William Howard Taft: A President of Contrasts and More

William Howard Taft holds a unique place in American history. He’s the only person to have served as both President of the United States and as Chief Justice of the Supreme Court. This gentle giant of a man was known for a few things throughout his life: his enormous size, his genial personality, and his lifelong ambition to join the Supreme Court.

The Path to the White House (and Beyond)

Taft, born into a prominent Ohio family in 1857, followed an almost inevitable path to politics. After law school, he steadily climbed political ranks with support from the Republican establishment. He wasn’t a flashy politician, but he was competent and well-liked.

His ambition never focused solely on the presidency. Taft always yearned for the calmer waters of the Supreme Court. Fate, however, had a detour for him. His friend and mentor Theodore Roosevelt tapped him for various key posts, including Governor of the Philippines and Secretary of War.

In 1908, Roosevelt essentially chose Taft to succeed him as president. Taft’s easygoing nature seemed like a counterpoint to Roosevelt’s fiery personality. However, their friendship and political views wouldn’t last long.

A Less-Than-Comfortable Presidency

Taft’s presidency (1909 – 1913) was marked by contrasts. While he furthered Roosevelt’s trust-busting efforts (breaking up monopolies) and supported conservation of natural resources, he was far less of a progressive reformer than Roosevelt. His cautious nature and focus on legal detail caused a rift with the more energetic wing of the Republican Party that Roosevelt now championed.

The 1912 election proved disastrous for Taft, thanks in part to Roosevelt running against him on a third-party ticket. The Republicans split, and Democrat Woodrow Wilson took the White House. Taft came in third – a humiliating result for an incumbent president.

Finally, the Supreme Court

Surprisingly, his post-presidential life might have been Taft’s happiest period. In 1921, President Harding appointed him Chief Justice of the Supreme Court. Taft finally achieved his lifelong dream job. Far from being simply a figurehead, he worked to reform the judiciary, increasing its efficiency and making it more accessible.

The Bathtub Myth

Taft is often associated with a rather silly story – getting stuck in a bathtub due to his substantial size. While he was, without a doubt, a large man (topping out at over 350 pounds), the bathtub anecdote is likely apocryphal. It arose during his presidency, likely used by critics, and unfortunately stuck around ever since.

Taft’s Legacy

William Howard Taft was a president of contradictions. A cautious conservative who nevertheless embraced some progressive policies. A man overshadowed by his predecessor and the events of his time. Yet, he was a dedicated public servant whose legal acumen finally landed him in his ideal role as Chief Justice. His story reminds us that achievement and ambition sometimes take unexpected paths.

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