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Portrait of William Howard Taft
Portrait of William Howard Taft.
Reproduction courtesy of the Supreme Court Historical Society.

William Howard Taft

b. September 15, 1857, Cincinnati, OH
d. March 8, 1930, Washington, D.C.

U.S. President

Tenth Chief Justice of the Supreme Court

The son of Alphonso Taft, an eminent lawyer who had been President Grant's secretary of war and attorney general, William Howard Taft attended public high school in Cincinnati and then went to Yale College, graduating in 1878. He was a member of Skull and Bones, the secret society his father had cofounded in 1832. He studied law at Cincinnati Law School, got his degree in 1880, and began practicing in that city.

Ambitious and politically well-connected, Taft immediately won appointment as assistant prosecutor of Hamilton Country, Ohio (1881-1883), and rose to the position of assistant county solicitor (1885-1887). In 1887 he was appointed to the Ohio Superior Court. Two years later he decided he wanted to be on the U.S. Supreme Court, and he urged his connections to persuade President Benjamin Harrison to appoint him. Instead, he was given the position of Solicitor General of the United States in 1890 and two years later was appointed to the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Sixth Circuit where he remained until 1900.

Although smart and organized, Taft was not known for his intellect or imagination. Genial and kind, he waged a lifelong struggle with obesity and often weighed more than 300 pounds. When the Philippines were ceded by Spain to the United States after the Spanish-American War, Taft was made part of the commission sent to administer the new colony. He stayed in the Philippines for four years and became Governor General of the islands. He twice declined appointments to the Supreme Court between 1901 and 1904. President Theodore Roosevelt made Taft his Secretary of War in 1904 and supported him in his bid for the presidency of the United States in 1908. Taft was elected president and went on to serve a single term marked by numerous political missteps. In his four years in office, however, Taft made six appointments to the Supreme Court, more in a single term than any president before him other than George Washington. His primary criteria for selecting justices were that they have personal integrity and an affinity for hard work as well as "sound" social views (i.e., those of the upper classes).

Defeated in the election of 1912, Taft taught law at Yale until President Warren Harding appointed him Chief Justice of the Supreme Court in 1921. Taft worked to eliminate the backlog of court cases, and he encouraged legislation that allowed the Court to select the cases it heard. He set a cordial and congenial tone, but his most important impact was in the selection of justices. He actively advised President Harding on his appointments and helped put on the Court a group of conservative, undistinguished jurists with antiquated views. Taft retired from the Court on February 3, 1930, due to ill health, and he died the next month. The Great Depression was just beginning to take its toll, and the conservatives brought to the Court by Taft would soon oppose at every turn the policies of the New Deal under President Franklin Delano Roosevelt.

John Fox, a writer and documentary film producer, was series producer of the Emmy-winning PBS series HERITAGE: CIVILIZATION AND THE JEWS. Editor-in-chief of the award-winning HERITAGE DVD-ROM, he supervised the creation of its 540-map interactive atlas of world history. He is currently writing a book about the growth of communal intelligence over the centuries.

Charles Evans Hughes James McReynolds Louis Brandeis William Howard Taft George Sutherland Harlan Fiske Stone view all biographies Stephen Field Oliver Wendell Holmes