Progressivism on Hold: The Presidency of William Howard Taft
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
d. He got a good reduction
passed in the House of Representatives but the bill stalled in the
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
g. Senator La Follette
believed that Taft had abandoned him and the Progressive wing of the
VIII. A second arena in which Taft alienated the progressives was in
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
e. Pinchot then went public
and took the matter to the Congress, which opened an investigation and
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.
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.
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.