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Friday, September 01, 2006

The Reluctant Dragon - Presidents of the 20th Century

Would you be shocked if a man not born in the United States of America had been elected to the highest office in the land? Would you be amazed if that same man became Chief Justice of the United States? Could this really be? What sort of piker would be able to successfully pull off such a scam? It wasn't Harry Houdini but that famous rascal, William Howard Taft.

Taft was actually a reluctant Presidential candidate. From the White House website:

"Distinguished jurist, effective administrator, but poor politician, William Howard Taft spent four uncomfortable years in the White House. Large, jovial, conscientious, he was caught in the intense battles between Progressives and conservatives, and got scant credit for the achievements of his administration.

Born in 1857, the son of a distinguished judge, he graduated from Yale, and returned to Cincinnati to study and practice law. He rose in politics through Republican judiciary appointments, through his own competence and availability, and because, as he once wrote facetiously, he always had his "plate the right side up when offices were falling."

But Taft much preferred law to politics. He was appointed a Federal circuit judge at 34. He aspired to be a member of the Supreme Court, but his wife, Helen Herron Taft, held other ambitions for him...."

"...President Roosevelt made him Secretary of War, and by 1907 had decided that Taft should be his successor. The Republican Convention nominated him the next year."


Taft had a well-deserved reputation for being an honorable man and a competent administrator. But he disliked campaigns, disliked politics and found himself in the middle of wrangles between the conservative and progressive wings of his own party. When it came time to run for the Republican nominee to pursue another term of office, he found himself running against his previous boss Teddy Roosevelt. The conservative wing of the Republicans had decided to go a different way than that of Teddy, who then ran as an independent, thus guaranteeing a Democratic win as Republicans split their votes between Roosevelt and Taft. It seems as if Taft was not entirely displeased with the loss.

"Taft, free of the Presidency, served as Professor of Law at Yale until President Harding made him Chief Justice of the United States, a position he held until just before his death in 1930. To Taft, the appointment was his greatest honor; he wrote: "I don't remember that I ever was President."

There is an argument that he never really was. William Howard Taft had been born in Cincinnati, Ohio, in 1857. The Constitution requires that presidents be natural-born citizens of the United States. In 1803, Congress had approved Ohio's boundaries and constitution, but it had never passed a resolution formally admitting the future land of the Buckeyes. Technically, therefore, Ohio was not a state. Since Ohio was not a state in 1857, Taft was not a natural-born citizen and could not legally be president.

A challenge to the income tax laws brought about the discovery of this Congressional oversight and a 1953 resolution retroactively admitted Ohio into the States as of 1803.

Actually, since presidents Grant, Hayes, Garfield, Harrison, McKinley, and Harding were also born in Ohio, there were technically several Presidents who were not legally President.

Taft was the first President to own an automobile.

Whereas Taft made no great mistakes he neither led the nation into any great accomplishments. His strength was as a manager and government ran efficiently under his leadership. He was a good man and a great jurist but not temperamentally suited to be a great leader. In retrospect he served as a competent place-keeper until the next leader with vision would come along. He thereby earns a resounding "C+"!

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