William Howard Taft: The American Presidents Series: The 27th President, 1909-1913

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Rosen chronicles the life of 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.

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Aug 30, 2018

William H. Taft In The American Presidents Series

Founded by Arthur Schlesinger, Jr, the American Presidents Series aims, in Schlesinger's words "to present the grand panorama of our chief executives in volumes compact enough for the busy reader, lucid enough for the student, authoritative enough for the scholar." The volumes explore the qualities of leadership or its lack of each president.

Jeffrey Rosen's recent series volume on William Howard Taft (1857 -- 1930) fulfills the goals of the series and more. An author, professor of law at George Washington University, and the president of the National Constitution Center, Rosen offers a sympathetic, balanced portrait of Taft, his accomplishments, and his thought. Taft served a single term from 1909 -- 1913 as the 27th president. He had a long distinguished career of public service before his presidency and a lengthy career thereafter as the tenth chief justice of the United States Supreme Court, the only individual to hold both these positions. Taft's heart always was with the judiciary, and he was a reluctant president. Rosen offers an insightful short portrait of Taft's entire career and concludes that Taft's "determination to use his leadership of the executive and judicial branches to promote thoughtful public deliberation and to protect the rule of law" constitutes Taft's greatest legacy.

Rosen sees Taft as a "Judicial President and Presidential Chief Justice". He finds Taft's work defined by his honesty and his judicial temperament, which requires reflection, a willingness to consider all sides of an issue, and careful analysis. Most importantly, he finds Taft's work defined by his devotion to the Constitution and its understanding as opposed to the hurly-burly world of politics and public approval. Rosen also sees Taft, in the title of a longer study portrays him, as a "progressive conservative" who worked diligently to improve government and the public welfare within the boundaries of the constitution.

Rosen's framework for approaching Taft integrates Taft's many accomplishments and offers the key to understanding his service as president and chief justice. As president, Taft shared most of the goals of his predecessor and friend, Theodore Roosevelt, while wanting to put Roosevelt's program on a firm constitutional foundation. Taft had a strong sense of the limitations of the presidency and of the virtues of the constitutional separation of powers. Taft had major accomplishments in balancing the budget and streamlining the government. He enforced the anti-trust laws and protected the environment more successfully than did the flamboyant Roosevelt. He worked towards lowering the tariff, kept the United States out of war with Mexico, supported free trade, and had visionary ideas for a world court. Still, Taft opposed the expansion of presidential powers into what today is often referred to as the "imperial presidency". He also distrusted populism and direct democracy. Taft was a deliberator more than a politician. His presidency also was ill-served by his sensitivity to criticism and his demands for loyalty. Taft's approach to the presidency resulted in a split in the Republican party between the conservative and the liberal faction which continued to the president. In the presidential election of 1912, Taft was caught between the populisms of his former friend, Roosevelt, and the Democratic candidate Woodrow Wilson. He was defeated in his bid for re-election.

Rosen shows Taft's many accomplishments between his presidency and his service as Chief Justice but focuses on the latter. The chief justiceship was more congenial to Taft than the presidency. Rosen shows how Taft put his strong skills as an administrator, his devotion to the constitution, and his progressive conservatism to use during his nine-year tenure on the Supreme Court. Among many other things, Taft was responsible for the Supreme Court building which still remains the Court's home. The building beautifully captures the judiciary's status as a separate, equal part of the United States' constitutional system of government. Taft streamlined the Court's workload by increasing its discretionary power to review cases. Taft also worked to encourage unity among the Justices of the Court and to promote compromise and unanimous opinions. He wrote many opinions himself which for the most part of a conservative tenor, particularly where labor was involved. Rosen offers a brief accessible discussion of some of Taft's major opinions for the Court.

Taft wrote several books following his presidency including "The President and his Powers" (1916) and "Liberty Under Law" (1922). Rosen uses these books well, if briefly, in his portrayal of Taft's thought. It made me think about whether these books should be more read.

This study offers an excellent portrayal of Taft's life and of his service to the United States. The book encourages reflection on the continued relevance of Taft's constitutionalism and understanding of the nature of American government.

Robin Friedman

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