Tuesday, August 08, 2006

William Howard Taft--A Reconsideration

Yesterday, I visited the William Howard Taft National Historic Site in Cincinnati. Taft is one of our least discussed presidents. He gets mentioned as a the man who filled the gap between two far more charismatic figures, Theodore Roosevelt and Woodrow Wilson. He is known primarily for his extraordinary girth. If there is any other semi-common knowledge about Taft, it's that he was a man who was slow in reform and had his 1912 presidential reelection campaign destroyed by the Progressive Party of Theodore Roosevelt.

But Taft deserves more respect than this. Taft was not a great man or a great president. But his actions do not differ significantly from Theodore Roosevelt, often considered one of our greatest leaders. A brief summary of Taft's achievements as president:

1. He proposed income taxes on the rich, laying the groundwork for the passage of the 16th Amendment to the Constitution, necessary because extremely conservative Supreme Court justices appointed during the Gilded Age ruled income taxes unconstitutional. The 16th Amendment became law in 1913.

2. He issued 75 lawsuits against trusts, expanding the trustbusting capacity of the presidency and exceeding in effectiveness the trustbusting of his media-hungry predecessor Theodore Roosevelt.

3. He expanded upon Roosevelt's environmental policy, withdrawing hundreds of thousands of acres from the public domain and expanding the national forest and national park system.

This is not an amazing record. But it is a record that compares favorably with Roosevelt and Wilson. Even Taft's negatives do not significantly differentiate him from TR and Wilson. His foreign policy toward Latin America was bad and included the US seizure of several Nicaraguan ports, but neither TR nor Wilson ever shied away from invading Latin America at the slightest whim. He wasn't a true progressive at heart and certainly closer to conservative business interests than Roosevelt or Wilson, but his respect for the law (he later became Chief Justice) led him to follow that law to the strictest measure, thus prosecuting trusts both at a higher rate and under more consistent standards than Roosevelt. His policies on race were bad, but certainly no worse than Roosevelt (who among other things openly castigated American women for committing race suicide) or Wilson (who praised Birth of a Nation as the true telling of history). Taft was also the US head in the Philippines during the early years of the occupation there. There is no excuse for the horrid behavior of American troops in that conflict, nor for the fact that the US was even there. There's no excuse for Taft's actions either. A principled stand against what the US was doing there would have been nice but ultimately probably wouldn't have meant very much except to destroy Taft's standing in the Republican Party.

I think the real reason that Taft is forgotten is that he was a horrible politician. He managed to alienate every side of the Republican Party and while he managed to hold on to the 1912 nomination, he came in a distant third in the general election. He never wanted to be a politician but an ambitious wife and Roosevelt's belief that he could control Taft kept him rising to the point of the presidency. He didn't understand the emerging mass media and could not compete for public affection with men such as Roosevelt and Wilson.

I'll fully admit that part of my attempt to rehabilitate Taft is my personal disdain for the megalomanical Theodore Roosevelt. Any deep examination of Roosevelt shows him to hold extreme racist views (he was a good friend of Madison Grant for instance) and ideas about gender that were retrograde even for a man of his time. He was a staunch imperialist and presided over the crushing of the Philippine opposition for independence as well as separating Panama from Colombia solely so the US could acquire the Panama Canal Zone. Roosevelt gets a lot of cred for his conservationist actions but even these were underpinned by his deep held belief that the Anglo-Saxon race needed wilderness and hunting to avoid collapse in the urban, diverse society of modern America. We remember TR because he was crazy--the man gave a speech from the back of a train after he was shot and he nearly died after his presidency exploring unexplored South American rivers--and his craziness caught the American imagination at the beginning of the period of mass media.

I feel little more sympathy for the openly racist and generally loathsome character of Woodrow Wilson. Combining the worst of southern segregationist racial ideas and Protestant self-righteousness, Wilson had to be openly shamed into supporting women's suffrage, was the worst president on racial issues since Andrew Johnson, and alienated the world's leadership at the Versailles Conference after World War I without even having the support of the American public for anything he was doing over there.

So all in all, I'm saying that William Howard Taft was probably as good a president as Roosevelt or Wilson. Certainly his accomplishments are comparable. None of these men are good examples for modern liberals to follow but all, even Wilson, did some good things as they got caught up in the spirit of Progressivism. Recently modern progressives have begun aggressively reinterpreting American history, with a serious attempt to rehabilitate the presidency of Ulysses Grant for instance as well as vigorously attacking the myth of the noble Confederacy. While I mostly disagree with the reassessment of Grant I fully support how folks are looking back to the past and making new judgments. While to say Taft was flawed is an understatement, it's useful for us to consider his accomplishments, especially in relation to other powerful politicians of the day and I hope this little essay helps begin that process.