The Tafts: The Most Underrated Family in American Politics?

When most people think of the most famous member of the Taft family (if they even think about a Taft), they think of President William Howard Taft and might know of the hilarious myth that he got stuck in the White House bathtub. While it is true that Taft was a below average president, this is a pretty undignified remembrance. I hold that the Taft family is the most underrated political family in American history. Profiles of the five most famous members of the family should indicate why.

Alphonso Taft

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The first Taft to make a splash in American politics was not William Howard Taft, but his father, Alphonso Taft (1810-1891). The family’s affiliation with the Republican Party existed from its first presidential campaign, as he was a delegate to the 1856 Republican Party convention and tried to win a seat in Congress from George H. Pendleton, who was an opponent of the abolition of slavery. As a prominent attorney in Cincinnati, Taft fought against the reading of the Bible in public schools, as he found it inappropriate for Protestants to impose their views upon religious minorities through public school. His successful push against Bible reading in public school arguably resulted in his loss in the Republican primary for Governor of Ohio in 1875 to Rutherford B. Hayes.

For two months he served as Secretary of War after the resignation of the scandal-ridden William Belknap and successfully instituted reforms to make the department honest and more efficient. Taft was subsequently appointed Attorney General, and in this position, he supported the use of the military to stop violence and intimidation of black voters in the South. Taft also supported the bill settling the 1876 election with an Electoral Commission. In his final roles, he served under Chester Arthur as Ambassador to Austria-Hungary and Imperial Russia.

William Howard Taft

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Taft the President

William Howard Taft (1857-1930) was a judicially-minded man who wasn’t enthusiastic about electoral politics. His positions in government before the presidency had been appointed, such as his role governing the Philippines. However, his wife and Theodore Roosevelt saw talents in him and pushed him to run for president in 1908. The voters by and large saw Taft as being a third term of Roosevelt and he was handily elected over William Jennings Bryan. However, he was different in his approach. While Roosevelt’s approach to trust-busting was to distinguish between “good” and “bad” trusts, Taft’s approach was legalistic and far less subjective. There was more trust-busting than Roosevelt and this included bringing suit against Standard Oil, the result being a Supreme Court decision that dissolved the Standard Oil Company while adopting a “rule of reason” interpretation of the Sherman Act. He also went after U.S. Steel, but the Supreme Court would rule in 1920 that U.S. Steel wasn’t a monopoly under the Sherman Act.

On foreign policy, Taft, with Secretary of State Philander C. Knox, crafted “Dollar Diplomacy”, which was basically a push for expansion of American capitalism to Latin America. This course also served as a means of protecting the Panama Canal.

Trouble Ahead

The first signs of trouble for his presidency arose in its very first year when he tackled tariff reform. The tariff rates of the US had risen to their historical peak under the Dingley Tariff of 1897 and there was a popular call for reduction. The conservative Republicans who controlled Congress at the time were not keen on major tariff reduction and produced a bill that raised some tariffs while lowering others, with the result being a mere 5% average reduction. Taft signed the bill and even went as far as to proclaim it the best legislation the GOP ever produced, despite its unpopularity. His administration took the side of the conservative wing of the party on this and other issues, including conservation. By 1910, the public was fatigued by Republican rule and voted out the Republican majority in the House. The remainder of Taft’s presidency largely consisted of him vetoing legislation. He vetoed reversals of the tariffs but also of a prohibitionist bill and a measure prohibiting illiterates from immigrating. In 1912, the voters gave him and the Republican Senate (by voting for Democratic state legislatures) the boot as well, with Taft suffering the worst defeat for an incumbent president, only winning Utah and Vermont. He had never truly wanted to president and didn’t enjoy the job, rather he dreamed of being Chief Justice of the Supreme Court.

Taft the Chief Justice

In 1921, Chief Justice Edward Douglass White passed away. Newly elected President Warren G. Harding had a perfect replacement in mind, the man who appointed White. Taft’s time as Chief Justice was far more successful than his time as president. He was part of the conservative wing of the court and routinely ruled to restrict the power of government to regulate business. A prime example of such a decision was Taft’s ruling in Bailey v. Drexel Furniture Company (1922), which struck down a portion of the Revenue Act of 1919 that taxed businesses employing child labor. Taft was highly effective in his running of the court: when he first became Chief Justice, the court’s backlog extended five years. He lobbied Congress to pass legislation that gave the Supreme Court significantly greater control over its caseload by the elimination of nearly all automatic rights of appeal to the court. Taft was able to substantially reduce the backlog as a result. He also managed to maintain a high level of unity on the court, as 84% of decisions during his tenure were unanimous. Some of the more contentious decisions that went on the side of business property rights were eventually overruled as public sentiment grew increasingly favorable to unionization and government regulation.

Taft was at his happiest and proudest on the court, writing “I don’t remember that I ever was President” (White House Historical Association). By Hoover’s presidency, his health was in decline. On March 4, 1929, he recited part of the oath of office to Hoover incorrectly and found that his memory was becoming increasingly unreliable. Despite being cognizant of his decline, Taft insisted on staying on the court. He feared that Hoover would pick Harlan Fiske Stone as his replacement, who he correctly believed would rule to expand federal power and to limit property rights. By January 1930, he was almost unable to speak, suffered from hallucinations, and was aware he was near death. Taft had President Hoover promise to him that he would pick Charles Evans Hughes as his replacement before he retired on February 3rd. He lived just over a month after his departure, dying on March 8th.

Although Taft was not a good fit for the presidency, he was one of the greatest chief justices for expanding the court’s power and autonomy and his reduction of the court’s backlog. He also stands as the only person in American history to lead both the Executive and Judicial branches of government.

Robert A. Taft

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On ideology, the apple didn’t fall far from the tree from father to son. While Robert Taft (1889-1953) never served in the Executive or Judicial branches, he was a leader in the Legislative branch. Before his time in national politics, he served in both Houses of the Ohio state legislature in which he opposed Prohibition and the Ku Klux Klan. Like his grandfather Alphonso Taft, he fought against the teaching of the Bible in public school, specifically opposing a Klan-backed bill that required the reading of ten verses of the Bible daily in Ohio public schools. Taft also opposed a bill banning dancing on Sundays. In 1938, he ran for the Senate on an anti-New Deal platform, defeating incumbent Robert Bulkley, who had sometimes supported the New Deal.

His intellect gained him respect and prominence and he quickly became a leader in the Conservative Coalition, a combination of Republicans and Southern Democrats who worked together to block and repeal New Deal laws. Taft denounced the New Deal as socialist and opposed most government interventions in business. He also stood as an opponent of FDR’s foreign policy and the draft, the latter he viewed as a restriction of individual freedom. When the GOP gained the majority in Congress in the 1946 election, Taft served as the de facto leader of the Republican Senate on domestic issues and pushed a conservative agenda. In 1947, he sponsored the Taft-Hartley Act, which partially rolled back the Wagner Act and permitted states to decide whether they were “closed shop” or “right-to-work”, which passed over President Truman’s veto. However, Taft was capable of compromise: he supported the Truman Doctrine and voted for the Marshall Plan after backing budget cuts. He also supported some federal assistance to education as well as public housing through the Taft-Ellender-Wagner Housing Act. Taft was a constructive conservative in that he would often propose alternative legislation to progressive proposals, a prominent example being the voluntary Fair Employment Practices Commission, which I covered in a previous post.

Although Taft had backed the Truman Doctrine and the Marshall Plan, he was an opponent of the postwar internationalist consensus. One of his most prominent dissents in this area was his opposition to the creation of the North Atlantic Treaty Organization. He also prophetically warned in his last speech on May 26, 1953, that extensive involvement in foreign affairs would lead to United States into war stating, “I have never felt that we should send American soldiers to the Continent of Asia, which, of course, included China proper and Indo-China, simply because we are so outnumbered in fighting a land war on the Continent of Asia that it would bring about complete exhaustion even if we were able to win. … So today, as since 1947 in Europe and 1950 in Asia, we are really trying to arm the world against Communist Russia, or at least furnish all the assistance which can be of use to them in opposing Communism.

Is this policy of uniting the free world against Communism in time of peace going to be a practical long-term policy? I have always been a skeptic on the subject of the military practicability of NATO. … I have always felt that we should not attempt to fight Russia on the ground on the Continent of Europe any more than we should attempt to fight China on the Continent of Asia” (Rothbard, 1970).

Presidential Runs and Legacy

Although Robert Taft was popularly known as “Mr. Republican”, his party thrice declined to nominate him for president. The most crushing defeat was undoubtedly in 1952, as everyone knew it would be the last time he would make the run. His defeats were caused by a perception of Taft as cold and aloof, a self-defeating perception even among many of his supporters that “Taft can’t win”, and his opposition to the internationalist postwar consensus. Although he lost the nomination, the GOP won back the Senate in 1952 and Taft was elected Majority Leader. He managed to cooperate with President Eisenhower, but his time as leader of the Senate didn’t last: it turned out that even during the 1952 campaign he had pancreatic cancer, which was discovered in April 1953. Taft died on July 31st. The historical appraisals of him were highly positive in the years after his death. In 1956, he was included in John F. Kennedy’s Profiles in Courage for his tremendously unpopular opposition to the Nuremberg Trials as an exercise in ex post facto law, which is explicitly prohibited in the U.S. Constitution. Taft instead supported locking up the Nazi leadership for life to prevent them starting another war or executing them by court-martial. In 1957, a Senate commission named him one of the five greatest American senators in history alongside Henry Clay, Daniel Webster, John Calhoun, and Robert La Follette.

Robert Taft Jr.

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Robert Taft’s death in 1953 didn’t end the Taft family involvement in politics: his son, Robert Jr. (1917-1993), was elected to the House in 1962. In his first term, he voted similarly to his father by opposing most Democratic legislation, including the Economic Opportunity Act of 1964. Taft was also an outspoken supporter of the Civil Rights Act of 1964. However, that year he lost reelection in the Democratic wave. However, he regained a seat in Congress in the 1966 midterms, which were a backlash wave against LBJ, the Great Society, the Vietnam War, and race riots. Taft, like many of the new Republicans elected that year, charted a moderate course.

In 1970, he was elected to the Senate. During his time, he tended to be conservative on fiscal matters and often liberal on social issues. On organized labor, he sometimes opposed their interests (opposition to strong minimum wage increases) but sometimes supported it in ways his grandfather nor his father would have considered. Indeed, he stated “I never tried to pattern myself after my father” (Los Angeles Times). One of these departures was in his role in the drafting and enactment of a law extending the National Labor Relations Act to healthcare personnel. Another was his vote for the proposed Common Situs Picketing legislation, which would have permitted a construction union that had a grievance with one contractor on the site to picket all other contractors on the same site. This measure was vetoed by President Gerald Ford, and unlike Taft-Hartley, it never became law. Despite Taft’s centrist bent, he lost reelection in 1976 by three points to liberal Democrat Howard Metzenbaum. He never sought elected office again.

Bob Taft

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The most prominent member of the Taft family who is still around is Bob Taft (1942- ), or Robert Alphonso Taft III. Unlike his father and grandfather, Taft’s role in politics remained on the state level. Serving in the Ohio State Legislature and then being elected Secretary of State in 1990, he set up a good background for himself to be considered for governor.

In 1998, Taft was elected Governor. His mindset for the state was on economic productivity and education.  His Third Frontier program, designed to modernize Ohio’s economy through funding research into new technology, spent $681 million while playing a significant role in increasing economic activity by $6.6 billion and creating 41,300 jobs. This constituted roughly a return of $10 for every $1 spent. Taft was similarly successful on his education policy, providing $10 billion over 12 years for school construction. This program resulted in higher test scores and high school graduation rates. Although Taft temporarily raised the sales tax by 1%, he followed up a few years later with a 21% income tax cut and a 0.5% reduction in sales tax. He also reinstated the death penalty, resulting in 24 executions during his tenure.

Ethics Troubles

In 2005, a scandal emerged in the Taft Administration called Coingate. This centered around Thomas Noe, a GOP fundraiser and political operator who stole an estimated $13.7 million from the Ohio Bureau of Workers’ Compensation in an investment scheme in rare coins. Bob Taft had emphasized ethics as governor and had mandated four hours of ethics training every two years for high level political appointees and staff. However, he knew Noe and had failed to report, as required by law, gifts from him and 42 golf outings. Although Taft claimed the failure to report was unintentional, he nonetheless pleaded “no contest” and was fined $4,000 plus court costs. He was not sentenced to jail time due to having had no previous ethics issues in his career. Taft left office the most unpopular governor in Ohio’s history. In August 2007, he joined the University of Dayton as a distinguished education researcher.

Conclusion

These are also not the only Tafts to have served, but the most notable ones. The Taft family has given America an Attorney General, its only President AND Chief Justice of the Supreme Court, two senators, one who was one of the greatest in history, a governor. I think it is high time they are given more due than a myth about a Taft stuck in a bathtub.

References

Eder, S., & Drew, J. (2005, August 19). Taft declared guilty. The Blade.

Retrieved from

https://www.toledoblade.com/frontpage/2005/08/19/Taft-declared-guilty.html

Hernon, J.M. (2015). Profiles in character: Hubris and heroism in the U.S. Senate, 1789-1996. New York, NY: Routledge.

Profiles in Courage. U.S. Senate.

Retrieved from

https://www.senate.gov/reference/reference_item/Profiles_In_Courage.htm

Robert Taft Jr.; U.S. Senator, Scion of Political Family. (1993, December 8). Los Angeles Times.

Retrieved from

https://www.latimes.com/archives/la-xpm-1993-12-08-mn-65122-story.html

Rothbard, M. (1970). Swan Song of the Old Right. LewRockwell.com.

Retrieved from

https://www.lewrockwell.com/1970/01/murray-n-rothbard/it-was-the-swan-song-of-the-old-right/

Trickey, E. (2016, December 5). Chief Justice, Not President, Was William Howard Taft’s Dream Job. Smithsonian Magazine.

Retrieved from

https://www.smithsonianmag.com/history/chief-justice-not-president-was-william-howard-tafts-dream-job-180961279/

Vanac, M. (2009, September 15). Ohio Third Frontier creates $6.6 billion in economic impact, 41,300 jobs. MedCity News.

Retrieved from

https://archive.fo/20130128194020/http://www.medcitynews.com/index.php/2009/09/ohio-third-frontier-creates-66-billion-in-economic-impact-41300-jobs/

William Howard Taft. The White House Historical Association.

Retrieved from

https://www.whitehouse.gov/about-the-white-house/presidents/william-howard-taft/

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