Men of Mark in America/Volume 1/William H. Taft

WILLIAM HOWARD TAFT


TAFT, WILLIAM HOWARD, LL.D., United States secretary of war, is a man of character and achievement, and a worthy example for imitation by the young. In youth, and especially during his college days, he laid broad and deep the foundation upon which he has built with remarkable success. The keynote of his life may be stated in one word, fidelity. Wherever he has been, whatever the position he has held, he has always placed principle before preference, and devotion to duty before either pleasure or gain. However exalted the stations he has filled it is unquestionably true that his influence has been due in much larger measure to his personal character than to his official position.

He was born at Cincinnati, Ohio, September 15, 1857. His parents were Alphonso and Louise M. (Torrey) Taft, His father was a lawyer whose high attainments and character had secured him a large and profitable practice. He was a man of strong purpose, and in a remarkable degree had the power of concentrating his energies upon the work in hand. Liberality and kindness of disposition were among his marked characteristics, and he took a broad view of men and events. For six years he was judge of the Superior Court in Cincinnati. Although he found his chief pleasure in the development of his own intellectual life and the practice of his profession, yet he held it to be the duty of every American to set aside personal preferences and, when needed, to give his services to his country in public life. He was secretary of war 1875-76, attorney-general 1876-77, and United States minister to Austria 1883-85, and to Russia 1885-87.

Mr. Taft's earliest known ancestor in this country on his father's side was Robert Taft, who landed at Weymouth, Massachusetts, in 1679, and settled at Mendon. One of his descendants, Edward Rawson Taft, was secretary of the Commonwealth of Massachusetts. The ancestors of the mother of Mr. Taft came over at a still earlier date than those of his father. William Torrey, a representative of her family, held the office of clerk of the General Court of Massachusetts—the state legislature.

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William Howard Taft was graduated from the Woodward high school at Cincinnati in 1874 and from Yale college in 1878. Although strong and fearless he was not prominent in athletic sports and games during his college career, but when he took part in them he proved a formidable antagonist. His college work was done with systematic faithfulness. He won the second place in a class of one hundred and twenty members, and was class orator at graduation.

After completing his studies at Yale he entered the Cincinnati law school, from which he was graduated with high honors in 1880. Admitted to the bar of the Supreme Court of Ohio in the same year he became connected with the law firm of Taft and Lloyd, of which his father was the senior partner, and also reported court proceedings, first for the Cincinnati "Times," and afterwards for the Cincinnati "Commercial." As a law reporter his work was noticeably good. One of the leading editors in the West, impressed by the character of Mr, Taft's work in reporting, recommended journalism as a profession; but fortunately for the country as well as for himself his inclinations held him to the practice of law. In January, 1881, he became assistant prosecuting attorney, but he resigned in March of the following year to take the office of collector of internal revenue for the first Ohio district, to which he had been appointed by President Arthur. A year later he resigned and resumed the practice of law. From January, 1885, he was assistant county solicitor for Hamilton county until March, 1887, when he was appointed, by Governor Foraker, Judge of the Superior Court of Cincinnati. At the expiration of the term, in April, 1888, he was elected to this office for five years, but in February, 1890, he resigned to become, by appointment of President Harrison, solicitor-general of the United States. While holding this position he represented the Government before the Supreme Court of the United States in several most important cases, including the Bering Sea controversy, and he was uniformly successful. In March, 1892, he resigned in order to accept the position of United States Circuit Judge for the sixth judicial circuit. While acceptance of the position last named was under consideration a prominent legal friend advised that it be declined. This advice was based on the ground that the remarkable success of Mr. Taft, especially with the cases which he had argued before the United States Supreme court, would enable him to earn in private practice probably six times the six thousand dollars per year which he would receive as judge. To this Mr. Taft replied, "There are bigger things in this world than money." The reply reveals the standard of the man who made it. In 1896 Mr. Taft became dean of the law department of the University of Cincinnati, but in March, 1900, he resigned this position, and his office as Judge of the Circuit Court, to accept the appointment of President of the United States Philippine Commission urged upon him by President McKinley. As a judge Mr. Taft had proved remarkably efficient in the transaction of business. His impartial consideration of all cases which came before him, his candid consideration of claims which were made against powerful money interests, his kindly treatment of young lawyers who, with little experience to aid them, appeared in his court, gave him the respect and confidence of the bar and of the pubhc. His personal preferences were strongly for continuing in his office as judge, and his professional ambition pointed in the same direction. But affairs in the Philippines were in a serious condition, and believing that he could serve his country better there than at home, he sailed for the islands, and with characteristic earnestness and energy entered upon the extremely difficult task of planning and founding a form of government which should be adapted to the needs of the islanders.

On July 4, 1901, he became the first Civil Governor of the Philippines. In the following November ill health compelled him temporarily to turn over the duties of his office to Vice-Governor Wright. In December, 1901, by command of the secretary of war, he came to Washington to testify before committees of the senate and the house committee on Insular Affairs regarding conditions in the Philippines. At the close of this hearing, in which Governor Taft gave testimony almost daily for six weeks, he was ordered to Rome, Italy, by President Roosevelt and Secretary Root, to consult with Pope Leo XIII. concerning the purchase by the United States of certain agricultural lands in the Philippines which were occupied by religious orders. On May 17, 1902, he sailed for Rome. After prolonged conferences with the committee of cardinals named for the purpose a satisfactory basis of agreement was reached, and on July 10 Governor Taft sailed from Naples to the Philippines. He reached his destination on August 22, and at once resumed the duties of his office.

In September, 1902, President Roosevelt cabled Governor Taft asking him to accept a position on the Supreme Court bench, to succeed Justice Shiras. Governor Taft declined because of the peculiar condition of affairs in the Philippines. President Roosevelt acquiesced at that time, but in January, 1903, he cabled again, insisting that he could not again permit a declination. But a great meeting was held by the leading Filipinos to protest against Governor Taft's resigning the governorship, and he declined a second time an appointment to the highest position in his profession of the law.

His administration of affairs in the Philippines continued until December 23, 1903, when he sailed for the United States, and on February 1, 1904, he succeeded Mr. Root as secretary of war. On April 30, of the same year, he was the official representative of President Roosevelt at the elaborate ceremonies of the opening of the Louisiana Purchase exposition at St. Louis.

During four years of his close connection with affairs in the Philippines, Governor Taft secured remarkable results. He soon gained the confidence of the natives, and later he accomplished the extremely difficult task of convincing them that our home Government really and earnestly desired their welfare. In the establishment of a suitable form of government he planned wisely, and throughout his official course he administered affairs judiciously. He gave to the people his very best efforts. The vast improvement in their condition, the safety of life and property, the establishment of courts and schools, the building of roads, the improved sanitary conditions and financial affairs of the island, are most convincing evidence of his skill and efficiency. Here as elsewhere he put character into his work. He was faithful to the trust reposed in him.

While very hopeful as to the future of the Philippines, Secretary Taft holds that it is now too early for our Government to make definite promises regarding their independence. He holds that the natives should be taught that "liberty is a God-given boon to those who seek it and deserve it, and that only experience and effort can prepare a people to enjoy it." But he has no doubt that our Government will treat the natives of the islands with the highest degree of fairness and consideration. In a recent address he said: "I have an abiding confidence in the power of the American people to reach a right conclusion and put it into effect against the selfish purposes of special interests. It takes time, but the people always win in the end." Although already a man of large achievement, not wanting in personal dignity, Secretary Taft is a truly modest man, and is more easily approached by "the common people" than are most men in high official station. He dislikes needless ceremony, and is averse to military display in his honor.

In childhood and youth he had the best of health. He was unusually large and strong, weighing one hundred and eighty-five pounds when he was but sixteen years old. Most of his boyhood was passed in the city of his birth, but for several years he spent the summer, once in two years, at the home of his maternal grandfather in Millbury, Massachusetts. His tastes and interests were those of the average American boy. He had no special difficulties to encounter in acquiring an education. His father regarded an education and the spirit of unselfish pubHc service as far more desirable than the acquisition of wealth, and instead of attempting to amass a fortune for his children he sent his five sons to Yale college, at which institution he himself had been graduated. His first strong inclination to strive for distinction Secretary Taft traces to a desire to please his parents. The influence which has been most potent in his efforts to win success he names as that of the home. Home standards have been the controlling power in his life. He says: "Home first. My father created a quasi-pubhc opinion of the family that was controlling with all its members." What was the "pubhc opinion" created in the family by such a father, the life of the son and of the father himself well exemplify. " Every son of America owes a duty to his country." Close after home influence in its effect upon his life Mr. Taft puts the stimulus of his college course. "Then the spirit of Yale, which was strong because my father and my four brothers and I were all graduates." In his reading he has found historical works, particularly those relating to America and England, of the greatest practical value.

Mr. Taft was married June 19, 1886, to Helen Herron, They have had three children, all of whom are now living. He received the degree of LL.D. from Yale college in 1893, and from the University of Pennsylvania in 1902. He is a member of the Queen City club, of Cincinnati, of the Cosmos and the University clubs of Washington, and of the University club of Manila. He has not given special attention to athletics or to systematic physical culture. His principal relaxations are found in golf, walking, and horseback riding. Since his entrance upon public life he has always been connected with the Republican party. His religious affiliations are with the Unitarian denomination.

For the purpose of aiding young people who may read this biography, Secretary Taft expresses regret that he has neglected the study of modern languages, and emphasizes the fact that in the enlargement of our national life, the extension of our territorial area, and the increasing closeness of our relations with other peoples, a knowledge of French, German and Spanish is becoming absolutely essential to a liberal education and to the highest usefulness. He utters a clear warning against undue absorption in mere money making as the object of effort. He holds that the pursuit of riches for their own sake is not to be commended, and that the father who accumulates millions thereby does much to endanger the welfare of his children. His views regarding patriotism are equally decided. In his opinion every man is in duty bound to serve his country to the best of his ability and in the direction in which he can do most for the public good. The man who refuses to accept the responsibilities and neglects to perform the duties of citizenship has no right to criticize the motives or actions of the men who are conducting public affairs.