“We are all imperfect. We cannot expect perfect government.” William Howard Taft
Being president of the United States was far from William Howard Taft’s dream job. But, when virtually all your family members–especially your spouse–are pushing you toward it, you go with it. And when your good friend, the current president, hand selects you to proceed him, the decision kind of makes itself.
William Howard Taft had a lot going for him. He was reliable, likable, well-educated and a distinguished jurist. Unfortunately, he wasn’t cut out for politics and his four years in the White House made him miserable.
Now, no one likes for their weight to be an issue, but President Taft is well known for being the heaviest president in U.S. history. The poor guy’s weight fluctuated from 255 pounds to his heaviest at over 350 pounds. As such, he had an over-sized bathtub installed in the White House. Let’s just say a story goes that Taft was such a large man that despite the tub being large enough to fit four men, he still once got stuck in it. True or not, his weight became a major issue over the course of his lifetime.
Taft didn’t let it define him though and kept a good sense of humor about it. He’s our “president of the week” and oddly enough, his dream job came after he served as president.
Background of William Howard Taft
William Howard Taft was born in 1857 in Cincinnati, Ohio. His father was a distinguished judge who served in the administrations of Presidents Ulysses S. Grant and Chester Arthur. President Taft graduated second in his class from Yale and studied law at the University of Cincinnati. After practicing law for only a few years, he was appointed a judge and quickly rose through the judicial ranks.
In 1886 he married Helen “Nettie” Herron, the daughter of a local lawyer and Republican activist. Though Taft had little political ambition, as I mentioned earlier, his wife had her sights set on being First Lady. So, at the encouragement of his wife, William Taft accepted political appointments when they came his way.
He went on to work as a judge in the Ohio Superior Court and in the U.S. Sixth Court of Appeals before accepting a post as the first governor of the Philippines territory in 1900. Not once, but twice, Taft was offered a spot on the Supreme Court. Though it was his dream job, he turned it down at his family’s request that he stay in the Philippines and pursue more political positions. That later led to Theodore Roosevelt naming Taft as the Secretary of War. Roosevelt was so pleased with Taft’s job that he knew when he left Washington, he could rest easy because Taft was there. Roosevelt was so sure that Taft would support everything he had already put into place and continue to push his agenda to the “t” that he hand picked him to precede him after his second term in 1908.
He went on to win the presidency–the only office he ever obtained through a popular vote election. His first love was always the law though and his real dream was becoming a justice on the Supreme Court. But, first, he had to get through the presidency…
William Howard Taft Administration (1909-1913)
William Howard Taft did not like being president. He was much more suited to interpret and uphold the law than he was to lead a nation. It didn’t stop him from trying though. He did his best to carry on Roosevelt’s “trust-busting” campaign, nailing offenders under the Sherman Antitrust Act. He also presided over the creation of the Department of Labor, railroad regulation, and supported constitutional amendments mandating a federal income tax.
Though he tried his best to carry on Roosevelt’s legacy, he feel short. And when he neared the end of his first term in 1912, Roosevelt choose to run against him out of frustration for not doing things the way he would have. He became angry at him and often spoke out against him. The final straw came when Taft fired one of Roosevelt’s friends over a conservation issue. The decision split the Republican Party and geared Roosevelt onto the path of creating his own party.
When Taft lost his re-election bid, coming in third behind Woodrow Wilson and Roosevelt, he wasn’t sad about it. He even was overheard saying, “I’m glad to be going–this is the lonesomest place in the world.”
You can thank Helen “Nellie” Taft for her husband becoming president. She was dead set on becoming First Lady and, he must have really loved her because he set his own ambitions aside for her.
Another thing we can thank Nellie for is the beautiful cherry blossoms surrounding the Tidal Basin in Washington, D.C. She and the wife to the Japanese Ambassador assisted in planting 3,020 cherry blossoms (okay, so they only planted the first two).
At the beginning of Taft’s term, she, unfortunately, suffered a stroke. It limited her function as First Lady but her sisters came to the rescue and helped wherever they could.
Nellie has a lot of firsts for a First Lady: she was the first First Lady to publish her memoirs; the first First Lady to own and drive a car; the first First Lady to smoke cigarettes; and she was the first First Lady to successfully lobby for safety standards in federal workplaces. She was also the first First Lady to ride in her husband’s inauguration parade.
Nellie was a huge protector of her husband’s reputation. After he won the 1912 Republican nomination, Nellie somehow got a front row seat to the Democrat’s nominating convention and stared down speaker after speaker who dared to make a negative remark about her husband.
The Tafts had three children: Robert, Helen, and Charles. Politics was important in their family. His son, Robert, was a successful senator and became known as “Mr. Republican.” The Tafts even had a grandson who went on to work for the Administrations of Ronald Reagan and George W. Bush.
“Presidents come and go, but the Supreme Court goes on forever.” -William Howard Taft
William Howard Taft and the Supreme Court
Taft once said, “I love judges, and I love courts. They are my ideals that typify on earth what we shall meet hereafter in heaven under a just God.”
When Taft promoted associate Supreme Court justice Edward D. White of Louisiana to chief justice in 1910, he confessed how jealous he was of White’s new position: “There is nothing I would have loved more than being chief justice of the United States,” he said. While he waited for his dream to happen, Taft accepted a position as professor of Constitutional Law at Yale. How would you like to have a former president teach you in college? Sign me up!
Taft finally got his chance at his dream job 10 years after his presidency ended. In 1921, President Warren Harding nominated him to fill the vacancy for the Chief Justice of the Supreme Court. He held the position for nine years before retiring. To Taft, it was pure bliss–the complete opposite of his time as president. He even said once, “In my present life, I don’t remember that I ever was president.”
Additionally, not only was Taft happier, but he was also better at his job and left a more lasting legacy in the Supreme Court. For one, he gave the Supreme Court a significant boost in power and prestige. Second, when he arrived at the Supreme Court, it had a five-year back up of cases. Taft lobbied hard to Congress to give the Supreme Court more power to control its own docket. Third, Taft also convinced Congress to fund the construction of the Supreme Court Building. Up until then, the Supreme Court had been meeting in small and stuffy chambers inside the U.S. Capitol Building (which you can still see if you take a tour of the U.S. Capitol). He didn’t live to see its completion in 1935, but his legacy there lives on.
Other Supreme Court Justices rave about what he did for the court. Former Justice Sandra Day O’Connor, for example, made sure the public knew that 84 percent of the Taft court’s opinions were unanimous. Compared to today’s court, what he did was incredible. She said it was a reflection of his attempts to draft opinions that kept the court united. Taft would probably be disgusted with how political the Supreme Court has become in our day and age. He once said “Most dissents are a form of egotism. They don’t do any good, and only weaken the prestige of the court.”
In his nine years of service, Taft wrote nearly 250 opinions, dissented only 20 times–four of those written.
Also, as Chief Justice, Taft is the only former president to swear in a new president. He administered the oath of office to both presidents Calvin Coolidge and Herbert Hoover.
William Howard Taft’s Weight Battle
Taft, well known for being our only obese president, struggled with his weight for years. Not only did he struggle internally, but he faced massive criticism from the public… humiliating cartoons depicting his weight, leaked stories about how he got stuck in the White House bathtub, and what must have been huge pressure on many fronts for him to lose that weight. What’s less known about Taft is that his efforts to lose weight were surprisingly ahead of his time. For example, he avoided snacks, ate low-calorie/low fat foods, kept a food diary, a weight log, and even had a personal trainer.
It’s not known when exactly Taft’s weight issues began, but it’s well documented that he spent at least the last 25 years of his life corresponding with a doctor about it. Like many who struggle with obesity, Taft’s weight often fluctuated anywhere from 255 pounds to over 350, which is what he weighed during his presidency (at likely one of the most miserable times of his life). The doctor advised him to weigh his meats, eat lots of vegetables, plain salad and unsweetened fruits. He even came up with his own “diet biscuits” made in London that Taft purchased and had shipped to him. Although he was able to lose weight throughout his life, he was never able to keep it off. As soon as the weight went down, he complained of feelings of starvation and would always rebound back to where he started.
At the time of his death, he was 280 pounds. You can read more about his weight issues and “modern” diet in a great article the New York Times did a few years back.
Why Taft Is Cool
Dreams really do come true. Taft didn’t dream of being president–it was more his family’s dream for him than anything else. He pushed forward and 10 years after being president, landed his dream job of Chief Justice on the Supreme Court. He is the first and only president to also sit on the Supreme Court.
He’s said to have “the most infectious chuckle in the history of politics.” He was so good-natured that he had no problems joking about his 300 pound self. Although he obviously had internal struggles about his ambitions and about his weight, he kept a good attitude and was a major success. He didn’t let stereotypes or judgments about his weight stop him.
During Taft’s life he did a lot to please others, usually putting his own ambitions aside. Though it eventually worked out in his favor when he was nominated to serve his dream job, it easily could have gone differently. Talk with your kids about how he went about his career. What do they think? Is it more important to do what others want you to do or to follow your own path and dreams?
Also, Taft started the tradition of a president throwing out the first ball of the MLB season. Look some of them up on youtube and see how many presidents your kids can recognize.
Sources: My main source in understanding the characteristics and ambitions of William Howard Taft came from the Washington Post’s Presidential Podcast.
I’ve mentioned it before, but I have this really awesome book I love that I bought in the Mount Rushmore gift shop. It’s a small, easy to read book aptly titled The Presidents of the United States of America. Find it here. It probably has the most thorough, in-depth summary of each president all neatly packaged into a single page for each. I love it!
Also, like I’ve mentioned before, the History Channel has an amazing documentary on the lives of each of our presidents. I’ve been watching it every single week. It is seriously fascinating. You can find it here. It’s a great watch for younger kids and especially any older kids who are learning about our American history. They also have a more condensed and less expensive version that you can find here. Both versions are great because they both have different information about each president.
Other sources are linked throughout.
*Sources may contain affiliate links.
Former White House and Capitol Hill staffer, wife, and mom.