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Erik Visits an American Grave, Part 101

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This is the grave of William Howard Taft.

While I am far past the point of venerating presidents, I find Taft a pretty interesting case, largely because his reputation today is so shaped by that egocentric lunatic Theodore Roosevelt turning on him after his former friend replaced him in the Oval Office. Roosevelt so brutalizes Taft in his Autobiography that Taft’s reputation has never recovered. And while Taft is not someone who I think most liberals or leftists today want to see as a good guy, he’s nonetheless a more interesting figure than usually admitted.

Born in 1857 in Cincinnati, Taft’s father was Grant’s Attorney General. He went to Yale, came back to Cincinnati, and started practicing law. But politics was the family business (and still is for that Ohio elite family). He was so enmeshed in the Republican elite that he was nearly named to the Supreme Court by Benjamin Harrison in 1889, when he was only 32. Taft’s single ambition was to be on the Court. Instead, Harrison named him Solicitor General. When Congress created a new slot for each appeals court, Harrison named Taft to the Sixth Circuit in 1891. He was a Gilded Age conservative, but a fairly moderate one, as he would remain through his career. He wasn’t reflexively anti-labor like many of his colleagues. He actually ruled in favor of a worker suing for injuries on the job, which the Supreme Court overruled for violating its cherished right of contract.

Taft was not a big supporter of his fellow Ohioan William McKinley in 1896, although he certainly supported him over William Jennings Bryan. McKinley passed over Taft for his sole Supreme Court appointment, naming Joseph McKenna instead. But in 1900, McKinley asked Taft to resign from the Sixth Circuit and become head of the commission to create a government in the new U.S. colony in the Philippines. Taft agreed on the condition that he would be McKinley’s next choice for the Supreme Court. Of course, McKinley got popped in the gut and Theodore Roosevelt became president.

Taft was nothing if not an imperialist, although perhaps less overtly racist than some. He did not institute segregation in Manila, as many Americans wanted, and believed Filipino independence was inevitable, although I’m not sure how he reconciled this with the war on Emilio Aguinaldo’s independence forces that was raping, torturing, and brutally murdering Filipinos throughout the islands. Anyway, Roosevelt and Taft were good friends already. He offered Taft a Supreme Court position in 1902, but Taft felt that he had more work to do as governor of the Philippines and turned it down. But the next year, he accepted the offer of Secretary of War and returned to the U.S. There, he was in Roosevelt’s shadow, as TR preferred to handle foreign relations himself, but it was also clear that Taft was Roosevelt’s heir apparent. He didn’t really want to be president, but he never turned it down either. Roosevelt was already getting cranky though. See, TR pledged not to run for a second full term soon after his election in 1904. He almost immediately regretted it. He stayed by his word, but the ground was already set for a break between the two. Taft easily defeated William Jennings Bryan in 1908.

Roosevelt and Taft were both conservatives in their own way. But Taft was certainly closer to the business elite and was much more predictable than Roosevelt, who could be a total Gilded Age pro-business hack one day and a reformer the next. As president, Taft continued his imperialist ways. He was happy to follow Roosevelt’s example of invading Latin American nations for whatever reason. His Dollar Diplomacy made Latin American leaders unhappy. It turned out that Latin America didn’t want to become financial protectorates of an aggressive United States. Who could have guessed?!? Taft sent U.S. troops to invade Honduras on multiple occasions to support American fruit corporate interests, as well as Cuba and Nicaragua. Dollar Diplomacy was always backed up with American guns.

But a few invasions of Latin American were totally worth Billy Possum.

Domestically, Taft in some ways did more for reform than his famed predecessor. For instance, Roosevelt gets all the accolades as a trust-buster, but that’s really based almost entirely on the Northern Securities case and Roosevelt’s own self-promotion machine. Much more quietly, Taft brought 70 antitrust cases during his term, nearly twice as many as Roosevelt had done in nearly two terms. In fact, Taft’s own Justice Department, in a suit against U.S. Steel, accused Roosevelt by name of fostering monopoly, infuriating TR.

Of course, by 1911, when that case was prosecuted, Roosevelt had already broken with Taft, nominally over Taft’s support for his corrupt Secretary of the Interior, Richard Ballinger, instead of U.S. Forest Service head Gifford Pinchot in a battle between the two over a fraudulent public lands sale Ballinger tried to push. The whole episode is pretty messy. Pinchot was no doubt right on the merits of the case, but he was also something of a hellraiser himself and Taft was no good at managing politics. He bungled it and fired Pinchot, leading Roosevelt to break from him. Probably this would have happened anyway unless Taft was Medvedev to his TR’s Putin.

Taft was terrible on civil rights, expanding the Republicans’ utter indifference to African-Americans that had started during the Hayes administration.

He was able to completely reshape the Supreme Court, getting 6 appointments in his 4 years: the legendary Horace Lurton, Charles Evans Hughes, Edward White (promoted to Chief Justice from Associate), Willis Van Devanter, Joseph Lamar, and Mahlon Pitney. Only Hughes and Van Devanter turned out to be important figures.

Roosevelt decided to challenge Taft from the left after he failed to wrest the nomination from Taft at the 1912 Republican convention and gathered a lot of Progressives in his Bull Moose Party. Doing so, like every other third party campaign, just handed the election to the opposition and Woodrow Wilson became president. Taft was the most economically conservative of the candidates that year, but he was ran on a reasonably moderate platform that included a lot of Progressive principles. But being a man of the corporate boardroom did not appeal much to the 1912 electorate and he finished a dismal 3rd, winning only Utah and Vermont, two states that modern political watchers see as a consistent voting block to the present. In fact, Roosevelt’s people who controlled the Republican Party in California and South Dakota managed to keep Taft’s name off the ballot entirely.

Taft stayed active after his presidency. He went to teach at Yale but Wilson tapped him for a number of appointments, most notably as co-chair of the U.S. Commission on Industrial Relations that was the first widespread investigation of the terrible exploitation of labor in the United States. Taft wasn’t totally comfortable with this, largely because the crusading attorney Frank Walsh used the opportunity to eviscerate capitalists in public testimony, embarrassing men such as John D. Rockefeller, Jr. publicly. Taft thought this unseemly and he issued a minority report to the Commission. Taft also supported the League of Nations.

Finally, in 1921, Taft received his dreamed of Supreme Court appointment. He agreed only if he could be Chief Justice, for he hated Louis Brandeis with white hot passion and would not serve as his equal. Plus he thought it his due as a former president. After Edward White died, Harding named Taft. He was confirmed 61-4 without a single committee hearing. Taft ran a conservative court that consistently ruled in favor of corporations, with liberals such as Brandeis and late-career Holmes frequently in the minority. His court struck down the women’s minimum wage in Adkins v. Children’s Hospital, dispiriting labor activists nationwide. He also was a nakedly political Chief Justice, using his office to advise Republican candidates and make his political positions known.

Taft’s health slowly declined over his term as Chief Justice, yet his overblown sense of his own importance kept him from resigning. Or as he put it in 1929: “I am older and slower and less acute and more confused. However, as long as things continue as they are, and I am able to answer to my place, I must stay on the court in order to prevent the Bolsheviki from getting control.” It’s pretty clear that Hoover was going to name Leon Trotsky Chief Justice if Taft resigned so thank you Billy Possum.

Taft finally resigned as Chief Justice a month before his death with the assurance that Charles Evans Hughes would replace him and not Harlan Stone, who may well be the “Bolsheviki” Taft was discussing earlier. He died on March 8, 1930.

Billy Possum is buried on the confiscated of the traitor Lee, Arlington National Cemetery, Arlington, Virginia.

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