William Taft was born on September 15, 1857 in Cincinnati, Ohio. His father was a lawyer and when Taft was born helped found the Republican Party in Cincinnati. William Taft was raised in a large, close, and stimulating family. He had five siblings, two half brothers by his father's first marriage and two brothers and a sister born to his mother. Taft attended a public school in Cincinnati. William Howard Taft was a physically active child, playing sports and taking dancing lessons despite his tendency to obesity. He loved baseball, and he was a good second baseman and a power hitter. He then went to Woodward High School before attending Yale University in 1874. At Yale University, Taft followed his father's advice to refrain from athletics lest his participation impede his academic progress. He graduated second in his class of 132 students and then went on to the University of Cincinnati Law School while working part time as a courthouse reporter for the Cincinnati Commercial. Taft passed his bar exams in May 1880.
William Taft married Helen "Nellie" Herron at her parents' home in Cincinnati on June 19, 1886. He was twenty-eight and she was twenty-five. Nellie equaled Taft's mother in intellect and energy. She accepted Taft's proposal for marriage in part because she saw him as a partner to fulfill her hope of a life in national politics, and beyond that of parochial Cincinnati. Her father, a one-time law partner of Rutherford B. Hayes, had taken Nellie to the White House for President and Mrs. Hayes's twenty-fifth wedding anniversary. Young Nellie was so captivated that she vowed to one day be First Lady. In 1911, she would celebrate her own silver wedding anniversary at the White House, filling the mansion with nearly 4,000 guests.William Taft became assistant prosecutor of Hamilton County, Ohio, in 1881. Thereafter, he worked as a lawyer for a few years before being appointed judge of the Cincinnati Superior Court in 1887. From an early point in his career, he aspired to a seat on the U.S. Supreme Court. He was appointed U.S. solicitor general in 1890 (the third highest position in the Department of Justice). While living in Washington, D.C., as solicitor general, Taft became close to Theodore Roosevelt, then a civil service commissioner.
In 1892 Taft accepted appointment as a judge of the Sixth U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals with jurisdiction over Ohio, Michigan, Kentucky, and Tennessee. While on that court, Taft also served, from 1896 to 1900, as a professor of law and dean of the University of Cincinnati Law School.
William Taft was Commissioner and then Governor-General
Philippines from 1900 to 1904. Sympathetic toward
the Filipinos, he improved the economy, built roads and
schools, and gave the people at least some participation
in government. He then was Secretary of War under
President Roosevelt. During his four years as
secretary of war (1904-1908), Taft became Roosevelt's
chief agent, confidant, and troubleshooter in foreign
affairs. He supervised the construction of the Panama
Canal, made several voyages around the world for the
President, supervised affairs in the Philippines, and
functioned as the provisional governor of Cuba. He
traveled more than any other cabinet minister, with over
255 days of his four years spent abroad on special
missions. William Howard Taft was
most trusted advisor. Whenever a situation became too
difficult for lesser men to handle, it was Taft who was
sent to "sit on the lid."
In 1907 President Roosevelt decided that Taft
should be his successor. The Republican Convention
nominated him the next year.
His campaign, once it started, depended heavily upon Roosevelt for speechmaking, advice, and energy. Journalists bombarded the public with jokes about Taft being a substitute for Roosevelt. One columnist explained that T.A.F.T. stood for "Take Advice From Theodore." Nothing could hide Taft's dislike for campaigning and politics. His handlers tried to turn his sluggish style into a positive asset by describing Taft as a new kind of politician—one who refuses to say anything negative about his opponent. For most voters it was enough, however, that Taft had pledged to carry on Roosevelt's policies. His victory was overwhelming. He carried all but three states outside the Democratic Solid South and won 321 electoral votes to Bryan's 162. The heaviest president at 332 pounds, Taft struggled all his adult life with a weight problem. He got stuck in the White House bathtub and had to have an oversized version brought in for his use.
Taft's disposition was more prone to judicious administration than presidential activism. Though he came to the White House promising to continue Roosevelt's agenda, he was more comfortable executing the existing law than demanding new legislation from Congress. His first effort as President was to lead Congress to lower tariffs, but traditional high tariff interests dominated Congress, and Taft largely failed in his effort at legislative leadership. He also alienated Roosevelt when he attempted to break up U.S. Steel, a trust that Roosevelt had approved while President. Taft also forced Roosevelt's forestry chief to resign, jeopardizing Roosevelt's gains in the conservation of natural resources. By 1911, Taft was less active in "trust-busting," and generally seemed more conservative. In foreign affairs, Taft continued Roosevelt's goal of expanding U.S. foreign trade in South and Central America, as well as in Asia, and he termed his policy "dollar diplomacy."
In the angry Progressive onslaught against him, little attention was paid to the fact that his administration initiated 80 antitrust suits and that Congress submitted to the states amendments for a Federal income tax and the direct election of Senators. A postal savings system was established, and the Interstate Commerce Commission was directed to set railroad rates.
In 1912, when the Republicans re-nominated Taft, Roosevelt bolted the party to lead the Progressives, thus guaranteeing the election of Woodrow Wilson.
Taft, free of the Presidency, served as Professor of Law at Yale until President Harding made him Chief Justice of the United States, a position he held until just before his death in 1930. To Taft, the appointment was his greatest honor; he wrote: "I don't remember that I ever was President."