William Howard Taft: Political Views & Reforms

Instructor: Richard Weil

Richard teaches an online world geography class, he holds a doctorate in the field.

William Howard Taft was the 27th U.S. President. He followed Teddy Roosevelt but was more conservative and pro-business. He reduced child labor, broke up trusts, and expanded the civil service but took a narrow view of government. As Chief Justice, Taft maintained this outlook.

William Howard Taft, President, 1909-1913
Taft as President

A Man, A Tub, But Little Told

William Howard Taft gets lost between Teddy Roosevelt and Woodrow Wilson. Often he is remembered as having serious weight issues and special bathtubs. But as both President and Chief Justice he laid down important ideas about federal powers.

His special tub. Contrary to legend, he never got stuck.
Bathtub of Taft

To the White House

Taft was a good manager. From Ohio state judge, to Solicitor-General, federal judge, Governor-General of the Philippines, and Secretary of War, he was successful. But his approach was narrow. Thus in the Philippines he got new infrastructure and modernized the laws, but only worked with upper class people who supported the U.S. occupation. Roosevelt liked him and made sure he was nominated. In the 1908 election he carried 29 states.

A 1909 cartoon, Taft taking policies from TR
Taft and TR

Domestic Problems

Taft soon showed he was more conservative than Roosevelt, and started replacing Roosevelt's appointees with businessmen. Also, he lacked experience working with Congress. Both factors hurt him in the tariff fight. American duties were high and the public wanted them lowered. While the House did this, the Senate raised many rates. Taft, not wanting to tell Congress what to do, signed the regressive Payne-Aldrich Tariff, thus losing the support of Progressive Republicans.

Another fight was over coal claims on protected public land in Alaska. A business slipped in a title to the land and Taft clumsily supported it. Chief Forester Pinchot, a close friend of Roosevelt, publicly opposed the sale, so Taft fired him. It soon became clear the president had been manipulated.

But Taft, believing corporations could get too large, alienated business by 99 anti-trust actions. Big companies were targeted, including U.S. Steel. To ease the Panic of 1907 Roosevelt had let this firm grow. Thus Taft seemed to have betrayed it.

Positive Achievements

Taft got the Interstate Commerce Commission power to control railroad rates, and telephone, telegraphy and radio services. Political patronage was reduced by putting 35,000 postmasters, 20,000 skilled Navy shipyard workers, and diplomats in the Civil Service system. He unified the federal budget, supported separate departments of commerce and labor, and approved statehood for Arizona and New Mexico. A treaty protecting Pacific seals was signed. For small depositors a postal savings bank system was established. Rural areas got parcel post delivery, cheaper than express company service.

Parcel post stamps
Parcel post stamps

To raise federal money he backed an income tax amendment and approved corporate and inheritance taxes. He accepted an amendment for direct election of senators. And he supported the Children's Bureau, which helped eliminate child labor and improved health care for families.

Child mill workers, c.1910
Children working in a mill

Race Relations and Dollar Diplomacy

Taft's racial views were contradictory. He called Filipinos ''little brown brothers,'' but treated them as social equals. He was against prejudice and said Afro-Americans should vote, but would not interfere in the ''domestic affairs'' of Southern states. When asked, he removed people of color from federal positions, saying this race of people would always be farmers.

The president believed that diplomacy should create order and stability for business, and called the policy ''dollars for bullets'' or Dollar Diplomacy. He supported Diaz, the dictator of Mexico. Secretary of State Knox, Carnegie Steel's former lawyer, encouraged American investors in China, Turkey, and Latin America. While angering the local people, their plans usually failed. To protect American property the U.S. occupied Nicaragua.

US sailors in Nicaragua, 1912
USS Denver 1912 sailors

Supreme Court Years

In 1912 an angry Roosevelt ran as a third party candidate against Taft. Both lost to Woodrow Wilson, with Taft only carrying 2 states. In 1921 President Harding named him Chief Justice, which is what he always wanted.

A 1912 cartoon, Taft and Roosevelt fighting
Political Cartoon, 1912

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