William Howard Taft was truly in his element as chief executive, at least in the limited sense of that function. He loved studying legislation and implementing policy; however, unlike the voluble Theodore Roosevelt, Taft hated the rough and tumble of practical politics that was necessary to accomplish an agenda. His domestic legacy included the following:
Trust-busting. During the Taft administration, more than twice the number of antitrust suits were instigated than under Roosevelt. Major victories were won against Standard Oil of New Jersey and the American Tobacco Company (both initiated under TR), the Sugar Trust and U.S. Steel. Roosevelt was generally supportive of these Taft actions, but not the move against Morgan and U.S. Steel; the former president criticized his successor by proclaiming that Taft was unable to distinguish between a good trust and a bad one.
By 1911, Taft began to back away from his efforts to tame the trusts. He was influenced in part by his conservative advisors, who wanted the government to give free rein to the giant businesses. Taft also feared that trust-busting was beginning to have a negative impact on the overall economy. In the last 18 months of his administration, Taft was increasingly seen lugging his 300-pound frame around fancy golf courses with his Republican friends.
Tariff Reform. Taft pledged tariff reform during the campaign of 1908 and appeared initially to pursue that goal. In the end, however, he refused to fight for his convictions and lamely accepted the protectionist Payne-Aldrich Tariff.
Conservation. The widely publicized Ballinger-Pinchot Controversy left the impression that Taft was not interested in preserving the nation’s natural treasures. In fact, he made a stellar appointment to succeed Pinchot as chief forester and thousands of acres of natural wilderness were added to the reserves.
Business Regulation. Taft was successful in urging Congress to strengthen the powers of the Interstate Commerce Commission. The Mann-Elkins Act of 1910 provided:
- The I.C.C. was empowered to suspend or fix railroad rates
- The purview of the I.C.C. was extended to include control of radio, telephone and telegraph facilities
- A Commerce Court was established to hear appeals stemming from I.C.C. decisions; this court was disbanded in 1913.
This measure made the Interstate Commerce Commission the most influential agency of its day.
Executive Reform. A Bureau of Labor was established in 1884 as part of the Department of the Interior; later it was made an independent department, but its head did not sit with the president’s cabinet. In 1903, during the Roosevelt administration, a combined Department of Commerce and Labor was created with full cabinet status.
During the Taft administration, Congress prepared the groundwork for separating the departments of Labor and Commerce. This reflected a growing awareness of the importance of labor issues. The first secretary of labor was appointed during the Wilson administration.
Constitutional Amendments. President Taft worked hard for the ratification of the 16th Amendment (authorizing a federal income tax). This measure had been pushed through Congress with the enthusiastic help of tariff reformers, who realized that another source of revenue would be needed if downward revision of the tariff were accomplished.
The 17th Amendment (direct election of U.S. Senators) was unenthusiastically endorsed by Taft.
Admission of New States. In early 1912, the last two of the contiguous states, New Mexico and Arizona, were admitted to the Union. Taft had initially vetoed the statehood bills because the state constitutions provided for the recall of judges. Once that provision was removed, the president gave his consent.
Civil Service Reform. Taft broadened civil service protection for a number of government workers, most notably for postmasters. Previously, those had been political appointments that were subject to dismissal at the end of each administration.
Congressional Reform. Not all of the reform efforts of this era were instigated by the Executive Department. Congress, the House of Representatives in particular, was chaffing under the burden of antiquated rules and dictatorial leadership.
Joseph G. Cannon, the conservative Speaker of the House from Illinois, thwarted one reform effort after another. His vast power was rooted in his authority to appoint members and chairmen to various committees. Those who opposed “Uncle Joe" rarely received the plum assignments.
Insurgent Republicans under the guidance of George W. Norris of Nebraska joined with House Democrats in taming Cannon. A temporary majority was able to force a change in procedures, taking the appointment power from the Speaker and enhancing the power of the Rules Committee. This event illustrated the strains that were developing within the Republican party during Taft's administration. The culmination came with electoral defeat in 1912.
William Howard Taft might have been regarded as a truly progressive leader if he had followed a president other than Teddy Roosevelt. The public had been fascinated by Roosevelt’s swagger and willingness to confront his opponents. Taft was a totally different personality. His successes in trust-busting, civil service reform and railroad reform were blotted out by his bland personality and his failures with the tariff and conservation.