William Taft and a Lack of Progressivism – Government (300 Level Course)
William Howard Taft became the twenty seventh president in 1909; handpicked by Theodore Roosevelt to carry on the Progressive torch of the Republican Party. While some argue that Taft was not the best choice, that perhaps Roosevelt’s Secretary of State Elihu Root or Governor Charles Evans Hughes of New York would be better progressives, many scholars believe that Roosevelt chose Taft for one main reason: he was a “yes-man.”
Even though he later denied it, many people felt that Taft was selected so that Roosevelt could still exercise power through him, without actually being in office. Taft was a supposed Progressive leader and maintained this position throughout his tenure in office. However his four years in office demonstrated the presidency of a far more conservative than progressive leader. While most authors agree on the fact that even if Taft is to be considered Progressive, he is much less progressive than his predecessor, they disagree on the way Taft handled the battles that arose between progressive and conservative Republicans.
Donald Anderson writes that “Taft used his patronage powers to punish leaders like La Follete and Cummins who vindictively opposed the administration’s program.” This statement is in direct response to the issue of the Payne-Aldrich Tariff. The progressives, led by La Follete and Cummins, were upset that the proposed tariff, once in the hands of Speaker of the House Joe Cannon and the conservatives, was attacked by protectionists and changed in 847 ways. These results of these changes raised the tariff in ways thought to be protective for the United States. Theodore Roosevelt assured the progressives that Taft would surely veto the bill, which would have been a slap in the face to the progressives. However, Taft did not veto the bill, instead he pledged that he “would not take into consideration any of the progressive recommendations unless they (progressives) make it known that they are not engaged in attacking me or my administration.”
In this account of events, Anderson shows two parts of the story that do not seem to corroborate with other accounts. Taft seems to feel that the progressives are directly threatening his authority even though he is supposed to share their views, after all he was a progressive and Roosevelt’s right hand man. Also, Anderson portrays Taft as being assertive in his decision to not tolerate the progressives or their plight. Whatever actually happened surrounding this event notwithstanding, other accounts to not coincide with those of Taft acting confidently and aggressively.
Another historian, Nathan Miller takes a slightly different viewpoint on this same topic. While Miller sympathizes with Taft for having to follow in the footsteps of Teddy Roosevelt, he weaves a somewhat different story about president Taft. Miller describes Taft as a progressive but only up to a certain point. It is at that point then where Taft draws the line. Taft was often said to be so wracked by self doubt that he would walk the White House late at night unable to sleep. Miller paints William Taft as a totally dependent politician and a man incapable of being the president described by Anderson. Miller talks of Taft’s dependence first on Roosevelt and then on leaders such as Aldrich and Cannon. He goes on to say that “Taft lacked both the will and the stomach to get his own way in any battle such as this. Having been a yes man in Roosevelt’s cabinet, he inevitably became one for the party regulars.” It becomes this lack of support for progressives, and ultimately therefore support for Roosevelt that effectively ends their political relationship.
I agree with the latter depiction of president William Taft and his role as a progressive leader of American politics. It may be true that he was the victim of being Roosevelt’s successor. Yet still I feel that he demonstrated weak leadership qualities and when the fights broke out he abandoned camp and sought shelter within the party ranks. By doing this he effectively bit the hand that fed him in Theodore Roosevelt, a man that he was extremely loyal to and whom handed him the baton of dynamic presidential leadership, a baton in which he fumbled. He did not have Roosevelt’s integrity, his leadership, his grace, or his political prowess. While he later proved to be a honorable chief justice, one whom possessed a well organized, well honed legal mind, he simply lacked the backbone and integrity needed to be successful in elected and not appointed office. In these ways I have found William Taft to be both a poor progressive and a poor president.
William Howard Taft came into the office of the president in 1909 with the world at his feet, and left office miserably four years later after only winning two states and eight electoral votes. It was the worst defeat ever suffered by an incumbent president. Theodore Roosevelt gave him the presidency and the popularity of the American people and he could do little with it but squander it almost entirely. While opinions may vary on his presidency, it is almost certainly clear that it was far from a growing success story. He did enjoy perhaps the most productive career of any ex-president after being appointed to the Supreme Court in 1921 by president Warren Harding. Yet his presidency will still be remember for doing little for the country and eventually being passed up by a country that voted in 1912 over three-quarters progressive. Taft’s presidency took office on a high and ended by giving the office back to the Democrats for the first time in sixteen years. Nathan Miller therefore granted Taft the dubious honor of being his “eighth worst president of the United States.” One thing is for certain however, the fact that William Howard Taft earned it.