When I was a child, I had a book of humorous poems about the American Presidents. From Washington to Reagan (wow that dates me), the book had an entry for each, some discussing aspects of their terms and others just talking about them as people. In writing this article, I searched my childhood bedroom for the book, but to no avail. As I recall, the entry on William Howard Taft, the 27th President, ended with something like:
So that was the story of William Taft
Three hundred fifty pounder
Few Presidents were square as he
No President was rounder
I am ashamed to say that this – and his having also served on the US Supreme Court – is all I ever learned of William Howard Taft. After all, he wasn’t a wartime President, nor did he have the oversized personality of Teddy Roosevelt (his predecessor), nor did he preside over any truly remarkable time in the history of the country.
But here in Cincinnati, Ohio, I stumbled across William Howard Taft National Historic Site, built out of the man’s childhood home, and here I learned that Taft was a pretty cool dude.
William Howard Taft was born here in this house in the Mount Auburn neighborhood of Cincinnati. The two story house (a third was added on later) was purchased by Alphonso Taft and his first wife, who would die shortly after the couple and their family moved here from Vermont in 1852. Alphonso remarried the following year, and the second child of that marriage was young William. The future President Taft would live here until age eighteen, when he would follow his father to Yale and to law school.
The house is open for tours, run on the half hour by rangers and volunteers. Three rooms have been restored to a similar appearance as they would have had during Taft’s childhood. Other rooms (especially the top floor) contain exhibits to Taft and his career, and there is another exhibit as well as a film in a separate building that serves as the Visitors Center.
The film and exhibits are worth seeing, because wow did William Howard Taft have a cool – and diverse – career! After law school at Yale, Taft returned here to Cincinnati, working both as a prosecutor and then in private practice. He was appointed to fill a vacancy in the Ohio Superior Court in 1887, and was then elected to a full term, though he left in 1890 to serve as US Solicitor General, moving to Washington DC for the first time. In 1892, he was appointed to the US Court of Appeals and came back to Cincinnati until 1900.
From 1901 to 1904, William Howard Taft was Governor General of the Philippines, before becoming Secretary of War (precursor to the current title of Secretary of Defense) for President Teddy Roosevelt. The two developed a close friendship, and when Roosevelt decided not to run for a third Presidential term – back when one could do so – in 1908, he encouraged Taft to run. He did, and he won, becoming the 27th President.
However, he apparently didn’t follow his predecessor’s policies closely enough, because Roosevelt ran against Taft (and Woodrow Wilson) in 1912, and they split the vote, allowing Wilson to cruise to victory. Taft retired from politics and became the dean of Yale Law School, and then, in 1921, was appointed Chief Justice of the US Supreme Court, which had always been his dream. He would serve until just before his death in 1930.
Overall, Taft relished his career in the judiciary much more than his career in politics, despite having reached the pinnacle in each. And his legacy reflects that. When he became Chief Justice, the Supreme Court was so backed up with cases that it was thought they’d never get out from underneath. At that time, appeals from the Appellate Courts were automatically reviewed by the Supreme Court. Taft changed this, creating the system that is still used today, where the Supreme Court chooses its cases, and refuses to hear more that it actually reviews. That basic tenet of current judicial policy started here, and is one big reason Taft has been considered one of the most consequential Chief Justices, even if his decisions were not.
As both a judge and a politician, William Howard Taft was a huge defender of labor rights, and exhibits discuss some aspects of that, focusing on his Appellate Court decisions upholding the right of workers to unionize and to strike. He was also an advocate of anti-trust law, and as President brought 70 anti-trust suits in his single term.
From a personal standpoint, I also like that William Howard Taft was the first President to throw out the first pitch on Opening Day of the Major League Baseball season, something so many others would go on to do after. And his wife Helen planted the first cherry blossom trees in the DC Tidal Basin.
Overall, a visit to William Howard Taft National Historic Site takes about an hour and a half, and offers a cool view into a lesser known important figure in US history. It is worth doing on a visit to Cincinnati.
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