William Howard Taft is the only man to serve as president and chief justice, who approached every decision in constitutional terms, defending the Founders' vision against new populist threats to American democracy. In his new book, William Howard Taft: The American Presidents Series: The 27th President, 1909-1913, Professor Jeffrey Rosen reveals Taft's crucial role in shaping how America balances populism against the rule of law. In a new Q&A below, Professor Rosen provided insight about his book, Taft's career, and what remains of Taft's legacy.
A Q&A with Professor Rosen
Former Presidents Bill Clinton, Ronald Reagan, and more have been featured in the American Presidents Series. What led you to write about William Howard Taft?
Sean Wilentz and Paul Golob, the editors of the American Presidents series, asked me to write about Taft as a homework assignment! I had been introduced to Taft in the course of writing a book about Justice Louis Brandeis and welcomed the opportunity to learn more.
What can you tell us about Taft's presidency and Supreme Court career?
William Howard Taft was our most judicial president and presidential chief justice. The only former federal judge to serve as president, and the only president to serve on the Supreme Court, he approached every decision as president in constitutional terms. Unlike Theodore Roosevelt, who insisted that the president could do anything the Constitution didn't forbid, Taft insisted the president could do only what the Constitution explicitly allowed. He tried to put Roosevelt's unilateral executive actions – involving the environment, tariff policy, antitrust, and foreign policy–on firm constitutional grounds by persuading Congress to endorse them. This led to a dramatic breach with Roosevelt, splitting the Republican Party and leading Taft to fight the election of 1912 as a defense of judicial independence and the Constitution against the populist vision of Roosevelt, whom Taft regarded as a demagogue. But after losing the election, and teaching constitutional law at Yale, Taft achieved his lifelong dream when President Harding appointed him Chief Justice in 1921. And Taft thrived on the Supreme Court, where he distinguished himself as one of the greatest Chiefs since John Marshall, building the Supreme Court building, and passing judiciary acts that gave the Supreme Court control over its own docket and establishing the federal judiciary as a modern, administratively efficient branch of government.
Taft became the only man in history to hold the highest post in both the executive and judicial branches of the U.S. government. "His appointment by President Harding as Chief Justice of the Supreme Court of the United States, an office which by both temperament and training he was better fitted to hold than that of President, came as a realization of a lifelong ambition, and was received with every manifestation of popular approval. It was a 'come-back' unprecedented in American political annals," The New York Times said in its official obituary. What are your thoughts on Taft, the president vs. Taft, the chief justice?
Taft was clearly more effective as a presidential Chief Justice than as a judicial president. As president, he insisted that he would not "play a part for popularity" and refused to lobby Congress or the people for his legislative agenda, because he believed the Constitution gave the president the power to recommend legislation but not to interfere with Congress's deliberations. In a sense Taft is the last president to embrace a Madisonian conception of the office: he believed the president's role was to promote slow, thoughtful deliberation by the people, based on reason rather than passion, instead of directly channeling the people's will. Taft's effectiveness as president was also undermined by his prickly demands for personal loyalty, leading him to fire aids close to Roosevelt, with disastrous political consequences. Still, Taft's achievements as president deserve more credit than they have received: he lowered the tariff for the first time since the 1890s, raised corporate taxes, protected more lands for environmental conservation than Roosevelt, brought more antitrust suits in one term than Roosevelt brought in two, convinced Congress to pass a Canadian Free Trade agreement, and kept the peace. In all these senses, his constitutionalist conception of the presidency looks very different from the presidential populism we are seeing today, in America and around the globe. And as chief, his ability to promote consensus among small groups of elites made him a masterful and much loved leader of the Court, resulting in unanimous opinions and few dissents, in the spirit of his hero, John Marshall.
What remains of Taft's presidential legacy?
Taft's devotion to free trade, low tariffs, corporate taxes, vigorous antitrust suits, environmental protection, and international arbitration persists in different wings of the Republican and Democratic parties. In this sense, his is truly a bipartisan legacy. His devotion to a constitutionally constrained presidency has been repudiated by what Arthur Schlesinger called the Imperial Presidency, embraced by both parties since FDR.
What do you hope readers take away from this book?
I hope they are as inspired as I am by the example of our most judicial president and presidential chief justice. As the book concludes:
These are anxious times, in America and around the world, in which constitutional limitations on executive power, and the independent judges necessary to enforce them, are under attack from populist politicians, amplified by social media technologies that channel and amplify divisive passions. William Howard Taft devoted his career, as president and chief justice, to defending the constitutional structures that divided the powers of the executive, legislative, and judicial branches, filtered the will of the people, and encouraged thoughtful deliberation among their representatives. The populist forces that Taft assailed as our most judicial president and presidential chief justice once again threaten to undermine the Constitution in precisely the ways that Taft predicted. The fact that all three branches today are institution-ally equipped, if they choose, to resist these populist threats and to defend the rule of law is an inspiring tribute to Taft's constitutional legacy.
From the Publisher
William Howard Taft never wanted to be president and yearned instead to serve as chief justice of the United States. But despite his ambivalence about politics, the former federal judge found success in the executive branch as governor of the Philippines and secretary of war, and he won a resounding victory in the presidential election of 1908 as Theodore Roosevelt's handpicked successor.
In this provocative assessment, Jeffrey Rosen reveals Taft's crucial role in shaping how America balances populism against the rule of law. Taft approached each decision as president by asking whether it comported with the Constitution, seeking to put Roosevelt's activist executive orders on firm legal grounds. But unlike Roosevelt, who thought the president could do anything the Constitution didn't forbid, Taft insisted he could do only what the Constitution explicitly allowed. This led to a dramatic breach with Roosevelt in the historic election of 1912, which Taft viewed as a crusade to defend the Constitution against the demagogic populism of Roosevelt and Woodrow Wilson.
Nine years later, Taft achieved his lifelong dream when President Warren Harding appointed him chief justice, and during his years on the Court he promoted consensus among the justices and transformed the judiciary into a modern, fully equal branch. Though he had chafed in the White House as a judicial president, he thrived as a presidential chief justice.