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Erik Visits an American Grave, Part 1,087

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This is the grave of Alphonso Taft.

Born in 1810 in Townsend, Vermont, Taft grew up in the respectable upper middle class of his era. The family was comfortable, but not crazy wealthy. He attended the local schools and then taught school to raise money for college. In 1829, he had enough money to go to Yale, graduating in 1833. While there, he’s most notable for starting Skull and Bones, the super elite club that continues to spew its members across American life today, with nothing good coming of it. In fact, this does go quite a way to summing up Taft. He wasn’t necessarily that rich, but he really wanted to be rich and he would do all he could to not only achieve that but to create a new aristocracy of fellow rich men in the United States.

After graduation, taught for a few years, then came back to Yale for law school. He was admitted to the bar in Connecticut in 1838. He didn’t see much of a future for himself in New England or New York and hilariously said that New York lawyers were too much under the influence of money (this kind of personal sanctimonious talk from the men who created the Gilded Age was really quite common though they never applied it to their own behavior) and so he decided to move west where a person could make it fresh. That place was Porkopolis itself, the Queen City of the West, Cincinnati, Ohio.

Taft became probably the single most elite person in Cincinnati and perhaps all of Ohio. He would soon be a political powerhouse, a famous lawyer, and a very rich man in an era of very rich men. The way to do that was to get involved with the railroads and Taft did this, becoming a prominent railroad lawyer with all the high-priced work that entailed. He was a committed Whig and then a Republican after that party formed in 1854. He ran for Congress in 1856 but lost that race. He actively supported the Union cause in Ohio during the Civil War and after the war became a judge on the Superior Court of Cincinnati, where he remained until 1872. Of course, he had a lot of business interests and was getting super rich during these years. It was the Gilded Age after all and Taft was going to take his share of that loot. He definitely had some good positions as a judge. Among them was his support for a Cincinnati ban on forcing students to read the Bible in public schools, noting that Jewish students would be oppressed by this. His logic led the Ohio Supreme Court to see it his way. This was hardly a universal position in the Gilded Age (or the New Gilded Age for that matter). Now, Taft really wanted to be governor. This position probably cost him the race for the Republican nomination in 1875, which went to Rutherford B. Hayes. After all, the rural Republicans were definitely not concerned about Cincinnati Jews. Taft’s position on this was conditioned by his conversion to Unitarianism. The family back in Vermont were Baptists, but Taft wanted nothing to do with that (or really anything concerning life in northern New England) and had his own personal religious awakening after moving to Ohio.

But Taft’s position did win him respect among those Republicans who believed in religious liberty. This included Ulysses S. Grant. The general was nearing the end of his two terms as president, he was tired, and his administration had been plagued by a ton of corruption from the very beginning. In 1876, the Secretary of War, the extraordinarily corrupt William Belknap, was forced out after personally profiting on trading goods to the tribes at Fort Sill. Grant needed someone clean to replace him. That became Taft. He didn’t have any real experience in anything the Secretary of War did, but it didn’t matter much at that point. Taft had one agenda item, which was reforming the corruption. He pushed through a new policy by which the people who ran trading posts at the forts were chosen, taking that power out of the corrupt War Department and placing it in the hands of the local commanders. Not totally sure how much better that really was, but there’s little question that the hacks in Washington did not need their hands in that cookie jar.

Taft only served as Secretary of War for 2 1/2 months. That’s because Grant shuffled his Cabinet yet again, moving his Attorney General Edwards Pierrepont to Minister to Britain, shifting Taft to AG, and then bringing in Donald Cameron as Secretary of War. I’m not so sure that having Cameron in that position really pushed back against the Grant corruption allegations since his father Simon Cameron, who held that position under Lincoln, was one of the most corrupt Cabinet officials in American history, pre-Trump anyway. In any case, Taft’s basic position as AG was to try and enforce civil rights legislation in the South, which he absolutely believed in but which most of the Republican Party no longer cared about, nor would it ever again, including to the present. He gave speeches though in favor of it. He also signed off on the so-called Compromise of 1877, which ended Reconstruction, but he didn’t have much of a choice in this matter and it really wasn’t about him, outside of helping to write the bill that created the commission to solve the disputed election. He then left the Cabinet when Hayes took over.

After his brief time in the Cabinet, Taft still had political ambitions. Mostly, he ran his law firm and continued to make serious money representing railroads and other high-priced corporate clients. He ran for governor of Ohio again in 1879 but once again lost the primary. Once again, the decision made to protect the rights of Catholics and Jews in schools cost him with a prejudiced Ohio Republican population. Chester Arthur took care of him though, naming him Minister to Austria-Hungary in 1882 and then to Russia in 1884. That kept him in Europe for a few years, but when Cleveland became president in 1885, he wanted to name Democrats and so Taft came home. He died in San Diego in 1891. Not sure what he was doing in San Diego, but maybe it was a vacation. Doesn’t really matter much. Anyway, he was 80 years old.

Now, the only reason we really remember Alphonso Taft today is that he was the scion of the most influential political family in Ohio history, with his son William Howard becoming president and then Chief Justice and his grandson Bob becoming a right-wing troll senator. Future generations of Tafts would serve as well, if you want to call the family increasingly right-wing politics “serving.” In any case, otherwise he’s just a minor Gilded Age footnote, like so many other guys. But if there’s one thing you can say about Cincinnati, it’s that it’s a Taft-tastic town.

Alphonso Taft is buried in Spring Grove, Cemetery, Cincinnati, Ohio.

If you would like this series to visit other Grant Cabinet members, you can donate to cover the required expenses here. Edwards Pierrepont is in Garrison, New York and George Henry Williams is in Portland, Oregon. Previous posts in this series are archived here. Also, I have an upcoming trip to the South this coming week, which will be a great combination of musicians, civil rights leaders, and scumbag white politicians. You know you want to support this rather pricey trip to keep this series going. It ain’t cheap to provide these services!

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