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Profile - "Big Bill" Taft

William Howard Taft  (1857-1930), known as “Big Bill”, was the fattest man ever to be president; so fat, indeed, that he once became stuck in the White House bath tub, an embarrassment that led to the procurement of a wider tub.  But the fat was all around his waist, and not his brain.  An accomplished lawyer as well as politician, he is the only man who ever served both as president and as chief justice of the United States Supreme Court.

President Taft was a descendant of Robert Taft, who migrated from Ireland to Massachusetts in 1678 and sired a considerable family before he died in 1725.  Robert’s son, Joseph, the President’s great-great-great grandfather, served in the militia at Uxbridge, Massachusetts during the early 1700s.  Joseph Taft’s son Peter and Peter’s son Aaron were both at Bunker Hill.  Aaron subsequently settled in Vermont, and his son, Alphonso Taft, the president’s father, moved to Ohio in the 1830s. 

On his mother’s side, the President’s grandfather, Henry Howard, also served in the Revolutionary War. 

At 50, Alphonso, the President’s father was too old for service during the Civil War, but was active in Republican party politics and war work.  He later served as Secretary of War during the Grant administration.  William Howard Taft grew up in comfortable circumstances, and came early to politics and public service.  He attended Yale and then began a career in law, while becoming active in the Republican Party.  Taft then began a career in public service, as Collector of Internal Revenue for Ohio, then as a state and later a federal judge.  In 1900, by which time he was Chief Justice of the Federal Sixth Circuit Court, President McKinley appointed him chairman of a commission to develop plans for the government of the recently annexed Philippine Islands.  The following year Taft was appointed the first civilian governor-general of the islands.  He proved very effective in this post, helping to restore civil government following the end of the Philippine Insurrection, overseeing land reform, working to eradicate malaria, opening schools, and undertaking other nation-building initiatives that brought him considerable popularity.  Although Taft himself had no military experience, he was so capable an administrator that in 1904 President Theodore Roosevelt appointed him Secretary of War.  He served in this assignment until 1908.  During his tenure in the War Department, Taft not only continued the “Root Reforms,” but also supervised the construction of the Panama Canal, helped negotiate a peaceful resolution of a civil war in Cuba that had required the intervention of American troops (during which he was effectively governor of the island), negotiated a friendship agreement with Japan, and even did a short tour as acting Secretary of State.  In 1908 Roosevelt personally pressed for Taft’s election as president, and he won handily.

Militarily, Taft’s presidency was a period of quiet progress.  The build-up of the Navy initiated nearly two decades earlier continued, with four new battleships ordered, as well as nearly two dozen destroyers and many other vessels.  Substantial portions of the fleet – often whole battleship or armored cruiser squadrons – undertook “good will” tours to Britain and France and to the Philippines, China, and Japan in 1910, then in 1911 to Britain again for King George V's Coronation Review and to the Baltic.  Perhaps most importantly, the Navy began acquiring and experimenting with airplanes, including trial launchings and landings of aircraft on ships.

Meanwhile, American troops, who had been in in Cuba since the quasi-civil war of 1906, returned home.  Among many innovations, the Army accepted its first airplanes, new infantry equipment began to be issued, the Army Nurse Corps was formed, the famed Colt .45 Model 1911 automatic pistol was adopted, and the Militia Bureau was formed to oversee the National Guard.  With the outbreak of the Mexican Revolution in 1911, elements of the Regular Army were concentrated in a “Maneuver Division” on the border, and conducted the Army’s first large-scale maneuvers, which included experiments in motorized operations and aerial reconnaissance.

Although Taft’s presidency had been a successful one, some of his actions led to a political falling-out with Theodore Roosevelt.  As a result, in 1912 Roosevelt ran for president as a third-party candidate.  This effectively split the Republican vote, leading to the election of Woodrow Wilson.

In retirement, Taft taught law at Yale.  During World War I he served as chairman of the National War Labor Board, which helped ensure fair employment standards in war industries.  In 1921 President Warren G. Harding appointed Taft Chief Justice of the Supreme Court, a post that Taft had been seeking for some 20 years.  He was the only man ever to have been both president and chief justice, and in later years would say that being chief justice was the better of the jobs.

The president's eldest son, Robert, was unfit for military service due to poor eyesight, but during World War I served as Assistant Food Administrator, under Herbert Hoover, and later became a distinguished senator.  The senator's sons, Robert Taft, Jr., and Horace D. Taft, both served in World War II, respectively in the Navy and the Army.  The president’s younger son, Charles P. Taft, rose from private to lieutenant in France during World War I, serving with the 12th Field Artillery.  Charles' son, Seth C. Taft, served as a naval officer during World War II.  President Taft’s nephews, Walbridge S. Taft and William Howard Taft II, both joined Squadron A, New York Cavalry, on the same day in 1910.  They served with the squadron on the Mexican border in 1916-1917.  During World War I, Walbridge served as a training officer in the army, while William was a staff officer with the artillery brigade of the 37th Division in France. 

BookNotes: Taft has been the subject of several recent books, among them William Howard Taft: The Travails of a Progressive Conservative , by Jonathan Lurie (New York: Cambridge University Press, 2011), William Howard Taft and the First Motoring Presidency 1909-1913 , by Michael L. Bromley (Jefferson, NC: McFarland Publishing, 2007), and William Howard Taft: Confident Peacemaker , by David Burton (New York: Fordham University Press, 2004), as well as The William Howard Taft Presidency , by Lewis L. Gould (Lawrence: University of Kansas Press, 2009), which focuses on Taft’s years in office.  

 


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