Will H. solicits my opinion on William Howard Taft, both as President and Chief Justice. Briefly: he had a solid procedural and administrative approach to both jobs, but he made a number of decisions which I find substantively unpalatable. He was a man of his time, but not ahead of it. The Court and the modern justice system owes him a large debt. And he’s an example of why I probably ought not to be President myself.
William Howard Taft was a supremely skilled lawyer, but only a mediocre politician. He had all the right advantages: money, blue blood, a good education, and connections. He was a product of the early systematized law school curriculum still evolving in the late nineteenth century, taking a master of law degrees from Cincinnati Law School in 1880 when he was twenty-two years old. Ten years later, he got his third major political appointment, being made Solicitor General of the United States.
Taft had pretty much always aspired to serve on the Supreme Court, but declined several offers from President Theodore Roosevelt, on the basis that the positions Roosevelt had carved out for him (in particular Governor-General of the Philippines, then Secretary of War and acting Secretary of State) were too pressing and his personal involvement necessary if they were to be successful. He was not particularly keen on the idea of running for President in 1908, and in fact had done poorly as a ticket-prop speaker on tour in the midterm elections of 1906.
Taft’s Presidency is filled with examples of principled decisions, made in pursuit of policies with which I would fundamentally agree (freeing up trade, using economic development aid to build bridges to emerging nations, opposing prohibition, and paying close attention to ability and merit in making appointments), but which were the wrong policies for the times and the political climate in which they were introduced. Taft had a tin ear for the desires of the population as a whole and the other elites with whom he shared power. Good ideas, poorly executed.
Taft’s rudderless domestic policy and repeated failures to cultivate political support for tough moves before making them resulted in the Republicans losing their majority in Congress in 1910 and fragmenting completely in 1912 as Theodore Roosevelt and Robert Lafollette split to form a third party. This wound up siphoning enough votes away from the Republicans that Woodrow Wilson took the plurality of votes and unseated what should have been a dominant Republican party.
The stress of the job was more than he could bear; Taft was always heavyset but gained nearly eighty pounds of weight as President. At a time that men were supposed to be big, this much weight gain alarmed Taft’s doctors and family and Taft himself — and was almost certainly an outgrowth of the fact that Taft was doing poorly at a job he never particularly wanted in the first place. One suspects that he was secretly relieved when Wilson took the reins from him in 1913.
But his meritocratic and intellectually principled ways proved much better fits when he became Chief Justice. He made a point of studying the British legal system personally in 1922 and from his experiences successfully advocated for system judicial reform in 1925. The three-tiered Federal court system, optional certiorari system for the Supreme Court choosing the cases it will take itself, the position of Chief Justice as ultimate administrator of the entire Federal judiciary, the re-organization of the various Federal circuits into their current form, the recruitment of full-time law clerks to assist the Justices, and the creation of an independent building to house the Supreme Court (which was created ahead of schedule and under budget, albeit not having been completed until after Taft’s death) all are the product of Taft’s administrative abilities.
The work agreed with Taft, and he lost the eighty pounds he put on while President, dropping to a weight of 240 pounds and by his death looked positively trim, at least when compared to the more famous images of him as an obese President. His personal style on the bench was genial and substantively deferential to his colleagues; it helped that as President he had appointed nearly half of his colleagues, but his primary strength as a jurist was intellectual engagement rather than relying on old political favors. His colleagues spoke well of him personally and as a leader for the courts.
Substantively, his more prominent opinions are of his time and not ahead of them, and there is little for the modern civil libertarian to admire. He took an approach to new issues heavily reliant on historical study and precedent, and he was reluctant to overturn cases or strike down laws even when strong cases were presented to him. He would not apply the Bill of Rights’ procedural due process guarantees to cases arising out of Federal possessions, was highly deferential to police authorities in searches of things like telephone wiretaps and automobile stop-and-searches, upheld legal racial segregation in public schools, and found reasons to overrule taxes and regulations meant to deter exploitative labor practices. These were considered mainstream sorts of decisions at the time.
Taft had good administrative skills and an eye for talent. He did not often have any sort of vision for how he wanted things to be; he was essentially reactive. He must have been able to project personal charisma and an aura of competence. Sadly, he seems to be most famous for having been obese, which is unfair to the man: he gained nearly all of the excess when he started working in the White House and lost it when he stopped having to fill roles for which he was basically unsuited. While his legacy is ambiguous, on balance, I find him worthy of more admiration than criticism.