his party rightward into greater conservatism. The Republican split opened the way for the emergence of Woodrow Wilson as the leader of the Democrats with all that Wilson’s two terms meant for the presidency and American foreign policy. Taft changed the direction of Roosevelt’s life away from power and gave Wilson the chance to become an important president.
Through it all, Taft retained a sense of dignity and self-restraint about being president that warrants historical respect and attention. The wife of a Democratic congressman called him “the most perfect everyday gentleman” of all the presidents she had known. Stubborn, blundering on occasion, and often inept in his handling of politics, William Howard Taft was also a hard-working executive who retained a human sense of proportion about his presidency. Writing to an old friend after his licking in the 1912 election, he said “The people of the United States did not owe me another election. I hope I am properly grateful for the one term of the presidency which they gave me, and the fact that they withheld the second is no occasion for my resentment or feeling a sense of injustice.”
Though he would not have thought so in November 1912, his repudiation at the hands of the voters may have been an historical blessing. If by some political miracle Taft had won a second term, it is hard to see him handling well issues of revolutionary Mexico, neutrality in World War I, and German submarines as a lame-duck two-term president without a united party behind him. As I have argued in The Modern American Presidency (2003, 2009), troubled second terms have rarely enhanced and more often have undermined the reputations of two-term presidents. Although he wanted another four years, Taft had to settle for a single term with substantial achievements that merit fresh consideration by anyone interested in the history the presidency.
A century after he took office, William Howard Taft remains a decent, intelligent, opinionated individual whom I enjoyed getting to know as a president and person. I hope my study of his administration balances that respect for his talents and achievements with an understanding of the personal foibles and political forces that took him out of Washington and back to private life on March 4, 1913.
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Donald Wolberg - 11/30/2009
Mr. gould is to be complimented on an interesting and intelligent piece that captures Mr. Taft as President. If only more of our Presidents thpught less of themselves as "great men" (sadly all men up to now), and more of themselves as leaders with a goal to let Americans get on with their lives, we would be much better situated as a nation and content as a people. Mr. Taft recalls the intended aim of Pat Paulsen, the dour comedian of the old Smothers Brothers television program. Mr. Paulsen once ran for President (kind of ran) and actually received quite a few votes. As I recall the major plank in his platform, it was to promise not to do anything as President that would upset the lives of Americans. I suspect we need more of that kind of thinking, and a Taft-Paulsen ticket, if possible, has a certain attractiveness.
Thomas H. Appleton Jr. - 11/30/2009
A friend alerted me to this fascinating essay, which so effectively captures the aspirations of William Howard Taft for his presidency and the challenges that confronted him during his single four-year term. As one who has used Lewis Gould's The Modern American Presidency to great effect in the classroom on several occasions, I am delighted to know that he is publishing not only a study of the Taft administration but also an edition of the Tafts' letters. It is past time that a scholar of first rank gave Taft his historical due.