Taft, William Howard (1857–1930)

Author:Alpheus Thomas Mason

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William Howard Taft's life was amazing both for length of public service (1881?1930) and for the variety of his activities: prosecuting attorney in his native state of Ohio, superior court judge in Cincinnati, SOLICITOR GENERAL of the United States, federal circuit court judge, governor general of the Philippine Islands, cabinet member, President of the United States (1908?1912), professor of law at Yale, and CHIEF JUSTICE of the United States (1921?1930).

Taft appeared to be almost the prototype of a Chief Justice. Large of frame and good-natured, weighing well over 350 pounds, he filled out the popular image. His gallantry was famous. "I heard recently," Justice DAVID J. BREWER reported, "that he arose in a street car and gave his seat to three women."

Taft idolized Chief Justice JOHN MARSHALL. One day, passing by the west entrance to the Capitol, he paused in

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front of the bronze statue of Marshall. "Would you rather have been Marshall than President?" a friend asked. "Of course," Taft answered, "I would rather have been Marshall than any other American unless it had been Washington, and I am inclined to think I would rather have been Marshall than Washington. He made this country." Taft himself became the only man in history to occupy both the White House and the Supreme Court's center chair.

During THEODORE ROOSEVELT'S administration Taft rejected two opportunities to join the Supreme Court as associate justice. As successor to Roosevelt in the White House, Taft thought longingly about the future and pined to succeed aging Chief Justice MELVILLE W. FULLER."If the Chief Justice would only retire," Taft lamented, "how simple everything would become!"

As President Taft signed Associate Justice EDWARD D. WHITE'S commission as Chief Justice, he grieved: "There is nothing I would have liked more than being Chief Justice of the United States. I can't help seeing the irony in the fact that I, who desired that office so much, should now be signing the commission of another man." Rating Supreme Court appointments as among his most important presidential functions, Taft had the opportunity to appoint five associate Justices as well as the Chief?WILLIS VAN DEVANTER, HORACE H. LURTON, JOSEPH R. LAMAR, CHARLES EVANS HUGHES, and MAHLON PITNEY. Each appointment was a continuing source of pride to Taft, who at every opportunity underscored the importance of the judiciary.

Taft's cordial relations with Roosevelt did not last. Differences developed during Taft's presidency over questions of policy and administration. Finally the clash led to a split in the Republican Party. As a result, when Taft ran for reelection in 1912 Roosevelt ran as a Progressive. The upshot was a Democratic victory and the election of WOODROW WILSON as President.

After Justice Lamar died, rumor began to spread that the new President might, rising above party politics, follow the example of his predecessor's high-mindedness when in 1910 Taft had selected as Chief Justice a southern Democrat and Roman Catholic, Associate Justice Edward D. White. But Wilson appointed LOUIS D. BRANDEIS instead, and Taft, outraged by that appointment, declared that Brandeis was "not a fit person to be a member of the Court."

In 1919, Taft was off the public payroll for the first time. Soon he took a position at Yale, teaching constitutional law. Meanwhile, the chief justiceship seemed a remote possibility. Prospects brightened in 1920 with the smashing Republican victory of WARREN G. HARDING. Shortly after Harding's election the unblushing aspirant made the pilgrimage to Marion, Ohio. Taft was "nearly struck dumb" when the President-elect broached a Supreme Court appointment. Of course, the former President was available, but he made it clear that, having appointed three of the present bench and three others and, having vigorously opposed Brandeis's appointment in 1916, he would accept only the chief justiceship.

Taft's opportunity to achieve his ambition was not altogether accidental. During his presidency, when Chief Justice Fuller died, two choices loomed as possibilities?CHARLES EVANS HUGHES and Edward D. White. The latter, seventeen years Hughes's senior, received the nod. Had Taft chosen Hughes, instead of White, his lifelong ambition would not have been realized.

The office of Chief Justice carries scant inherent power. He manages the docket, presents the cases in conference, and guides discussion. When in the majority, he assigns the writing of opinions. In 1921 Taft remarked: "The Chief Justice goes into a monastery." Yet it is difficult to think of a Chief Justice who more frequently violated the American Bar Association's...

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