It took six strong White House employees to lift William Howard Taft out of the bathtub. That humiliating, apocryphal story is the only recollection many people have about the 27th President and 10th Chief Justice of the United States. But Jeffrey Rosen suggests the often derided Taft deserves a fresh look today, when “…constitutional limitations on executive power, and the independent judges necessary to enforce them, are under attack from populist politicians, amplified by social media technologies that channel and intensify divisive passions.”
Taft, the only person to serve in the highest office of both the Executive and Judicial branches was born September 15, 1857 in Cincinnati, Ohio. He graduated from Yale University and earned his Juris Doctor Degree from The Cincinnati Law School.
Taft had a successful career long before taking up residence in the White House. This talented constitutionalist held various political positions in Ohio before being named, at age 29, to his father’s former seat on the state court. Federal positions followed, including Solicitor General of the United States, judge on the Sixth Circuit Court and governor-general of the Philippines where he was a key figure in establishing the Philippine Islands as a nation.
Taft was appointed to the Supreme Court twice by President Theodore Roosevelt, but, lamentably, turned down the appointments so he could conclude work on the constitution with his beloved Filipinos. He later became Secretary of War under Roosevelt who, at the end of his second term, anointed Taft his successor.
When Taft defeated William Jennings Bryan to become President in 1909, he approached the position as an opportunity to strengthen the U.S. Constitution, not as an occasion to impose his personal ideas on the country or to seek personal gain.
Author Rosen describes Taft’s strategic role in setting the precedence for how the United States balances populism against the rule of law. Roosevelt’s attitude toward the Office of the President was that the Executive was free to do anything the Constitution did not prohibit. This interpretation conflicted sharply with Taft’s constitutional approach to the presidency: “The thing which impresses me most is not the power I have to exercise under the Constitution, but the limitations and restrictions to which I am subject under that instrument.”
A deep breach grew between the 26th and 27th presidents. This divide led to the historic 1912 election between the Republican Taft, Woodrow Wilson, a Democrat, and Roosevelt, who ran as leader of the Progressive or Bull Moose party. Taft came in third in the three-way election, and so became a one-term president.
During that 4-year term, the Oval Office was constructed, cherry trees were planted around the tidal basin at the request of his wife Nellie, a stroke victim, and the Supreme Court Building was erected. Other presidential accomplishments included the establishment of 10 national parks and making the first official presidential visit to Mexico.
Nine years after Taft exited the Executive Branch, President Warren Harding appointed him Chief Justice of the Supreme Court; this time Taft accepted (1921-1930). During his tenure on the court he promoted consensus among the justices and elevated the status of the judiciary to a third, co-equal branch of government.
Rosen has written a brief, fast-paced précis of a notable man. The book does not take the place of a thorough biography of William Howard Taft, but it does provide a quick, easy-to-read summary of the significant contributions Taft made to the U.S.
Jeffrey Rosen is the President and CEO of Philadelphia’s National Constitution Center, a law professor at George Washington University, and a contributing editor for The Atlantic. Henry Holt and Company is the publisher of this 183-page book.