William Howard Taft (1909-1913): The 27th Retrospective
“Whatcha got ain’t nothin new. This country’s hard on people, you can’t stop what’s coming, it ain’t all waiting on you. That’s vanity.” – Ellis, No Country for Old Men (2007)
Handpicked by Roosevelt, William Howard Taft was to continue his agenda. He had been brought in by the McKinley Administration, and served admirably as the Governor General of Philippines (1900). He was best friends with Roosevelt, and was viewed as a utility infielder in both the McKinley and Roosevelt administrations as the man to do the job no matter what it was.
Taft was more than happy being Roosevelt’s right hand man having no desire to be president. He was a reluctant decision maker and certainly not a natural politician. His wife Nelly more or less pushed him into it as she dreamed of living in the White House.
A lawyer by trade, he dreamed of being a Supreme Court justice, believing a good judge is the model in our minds of God. To Taft, a good judge was the highest human type.
Taking the narrow legal route in all matters was much different from the precedent-setting Roosevelt. In fact, they were opposites in many ways including weight as Taft was obese while Roosevelt was renowned for his athleticism.
As President, he delegated responsibility, generally allowing his cabinet to do as they pleased. He fretted over and procrastinated in making decisions. Taft believed the President’s job was to uphold the Constitution. As a result, the groundbreaking policies set by the freewheeling Roosevelt began to reverse under Taft as Congress began to dismantle a lot of them.
Slavery and Civil Rights
According to Taft’s great grandson, Taft probably believed, as he said in his inaugural speech, that he did not have “the slightest race prejudice or feeling.” But his actions revealed that, in serving a nation mired in white supremacy, he too was infected by racism.
As American Governor-General of the Philippines (1901-1904), Taft displayed a hitherto rare level of inclusion, socially embracing many darker skinned Filipinos and including them in development planning. While Taft meant it as a term of endearment when he called Filipinos his “little brown brothers,” it was what historian Creighton Miller called “paternalist racism.” Much worse, Taft allowed U. S. marines to repress with brutality rebels seeking self-rule.
When he became President, wary of offending those hostile to racial equality, Taft counseled caution. To “minimize racial tension,” he appointed few Black people to federal jobs, and counseled Black citizens to stick to farming and trades so as to contribute to the general economy. This approach, promoted by Booker T. Washington as well, was “safer.”
But it’s always “safer” for the powerful to delay full justice when they benefit from the status quo. Taft really didn’t do much more nor less than Roosevelt on civil rights which is to say not much.
The Johnson–Jeffries riots refer to the dozens of race riots that occurred throughout the United States after African-American boxer Jack Johnson defeated white boxer James J. Jeffries in a boxing match termed the “Fight of the Century”. Johnson became the first black World Heavyweight champion in 1908 which made him unpopular with the predominately white audience of boxing. Jeffries, a former heavyweight champion came out of retirement to fight Johnson and was nicknamed the “Great White Hope”. After Johnson defeated Jeffries on July 4, 1910, many whites felt humiliated and began attacking blacks who were celebrating Johnson’s victory.
The Slocum Massacre occurred on July 29-30, 1910 in Slocum, Texas. Only six deaths were officially confirmed, but it is estimated as many as one hundred African Americans lost their lives in this massacre. Historians have provided several explanations for the motives of the all-white perpetrators of the massacre. When the story spread, it was altered to favor the white suspects and the black residents of Slocum were blamed. The whites from the mob did their best to destroy any evidence against them. African Americans reached out to higher levels of government for a fair investigation, but little to nothing was done on their behalf. As a result, the African American population in Slocum, Texas declined drastically.
States Admitted Into The Union
- New Mexico became the 47th state January 6, 1912 from the New Mexico Territory
- Arizona became the 48th state January 6, 1912 from the Arizona Territory
William Howard Taft
We saw this with Adams following Washington, Van Buren following Jackson, and will see it with George H.W. Bush following Reagan. We will even see it to some degree with Harry Truman following Franklin Roosevelt. People are generally dissatisfied with the guy following the larger-than-life figure no matter how right or wrong they are.
Taft hated the glare and scrutiny of the office. He became angry, depressed and reached 340 pounds and reportedly got stuck in the White House tub. His discomfort with the Presidency was proven in his leadership.
Taft was overshadowed by Roosevelt due to their difference in personalities, and sheer willingness and desire to want to be President. In spite of Roosevelt’s rhetoric, Taft’s administration did much to continue Roosevelt’s policies, doing more to regulate monopolies than TR’s administration did. More importantly, Taft’s Administration was the model of the past as he warned of a 20th-century-style imperial presidency and its potential abuse of executive power and privilege. People want their presidents to be larger than life characters to make laws, execute the laws and determine their constitutionality in one fell swoop.
Progressive Bull Moose Party
Roosevelt planned to bully Taft out of the Republican nomination as revenge in 1912. The former best friends battled each other in a very personal and divisive primary. Roosevelt was devastated when the party chose Taft as the nominee preferring his conservative politics. Roosevelt chose to join and run under the Progressive Bull Moose Party allowing the Democrat to easily win.
Taft received only 8 electoral votes in 1912 after being swept into office in 1908. He would lose weight after office and be named Chief Justice of the Supreme Court, in 1921 still the only person to hold both positions in our nation’s history.
- Blog #31: Great-grand Paternalist racism. (n.d.). Baltimore Ethical Society. https://bmorethical.org/blog-31-great-grand-paternalist-racism/
- Dear white people: Well-meaning paternalism is still racist. (2014, December 9). The Daily Beast. https://www.thedailybeast.com/dear-white-people-well-meaning-paternalism-is-still-racist
- (n.d.). Progressive Bull Moose Party. https://www.progressivebullmoose.party/
- Reimann, M. (2017, March 24). When a Black fighter won ‘the fight of the century,’ race riots erupted across America. Medium. https://timeline.com/when-a-black-fighter-won-the-fight-of-the-century-race-riots-erupted-across-america-3730b8bf9c98
- Should Texas remember or forget the Slocum massacre? (n.d.). TPR. https://www.tpr.org/show/texas-matters/2015-01-16/should-texas-remember-or-forget-the-slocum-massacre
Woodrow Wilson (1913-1921) would follow William Howard Taft.
Theodore Roosevelt (1901-1909) preceded William Howard Taft
Zachary Taylor (1849-1850) would assume the presidency after the Mexican War.
Jimmy Carter (1977 – 1981) would be the only Democratic President for 25 years post Civil Rights.
George W. Bush (2000 – 2008) is the final President in our series.