William Howard Heft (1909-1913)

William Howard Taft was so fat that he fell asleep everywhere — at important meetings, state funerals, even White House dinners as he was in the middle of feeding his face. He did not get stuck in the White House bathtub, but sweet Jesus, I’m not surprised people believe that urban legend. Taft clocked in at 332 pounds at the time of his inauguration, and reached 350 pounds toward the end of his presidency. But his heft was surely for the better. It kept him lethargic and far more restrained than his predecessor Teddy Roosevelt.

Taft was elected largely to carry out Roosevelt’s programs, and while he did continue on in some ways that were detrimental, he wasn’t nearly as aggressive in foreign policy. And though he prosecuted anti-trust lawsuits like Roosevelt, his lawsuits were at least grounded in legality (and not capricious views about “a greater good”). Taft was in fact a vast improvement over Roosevelt, for whom the Constitution was anathema.

1. Peace (Foreign Policy)

Taft intervened unnecessarily in Cuba, Nicaragua, and the Dominican Republic, using “dollar diplomacy” to champion business overseas. This was better than the belligerent policy of his predecessor Teddy Roosevelt, and especially his successor Woodrow Wilson. Roosevelt and Wilson sent military troops into neighboring countries “for their own good” — i.e. to keep them from being invaded by European countries, even though most of the time that was an absurdly phantom menace. Taft’s policy was more benign, relying on money as a way of promoting American interests abroad. But it still wasn’t good: it burdened the U.S. to protect its investments abroad, and entangled the nation in worldly affairs it would have better to stay out of. Moreover, the dollar policy utterly failed. It failed to create new allies or open up new markets for American industries, and set a bad precedent for future administrations to imitate.

2. Prosperity (Domestic Policy)

Taft’s voice of reason allowed the country to recover from the Panic of 1907. Where Teddy Roosevelt scared the business community into panics and recessions — with scathing diatribes on wealthy capitalists (in 1903 and 1907) — Taft had no use for obnoxious bombast. Still, he did some harm by his own initiatives, in (a) reinstating the income tax and (b) approving high tariffs. When he did follow Roosevelt’s playbook, in (c) antitrust suits and (d) land conservation, he at least did things fairly and legally.

Income tax and tariffs

The Sixteenth Amendment legalized the federal income tax. The tax was first introduced by Lincoln to help finance the Civil War, and then was abolished under Grant. Then it was reinstated by Grover Cleveland but found to be unconstitutional. An income tax is pernicious for two reasons: (1) it punishes success, and (2) it’s an assault on privacy, requiring citizens to allow the federal government to investigate their entire financial history. One doesn’t have to be a libertarian to believe that such a tax violates the Fourth Amendment’s restrictions against unreasonable searches and seizures without just cause. The IRS has a license to audit anyone at any time. While Lincoln gets the heaviest penalty for the income tax (he’s the one who established the precedent for it), Taft gets a good measure of the blame for getting it established with permanence.

To his credit, Taft asked for reduced tariffs, but Congress sent back a law (the Payne-Aldrich Act) that increased tariffs, and Taft went ahead and signed it. So American citizens got the worst of both worlds: new taxes and high protectionist tariffs.

Antitrust initiatives and conservation

On the one hand, Taft outdid Roosevelt, by doubling the number of antitrust lawsuits against businesses in his single term as Roosevelt did across two terms. However, Taft’s antitrust policy was at least fair and grounded in the rule of law, completely unlike Teddy’s capricious and arbitrary policy of prosecuting certain trusts while leaving others alone.

Matching Roosevelt, Taft set aside about as many acres of land for conservation as Roosevelt had. This is a good policy to begin with, and Taft did it straight up. He didn’t sneak around Congress using arrogant executive orders like Teddy. He obtained Congress’s approval for the land.

3. Liberty

Aside from establishing the Income Tax which violates privacy, Taft made no assaults on American liberty. In fact he made some very good moves on citizen rights. Most notably, he got the Publicity Act (1910) — also known as the Federal Corrupt Practices Act — passed, which allowed the public to examine records of donors to campaigns for public candidates to the House of Representatives. This helped fight corruption and backroom dealing.

Conclusion

On whole Taft wasn’t a bad president, though he was born to be a chief justice rather than a chief executive. Warren Harding appointed him chief justice in 1921, and Taft ended up leading the Supreme Court through one of its best eras in the Roaring Twenties. As a president before that, he was for the most part middle-of-the-road. The policies that he did continue from his bad predecessor were diminished, toned down, and made subordinate to the Constitution rather than vice-versa. This is his report card:

Peace — 10/20
Prosperity — 12/20
Liberty — 14/20

TOTAL SCORE = 36/60 = Average

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