US Republican statesman and twenty-seventh president of the USA (1909–13).
The son of judge and former cabinet minister Alphonso Taft (1810–91), William Taft studied at the universities of Yale and Cincinnati, qualified as a lawyer, and in 1880 became a member of the Ohio bar. He held various public offices before his appointment as an Ohio superior court judge in 1887, and in 1890 he became US solicitor-general under President Benjamin Harrison. But he resigned after two years to resume life as a federal circuit judge. President McKinley appointed Taft to head a commission concerned with the restoration of civil administration in the Philippines and he subsequently became the first civil governor (1901–04), successfully administering the reallocation of land. Appointed secretary of war by Theodore Roosevelt, Taft became a close friend and adviser to the president, lending his calm judicial approach to a variety of crises. In 1908 he was persuaded to run for the presidency himself, and won.
Taking office in March 1909, Taft soon witnessed a widening gulf between conservative and progressive elements in the Republican Party. Lacking the political astuteness of Roosevelt, Taft pleased no-one with his feeble compromise legislation on tariffs – the Payne–Aldrich Act of 1909 – while his dismissal of the forest service chief, Gifford Pinchot, alienated liberal Republicans. However, he vigorously enforced antitrust legislation and established the Department of Labour. In an acrimonious 1912 election campaign, Theodore Roosevelt formed his breakaway Progressive Party and ran against Taft's official Republican ticket, thus splitting the vote and enabling victory for the Democrat, Woodrow Wilson.
In 1913, Taft was appointed professor of constitutional law at Yale University. Later, during World War I, he was joint chairman of the US War Labor Board. In 1921 came the climax of his legal career – his appointment as the US Supreme Court's chief justice, whereupon he embarked on improving the coordination and efficiency of the judicial system.
Subjects: Warfare and Defence.