William Howard Taft: Failures & Accomplishments

Instructor: Joanna Harris

Joanna has taught high school social studies both online and in a traditional classroom since 2009, and has a doctorate in Educational Leadership

If you have ever wondered about the much-maligned one-term presidency of William Howard Taft, this lesson has what you are looking for. In this lesson we will discuss the failures and the accomplishments of President William Howard Taft.


William Howard Taft was born in Ohio just before the coming of the Civil War. He followed in the footsteps of his father who was a very popular judge in Cincinnati, after attending Yale University. Taft the good-natured judge had the right demeanor and connections to go all the way to the Supreme Court, which was his aim. However, Taft yielded to the whims of others in his life and hesitantly entered the realm of politics.

This decision would come to cost Taft dearly, as politics would come to be a thorn in his sideā€¦even as he attained the highest of political heights.

William Howard Taft
William H. Taft

Road to the White House

A still young Taft was appointed at the age of 34 as a Federal judge in Ohio in 1891. An expert at the law, and a kindhearted judge Taft did well in this position. Taft's wife Helen wanted him to become more than just an Ohio judge, and Taft's trait as a people-pleaser wanted to make her happy. Instead of going after the yearnings of his heart and continuing on in a fine career that would have led to the U.S. Supreme Court, Taft pursued his wife's dreams for him instead.

President McKinley gave Taft a high profile position as head administrator of the Philippines in 1900. Taft did many things for the Filipinos such as building roads, schools, and providing jobs. After McKinley was assassinated, he was replaced by his firebrand vice president Theodore Roosevelt in 1901.

Roosevelt made Taft his Secretary of War, and the two men got along famously. Inside the Roosevelt Cabinet, Taft was one of Roosevelt's greatest supporters and friends. However, after a very successful almost two terms in office Roosevelt decided that he wouldn't run again in 1908. Roosevelt basically named his own replacement in William Howard Taft. Taft, ever the people-pleaser said yes. His wife was happy, and Roosevelt was happy.

Taft on the other hand was miserable on the campaign trail, and remarked that it was ''one of the most uncomfortable four months of my life.''

President Taft

The days of the early 1900s were called the Progressive Movement as Americans fought for issues like more political involvement through the 17th and 19th Amendments, social causes for the poor and downtrodden, as well as measures that would conserve land from the ravages of big industry. Teddy Roosevelt had been the darling of the Progressive Movement, but Taft had neither the stomach for or the character for leading the country from a bully pulpit like Roosevelt had.

Taft did not intend to continue stretching presidential powers like his predecessor. When Taft became president in 1908, everyone thought that he would be as Roosevelt had been. They were wrong.

Failures Abound

Almost from the onset of his presidency Taft proved that he was no Roosevelt. Beginning with the Payne Aldrich Tariff which kept unpopular tariffs high, Taft began to rile the ire of Progressives and Roosevelt. Then, Taft made the ill-fated decision to not only return lands Roosevelt had set aside for conservation back to big industry, he also fired Roosevelt's handpicked head of the Interior Department Gifford Pinchot.

As if his dealings in foreign policy would be any better, Taft then failed to negotiate a trade deal with Canada and then announced his Dollar Diplomacy program. In exchange for economic aid to Latin American countries the United States was to earn fealty from their neighbors to the South. In this he failed as well, and Latin American countries essentially turned their noses up at the idea of having their loyalty bought by the U.S.

Watching from the sidelines was Roosevelt, who became angrier with each of Taft's missteps. Roosevelt began hounding Taft's policies and even Taft personally in the press. Taft's weight ballooned while he was president, and with each failure his weight increased. Roosevelt made fun of his weight, and also made light of his intellect. Taft, sank into the loneliness of the office and found himself without a friend in the Republican Party or among the Progressives. The people-pleaser, had pleased no one.

Fleeting Accomplishments

Taft did accomplish many things in the four years he was in office. For one, he staved off war with Mexico and kept neutral relations with the country that was spiraling toward a peasant revolution. He had also continued in Roosevelt's crusade against big industry by passing many antitrust measures which limited the power of American oligarchs.

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