Progressivism on Hold: The Presidency of William Howard Taft


 I.      The increasing "radicalism" of Roosevelt in the final two years of his presidency alienated the "Old Guard" Republican leadership in the US Senate. It became clear, especially after the Panic of 1907, that the Old Guard would oppose his re-nomination, so Roosevelt opted to forgo running for another term as president.

II. Roosevelt's choice of a successor was William Howard Taft, who had been his "right-hand man." 

III. Taft was a huge man, weighing between 300 and 350 pounds. Though the Progressive wing of the Republican party believed he was one of them and would pursue Roosevelt's reform agenda, the conservative "Old Guard" believed he was a true conservative. 

IV. Taft's Presidency was a disaster, largely because he could not please both the Progressives and the Old Guard.

a. In almost every instance, Taft sided with the "Old Guard," while maintaining the rhetoric of progressivism.

V. Unlike Roosevelt, Taft was a cautious president who believed strict adherence to the law. He was not a risk-taker and was not interested expanding the powers and role of the presidency as Roosevelt had been.

VI. Also unlike Roosevelt, Taft had no charisma and was not an accomplished public speaker. He was bland and had no ideas of his own and no vision of what he hoped to achieve.

VII. Taft's Presidency began with a continuation of the policies of Roosevelt. The first "fiasco" was tariff reform.

a. Tariff reduction had been a consistent demand of progressives, who believed that the power of US corporations would be reduced by increased competition from abroad.

b. Theodore Roosevelt Roosevelt had tried and failed to get significant tariff reductions.

c. A few months after taking office, Taft called a special session of Congress to consider tariff reform.

d. He got a good reduction passed in the House of Representatives but the bill stalled in the Senate.

e. Senator Robert La Follette, a leading Progressive in the Senate, believed he could defeat the Old Guard and get the bill passed in the Senate--with the help of the President-- but Taft refused to help-arguing that the President shouldn't use his power to try to influence the Congress.

f. The Old Guard made many changes in the bill, and the net result was the Payne-Aldrich Tariff--in which some tariffs were reduced a little were others were actually increased.

g. Senator La Follette believed that Taft had abandoned him and the Progressive wing of the Republican Party.

VIII. A second arena in which Taft alienated the progressives was in conservation policy.

a. Roosevelt, on the advice of Gifford Pinchot, had moved aggressively to add land in the west to the public domain, essentially removing it from the private market and preventing its development by private actors

b. In 1909, Taft's Secretary of the interior (Richard Ballinger) concluded that Roosevelt had illegally added some one million acres of land to public domain.

c. He removed the land from the public domain over the objections of Pinchot and the conservation movement, making it available for private purchase and development. Rumors abounded that it had been a deal to help a huge coal company (Morgan-Guggenheim) to gain access to the resources on the lands

d. Pinchot, convinced that the rumors were true, took the matter to Taft. Taft naturally sided with Ballinger.

e. Pinchot then went public and took the matter to the Congress, which opened an investigation and held hearings.

f. Pinchot was fired by Taft for insubordination, but the whole affair resulted in the widespread belief that Taft had become a tool of big business. He lost all support from the progressives after the Ballinger-Pinchot Affair.  

IX. During these years, Roosevelt had been abroad, first on a long safari in Africa, then on a tour of European capitols.

X. Upon hearing of the Ballinger-Pinchot Affair, Roosevelt returned the the US, where he met with Pinchot, but refused to meet with Taft.  

XI. Almost immediately, Roosevelt began making speeches, further undermining Taft's leadership of the Republican Party.  

XII. The Congressional Elections of 1910 demonstrated that Taft had lost control of the party, with either progressive Republicans or Democrats making huge gains in state legislatures, state governorships, and in the House of Representatives. 

XIII. Roosevelt insisted that his only objective was to pressure Taft into returning to a Progressive posture.

 XIV. However, in 1911, Taft filed a Sherman Anti-Trust lawsuit against The United States Steel Corporation, arguing that its 1907 purchase of the Tennessee Iron and Coal Company was illegal.

a. This was a purchase that Roosevelt had personally approved as part of his effort to stimulate the economy during the Panic of 1907.

b. Roosevelt was offended, and bothered more generally by Taft's legalistic approach to the management of larger corporations. He decided to oppose Taft in the Republican primary race for President.

XV. In the primary campaigns, Roosevelt and Taft ran very close and in several states, the Republican Party was severely split.

a. It became clear that the Republican candidate for President would be chosen on the floor of the Republican Convention--but some states sent two sets of delegates to the national convention--one set that favored Taft, the other favoring Roosevelt.

b. The national leadership of the Republican Party had to choose which delegations to seat--and, dominated by the Old Guard, they naturally chose those delegations in favor of Taft.

c. This meant that the nomination for President would go to Taft.

d. Roosevelt took his followers and left the Republican Convention, announcing the creation of a new party and that he was running for President as the candidate of the "Bull Moose” Party.

XVI. Roosevelt’s' decision to run as a 3rd party candidate was tantamount to giving the election to the Democrats.

a. Roosevelt knew he could not win, and he knew that if he ran, neither could Taft.

b. Perhaps this was Roosevelt's greatest service to his country, for the election of 1912 not only resulted in victory for Woodrow Wilson, the greatest reform-president of the Progressive Era--it also destroyed the power of the Old Guard in the US Congress.