In 1902 Louise Taft reminded her son, then Governor of the Philippines, of his late father's role in his career: "You owe so much to his influence that you might be thought a striking exemplification of the influence of heredity, and the environment which surrounded you in living in the same atmosphere, and breathing the same airan inspiration to everything that was good." Louise and Alphonso Taft raised their six children in the family tradition of hard work, fair play, and public service. They lived these principles themselves. Steeped in lofty ideals, dutiful Will Taft set a course that took him from his Cincinnati home to the nation's highest ranks.
Cincinnati was a busy river portthe Queen City of the Ohio Valleywhen Alphonso Taft arrived from Vermont in 1838. Business was good for the ambitious young attorney, who built a practice and made his place in town society. Soon he could afford to escape the crowding, summer heat, and coal dust of the lower city. In 1851 he moved with his wife, the former Fanny Phelps of his Vermont hometown, young children, and parents to a 10-year-old house and two acres a mile or so out of town in Mount Auburn. Their fashionable suburban neighborhood, according to Grandpa Taft, was "a beautiful high, airy place." The two-story brick house was of popular Greek Revival designsquare, symmetrical, with decorative trim and a small porch. The backyard fell toward the river far below. Alphonso's first order of business was to modernize the plumbing and put up a large addition in the rear to accommodate his growing family.
After Fanny died in 1852 Alphonso married Massachusetts schoolteacher Louise Torrey. An affectionate stepmother to Alphonso's two sons, Louise gave birth to four healthy children, including William on September 15, 1857. He was "well and hearty & a most charming baby as you would wish to see," she wrote her mother of the five-month-old. "Willie laughs & plays constantly." To his hired nurse he was "the beautifullest boy" she had ever seen. As a child he was outgoing and good-natured, traits he carried into adulthood. Encouraged by his parents Will earned high marks throughout his school years. "All play and no work makes Jack a mere toy," his father might threaten, but Will escaped his books to play baseball, ride the family's pet pony, sled down Sycamore Hill in winter, wrestle, or tear through the house with his younger brothers.
"I am more and more impressed with the responsibility of training children properly," Louise wrote her mother in 1860. "It is what we are, not what we do in reference to them, which will make its impression on their lives." In setting an example the parents could not have been more diligent. The Taft house was a whirl of activity. Their roomy parlor might be the setting for a Christmas sing-along, a game of whist, or a discussion of anti-slavery legislation and women's suffrage with visiting celebrities. Civil War hero and future President James Garfield once accompanied friends to dinner at the Taft home. Rugs rolled up and furniture pushed aside, the parlor was a makeshift dance hall. Louise surprised Will on his 21st birthday with a gathering of friends for lively music and ice cream.
Quiet evenings were spent in the library; Alphonso finished up the day's business, Louise usually had sewing to do, and the children read or brooded over the chess table. Book collector Alphonso was a founding member of the city's literary society. Family discussions and letters were full of references to Dickens, Darwin, and other popular books of the day. Alphonso also maintained an "observatory"a telescope set up in the widow's walkand was known to wake his family for late-night sightings of astronomical marvels.
Scarcely a civic or cultural organization in town could not claim the participation of one or more of the Tafts. Alphonso's tireless work for the Republican Party paid off in political appointments which, while they brought him increasing social prominence, led to his departure from Cincinnati. In 1865 he gave up a well-paying law practice for a city judgeship. President Ulysses 5. Grant summoned Taft to Washington, first as his secretary of war then as attorney general. In the 1880s Taft served as minister to Austria-Hungary and later Russia. Much to Louise's delight, the couple lived abroad for four years and indulged their love of travel. The Auburn Avenue house was intermittently rented out when not occupied by their grown children.
By 1889 Tafts had left Auburn Avenue for good. Alphonso and Louise retired to California, where the climate was better for Alphonso's health. Will completed his education and began a law career of his own. In 1886 he married Helen Herron"Nellie"and built a house on McMillan Street. The other Taft children were also out on their own. Alphonso died in San Diego in May 1891 and, as he desired, was buried in Cincinnati. Tenants were kind enough to allow the family and friends one last gathering in the parlor of their old home for the funeral.
The Tafts sold the house in 1899. It underwent modifications with each successive owner, the last having divided the deteriorating building into apartments. The movement to save the house from demolition began in 1938 with the establishment of the William Howard Taft Memorial Association. In 1969 the Federal Government designated the Taft house a national historic site, honoring the life and work of the only person to hold the offices of President and Chief Justice of the United States.
President and Chief Justice
Louise and Alphonso Taft sent their children out into the world equipped with an education and a belief that academic learning was best put to use in service to others. Family influence, a diploma from Yale (second in the Class of '78), a law degree, and his own ambition propelled Will Taft into public life at a young age. "I am glad that Will is going to work at the law with all his might," Alphonso commented a few years after his son graduated from Cincinnati Law School. "That is his destiny." Still in his 20s Alphonso Taft's son seemed the natural choice for various county legal and judicial posts. He once quipped that "like every well-trained Ohio man, I always had my plate right side up when offices were falling."
But there was more to Will Taft than good luck. He worked hard. He was a loyal party man, campaigning for Republican candidates and receiving jobs in return. His sense of ethics was unshakable, at one point threatening to derail his career: as collector of the revenue, he chose to resign rather than replace competent employees with undeserving party favorites. All the while his goal was taking shape: a seat on the U.S. Supreme Court. Biographer Henry F. Pringle explains, "Taft worshipped the law; no understanding of him is possible without appreciation of the fact."
Taft seemed headed in that direction when, at age 33, he was appointed U.S. Solicitor General. This was his introduction to the national scene and to progress-minded politicians such as Theodore Roosevelt. It was the era of reform. Back in Cincinnati two years later as a U.S. circuit court judge, Taft worked to make the judicial system responsive to the needs of a changing society and drew President William McKinley's attention. It was also during this time that Taft gained a reputationnot founded wholly in factfor being anti-labor. President McKinley needed a man in the Philippines to establish a civil government for the new U.S. possession. He named Taft, who left for the islands in 1900. Governor Taft oversaw the construction of schools and transportation lines, strengthened the economy, and brought modern law to the islands. He won the hearts of the Filipinos, who honored him with banquets and gifts. Some historians view these accomplishments as Taft's most important work in the light of the strategic role the Philippines later played as a U.S. outpost in the western Pacific.
While Taft was in the Philippines, he was asked by President Roosevelt to fill a vacancy on the Supreme Court. He sacrificed his dream to finish out his work with the people he had grown to love. The Supreme Court offer was repeated a few years later when Taft was Secretary of War. Again it was declined, but Roosevelt was adamant that his deserving friend should sit in high office. The President, honoring a campaign promise not to run again, anointed Secretary Taft as his successor. "My ambition is to become a justice of the Supreme Court," Taft wrote his brother in 1905. "I presume however, there are very few men who would refuse to accept the nomination of the Republican party for the presidency, and I am not an exception." Besides, Nellie Taft, herself an adept politician, wanted her husband in the White House. He received the nomination for President in 1908 and won the electoral vote in November two to one.
The fruits of the Taft administration are still a part of American life. He backed the constitutional amendment providing for an income tax, worked within a budget, introduced "dollar diplomacy," strengthened the Interstate Commerce Commission to better regulate transportation and control railroad rate wars, brought dozens of antitrust suits, appointed six Supreme Court justices, and signed New Mexico and Arizona into the union. He inaugurated the presidential tradition of throwing out the first baseball of the season.
Taft's presidential achievements were obscured by his lack of broad-based support. The very perception that made him appealing during the nominating conventionhe was neither too conservative nor too liberalnow worked to his disadvantage, particularly in his dealings with Congress. To progressives, who had expected a continuation of Roosevelt's policies, he was paralyzed with inertia. With one eye always on the law he was too cautious to expand his presidential power in the manner of his predecessor. "It was evident that the army of progress that had been moving along with President Roosevelt was camped under President Taft," noted a journalist. Old Guard Republicans, happily rid of Roosevelt, bristled at what were in their view threats to the free marketthe dismantling of lucrative monopolies, artificially low railroad rates, and the notion that one's hard-earned money belonged in part to the government.
Taft himself would likely have no argument with today's judgment that his presidency failed in many ways. "I do not know that I have had harder luck than other presidents," he wrote Roosevelt as early as 1910, "but I do know that thus far I have succeeded far less than have others." Though his party renominated him in 1912, his erstwhile mentor Roosevelt was furious that Taft had ignored his progressive agenda. Roosevelt headed the ticket for the Bull Moose (Progressive) Party, splitting the Republican vote and ensuring victory for Democrat Woodrow Wilson. Much later Taft declared, "I don't remember that I was ever president."
Lifelong devotion to his alma mater took Taft back to Yale, where he taught constitutional law for eight years. During World War I, he headed the board that mediated disputes between defense manufacturers and labor. The position brought Taft closer to the concerns of the nation's workers, experience which would benefit him in his next job. A third chance at the Supreme Court came his way when President Warren G. Harding had court vacancies to fill. This time there was no burden of unfinished duty to keep Taft from accepting. In 1921 he was named 10th Chief Justice of the United States.
"The Chief Justice goes into a monastery and confines himself to his judicial work," Taft wrote in 1921. It was rare for Justice Taft not to work. The first problem he encountered was one of sheer volume. The court was bound to accept any case involving a federal point of law. By the 1920s, claims arising from the war, income tax laws, and prohibition generated an overwhelming backlog. The Judiciary Act of 1925, backed by Taft, allowed the high court to choose cases based on merit. This paved the way for more judicial reforms.
Decisions of the Taft Court throughout the decade brought law into the 20th century. He had backed the income tax as President and continued to do so as Chief Justice. His court upheld Prohibition laws and efforts to convict bootleggers, affirmed presidential removal powers, and strengthened the ICC as well as the federal government in general. The Chief Justice never shed his anti-labor reputation, though he always upheld labor's right to organize. Nor did he always side with big business. "While Taft presided as Chief Justice, and was often accused of conservatism," explains author Pringle, "there occurred a steady redistribution of the wealth of the United States." Taft rallied support for a new court buildinga solemn Neoclassical structure completed in 1932giving it symbolic parity with the other two branches of government.
In February 1930 Taft resigned his post because of illness. A month later he died at age 72. That day President Herbert Hoover articulated the country's sense of loss when he declared, "Mr. Taft's service to our country has been of rare distinction and was marked by a purity of patriotism, a lofty disinterestedness, and a devotion to the best interests of the nation." William Howard Taft is buried in Arlington National Cemetery.
A Taft Chronology
1857 Born September 15 in Cincinnati, Ohio, to Alphonso and Louise Taft.
1863-80 Educated in city public schools. Graduates second in class from Yale University, 1878; graduates 1880 from Cincinnati Law School.
1880-81 Legal reporter for Cincinnati Commercial.
1881-82 Assistant Prosecutor, Hamilton Co., Ohio.
1882 Collector of Internal Revenue, First Ohio District.
1885-97 Assistant Solicitor, Hamilton County.
1886 Marries Helen "Nellie" Herron. Moves to home on McMillan Street.
1887-90 Judge, Ohio Superior Court.
1890-92 U.S. Solicitor General.
1892-1900 Judge, Sixth U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals. Rules on patent rights; becomes known for strict interpretation of the law and for efforts at judicial reform.
1896-1900 Dean of Cincinnati Law School. Promotes growth of school and founds Circuit Court Library.
1900-01 President, U.S. Philippine Commission.
1901-04 First Civil Governor of the Philippines. Replaces military rule; establishes modern government and institutions.
1904-08 U.S. Secretary of War. Close adviser to President Roosevelt; heads Panama Canal commission.
1906 Provisional Governor of Cuba.
1909-13 President of the United States.
1913-21 Professor of Constitutional Law, Yale University.
1915-21 President of League to Enforce Peace, a forerunner of the League of Nations.
1918-19 Co-chairman, National War Labor Board.
1921-30 Chief Justice, U.S. Supreme Court.
1930 Retires as Chief Justice. Dies in Washington on March 8.
Planning Your Visit
William Howard Taft National Historic Site is the only memorial to the nation's 27th President and 10th Chief Justice. The house is restored to its appearance during the years Taft lived here as a child and young adult.
Louise Taft's letters to her family in Massachusetts provided details of decorating plans, home improvements, and furniture purchases that guided restoration of the house. All family portraits and many of the books belonged to the Tafts while they occupied this house. Where original furniture was not available, restorers substituted antiques of the appropriate style. Most pieces were made here in Cincinnati.
Visiting the site The park is generally open from 8 a.m. to 4 p.m. daily; it is closed on Thanksgiving, December 25, and January 1. Current information on visiting hours, group tours, and programs is available by writing or calling in advance of your visit. Begin your visit at The Taft Education Center adjacent to the birthplace home. The center offers brochures, a gift shop, interactive exhibits, and an orientation film. Staff members conduct tours of historically furnished rooms in the house. Other rooms display exhibits on Taft's early years and his political career.
Location The Taft house is in the Mount Auburn section of Cincinnati. From I-71N, take Exit 2 (Reading Road and Eden Park Drive). Stay in right lane; turn left at first stoplight onto Dorchester Avenue, and go to the top of the hill. Turn right on Auburn Avenue and go 1½ blocks to the site. From I-71S, take Exit 3 (Taft Road). Go 0.75 mile to Auburn Avenue. Turn left and go 0.5 mile to the site. Follow signs to designated parking areas.
Access The house is accessible to wheelchairs, with an elevator to second-floor exhibits. Observe the safety warnings.
Also in Cincinnati The Taft Museum of Art at 316 Pike Street was the home of Charles Phelps Taft, half-brother of the President. Today the museum has Charles and Anna Taft's collection of European and American paintings, Chinese porcelains, and decorative pieces.
Source: NPS Brochure (2011)
Brochures ◆ Site Bulletins ◆ Trading Cards
An Administrative History, William Howard Taft National Historic Site (Antoinette J. Lee, December 1986)
Cultural Landscape Report, William Howard Taft National Historic Site (Scruggs and Hammond, Inc., 1993)
Furnishing Plan, William Howard Taft National Historic Site (Sarah Olson, undated)
Historic Structure Report: Brick Walks, William Howard Taft National Historic Site (Mark A. Chavez, July 1988)
Historic Structure Report, Historical Data: Home, William Howard Taft National Historic Site (Edwin C. Bearss, October 1972)
Home on a Hill: Administrative History of William Howard Taft National Historic Site, Ohio (Theodore Catton, 2020)
National Register of Historic Places Nomination Forms
William Howard Taft Home (S. Sydney Bradford, August 20, 1963)
Handbooks ◆ Books
Last Updated: 01-Jan-2022