William Howard Taft 27th President, 1909-1913

Birthplace & Boyhood Home, Cincinnati, Ohio
Born in the Mount Auburn section of Cincinnati, Ohio, on September 15, 1857, William Howard Taft was an obese child who never let his weight get in the way of sports or an active life. He loved baseball, and he was a good second baseman and a power hitter. Taft took dancing lessons twice a week as a young boy in grade school, and he studied college curriculum courses at Woodward High School. He graduated second in the class of 1874 with a four-year grade point average of 91.5 out of 100.

In 1902 Louise Taft reminded her son, then Governor of the Philippines, of his late father’s role in his career. “You owe so much to his influence that you might be thought a striking exemplification of the influence of heredity, and the environment which surrounded you in living in the same atmosphere, and breathing the same air, an inspiration to do everything that was good.” Louise and Alphonso Taft raised their six children in the family tradition of hard work, fair play and public service. They lived these principles themselves. Steeped in lofty ideals, dutiful Will Taft set a course that took him from his Cincinnati home to the nation’s highest ranks.

Cincinnati was a busy river port – the Queen city of the Ohio Valley – when Alphonso Taft arrived from Vermont in1838. Business was good for the ambitious young attorney, who built a practice and made his place in town society. Soon he could afford to escape the crowding, the summer heat, and coal dust of the lower city. In 1851 he moved with his wife, the former Fanny Phelps of his Vermont hometown, young children and parents to a 10 year old house and two acres a mile or so out of town in Mount Auburn. Their fashionable suburban neighborhood according to Grandpa Taft was a beautiful, high, airy place.” The two story brick house was of popular Greek Revial design – square, symmetrical, with decorative trim and a small porch. The backyard fell toward the river far below. Alphonsos first order of business was to modernize the plumbing and put a large addition in the rear to accommodate his growing family.

After Fanny died in1852, Alphonso married Massachusetts school teacher Louise Torrey an affectionate stepmother to Alphoso’s two sons. Louise later gave birth to four healthy children, including William on September 15, 1857. He was “well and hearty a most charming baby as you would wish to see,” she wrote her mother of the five-month-old, “Willie laughs and plays constantly.” To his hired nurse he was “the beautifullest boy” she had ever seen. As a child he was outgoing and good natured, traits he carried into adulthood. Encouraged by his parents, Will earned high marks throughout his school years. “All play and no work makes Jack a mere toy,” his father might threaten, but Will escaped his books to play, ride the family’s pet pony, sled down Sycamore Hill in the winter, wrestle or tear through the house with his younger brothers.

I am more and more impressed with the responsibility of training children properly,” Louise wrote her mother in 1860. “It is what we are, not what we do in reference to them, which will make its impression on their lives.” In setting an example the parents could not have been more diligent. The Taft house was a whirl of activity. Their roomy parlor might be a setting for a Christmas sing-along a game of whist, or a discussion of anti-slavery legislation and women’s suffrage with visiting celebrities. Civil war hero and future President James Garfield once accompanied friends to dinner at the Taft home. Rugs rolled up and furniture pushed aside, the parlor was a makeshift dancehall. Louise surprised Will on his 21st birthday with a gathering of friends for lively music and ice cream. Quiet evenings were spent in the library; Alphonso finished up the day’s business, Louise usually had sewing to do, and the children read or brooded over the chess table. Book collector Alphonso was a founding member of the city’s literary society. Family discussions and letters were full of references to Dickens, Darwin, and other bestsellers of the day. Alphonso also maintained an “observatory” – a telescope set up in the widow’s walk – and was known to wake his family for late-night sightings of astronomical marvels.

Scarcely a civic or cultural organization in town could not claim the participation of one or more of the Tafts. Alphonso’s tireless work for the Republican party paid off in political appointments which, while they brought him increasing social prominence, led to his departure from Cincinnati. In 1865 he gave up a well paying law practice for a city judgeship. President Ulysses S. Grant summoned Taft to Washington, first as his secretary of war then as attorney general. In the 1880′s Taft served as minister to Austria-Hungary and later Russia. Much to Louise’s delight, the couple lived abroad for four years and indulged their love of travel. The Auburn Avenue house was intermittently rented out when not occupied by the grown children.

By 1889 the Tafts had left Auburn Avenue for good. Alphonso and Louise retired to California, where the climate was better for Alphonso’s health. Will completed his education and began a law career of his own. In 1886 he married Helen Herron, “Nellie,”and built a house on McMillian Street. The other Taft children were also out on their own. Alphonso died in San Diego in May 1891 and, as he desired, was buried in Cincinnati. Tenants were kind enough to allow the family and friends one last gathering in the parlor of their old home for the funeral.

The Tafts sold the house in 1899. It underwent modifications with each successive owner, the last having divided the deteriorating building into apartments. The movement to save the house from demolition began in 1938 with the establishment of the William Howard Taft association. In 1969 the Federal Government designated the Taft house a national historic site, honoring the life and work of the only person to hold the offices of President and Chief Justice of the United States.

The house that Taft was born has been restored to its original appearance. A visit to the site includes a tour of the restored birthplace and four period rooms that reflect the family life during Taft’s boyhood. The home also includes second floor exhibits highlighting Taft’s life and career. The Taft Education Center, located adjacent to the Birthplace, houses an orientation video, exhibits on later generations of the Taft family, and classrooms for visiting schools. The signature exhibit of the center is an animatronic figure of the President’s Son, Charlie Taft. Charlie tells stories about different family members.

Home, The Quarry, Cincinnati, Ohio
On June 19, 1886, William Howard Taft married Helen “Nellie” Herron, daughter of a law partner of former President Rutherford B. Hayes, after a long courtship. They had three children. The eldest son, Robert Alphonso Taft, became a U.S. Senator from Ohio and General Dwight Eisenhower’s principal opponent for the 1952 Republican nomination for president. Next was a daughter, Helen, who excelled in educational pursuits, and their youngest child, Charles Phelps Taft II, later became mayor of Cincinnati. The William Howard Taft family established a home of their own at 1763 McMillan Street in Cincinnati. Mrs. Nellie Taft’s father gave them the lot and Mr. Taft drew on $2500 of savings and financing from his own father to meet the $6000 cost of this three-story home, located not far from Mr. Taft’s birthplace. They called their home “The Quarry.” In the 1890s the Tafts rented and eventually sold this home and it remains a private residence.

Home, Washington, DC
In 1920, former President William Howard Taft supported his fellow Ohioan, Senator Warren G. Harding, for President. Senator Harding had delivered Taft’s nominating speech at the 1912 Republican Convention. Harding’s victory in 1920 was extremely pleasing to Taft because it meant that his lifelong ambition of being appointed to the Supreme Court could become a reality. Shortly after President Harding’s inauguration, Chief Justice Edward B. White died and Harding nominated Taft to replace him. In 1921, Chief Justice and former President William Howard Taft and his wife, Nellie, sold their home in New Haven, Connecticut and purchased this house in Washington, DC from Congressman Alvin Fuller. The house is a Georgian Revival style structure built in 1904. Taft’s health forced his resignation from the Supreme Court in February 1930. He died in this house on March 8, 1930 and was buried in Arlington National Cemetery. The house is currently part of the United Arab Republic’s embassy complex.

Gravesite, Arlington National Cemetery, Arlington, Virginia

After leaving the White House, William Howard Taft taught at Yale University Law School until President Warren G. Harding (who had nominated Taft in 1912 at the Republican convention) appointed him chief justice of the United States. During the years between his appointment to the court and his presidency, Taft campaigned for Charles Evans Hughes for president in 1916, and served as co-chairman of the National Labor Board. He supported Wilson’s European foreign policy and U.S. participation in the League of Nations.

As chief justice, Taft wrote 253 opinions, or about one-sixth of all decisions handed down during his term, which lasted until his death in 1930. Most of his decisions were conservative and limiting in nature. In Truax v. Corrigan, for example, he struck down the provision of the Clayton Anti-Trust Act, which barred injunctions against labor picketing. He reasoned that even peaceful picketing may violate the Fourteenth Amendment in depriving business owners of their property without the due process of law. He also ruled against the right of Congress to discourage child labor by levying an excise tax on goods manufactured by children (Bailey v. Drexel Furniture Co.) His ruling in Myers v. United States invalidated tenure of office acts which limited the power of the president to remove subordinates, in this case postmasters; President Andrew Johnson’s violation of similar law, the Tenure of Office Act of 1867 led to his impeachment by the House of Representatives.

William Howard Taft, the only man in U.S. history to have been both President and Chief Justice, died on March 8, 1930 from complications of heart disease, high blood pressure, and inflammation of the bladder. His funeral was the first presidential funeral broadcast on radio. He was buried at Arlington National Cemetery. He was a large man, six-feet tall and weighing more than 300 pounds. He had retired from the Court on February 3, 1930, due to ill health. His wife, Helen Harron Taft, was responsible for the stone on their gravesite, Stoney Creek Granite, 14.5 feet tall, sculpted by James Earl Frazer, it is in the Greek Stele motif. Helen Harron Taft died at home in Washington, D.C. on May 22, 1943, at the age of 83. She was the first first-lady to be buried in Arlington. He and his wife are buried in a Special Gravesite in Section 30 of Arlington National Cemetery. He was the first of only two Presidents to be buried in Arlington. His grand-nephew, William M. Taft, a career United States Navy enlisted man, died in May 1998 and is also buried in Arlington National Cemetery.