Chronicles of America 

The Taft Administration

In the evening of that election day in 1904 which saw Roosevelt made President in his own right, after three years of the Presidency given him by fate, he issued a brief statement, in which he said: "The wise custom which limits the President to two terms regards the substance and not the form, and under no circumstances will I be a candidate for or accept another nomination." From this determination, which in his mind related to a third consecutive term, and to nothing else, he never wavered. Four years later, in spite of a widespread demand that he should be a candidate to succeed himself, he used the great influence and prestige of his position as President and leader of his party to bring about the nomination of his friend and close associate, William Howard Taft. The choice received general approval from the Republican party and from the country at large, although up to the very moment of the nomination in the convention at Chicago there was no certainty that a successful effort to stampede the convention for Roosevelt would not be made by his more irreconcilable supporters.

Taft was elected by a huge popular plurality. His opponent was William Jennings Bryan, who was then making his third unsuccessful campaign for the Presidency. Taft's election, like his nomination, was assured by the unreserved and dynamic support accorded him by President Roosevelt. Taft, of course, was already an experienced statesman, high in the esteem of the nation for his public record as Federal judge, as the first civil Governor of the Philippines, and as Secretary of War in the Roosevelt Cabinet. There was every reason to predict for him a successful and effective Administration. His occupancy of the White House began under smiling skies. He had behind him a united party and a satisfied public opinion. Even his political opponents conceded that the country would be safe in his hands. It was expected that he would be conservatively progressive and progressively conservative. Everybody believed in him. Yet within a year of the day of his inauguration the President's popularity was sharply on the wane. Two years after his election the voters repudiated the party which he led. By the end of his Presidential term the career which had begun with such happy auguries had become a political tragedy. There were then those who recalled the words of the Roman historian, "All would have believed him capable of governing if only he had not come to govern."

It was not that the Taft Administration was barren of achievement. On the contrary, its record of accomplishment was substantial. Of two amendments to the Federal Constitution proposed by Congress, one was ratified by the requisite number of States before Taft went out of office, and the other was finally ratified less than a month after the close of his term. These were the amendment authorizing the imposition of a Federal income tax and that providing for the direct election of United States Senators. Two States were admitted to the Union during Taft's term of office, New Mexico and Arizona, the last Territories of the United States on the continent, except Alaska.

Other achievements of importance during Taft's Administration were the establishment of the parcels post and the postal savings banks; the requirement of publicity, through sworn statements of the candidates, for campaign contributions for the election of Senators and Representatives; the extension of the authority of the Interstate Commerce Commission over telephone, telegraph, and cable lines; an act authorizing the President to withdraw public lands from entry for the purpose of conserving the natural resources which they may contain--something which Roosevelt had already done without specific statutory authorization; the establishment of a Commerce Court to hear appeals from decisions of the Interstate Commerce Commission; the appointment of a commission, headed by President Hadley of Yale, to investigate the subject of railway stock and bond issues, and to propose a law for the Federal supervision of such railway securities; the Mann "white slave" act, dealing with the transfer of women from one State to another for immoral purposes; the establishment of the Children's Bureau in the Department of Commerce and Labor; the empowering of the Interstate Commerce Commission to investigate all railway accidents; the creation of Forest Reserves in the White Mountains and in the southern Appalachians.

Taft's Administration was further marked, by economy in expenditure, by a considerable extension of the civil service law to cover positions in the executive departments hitherto free plunder for the spoilsmen, and by efforts on the part of the President to increase the efficiency and the economical administration of the public service.

But this good record of things achieved was not enough to gain for Mr. Taft popular approval. Items on the other side of the ledger were pointed out. Of these the three most conspicuous were the Payne-Aldrich tariff, the Ballinger-Pinchot controversy, and the insurgent movement in Congress.

The Republican party was returned to power in 1908, committed to a revision of the tariff. Though the party platform did not so state, this was generally interpreted as a pledge of revision downward. Taft made it clear during his campaign that such was his own reading of the party pledge. He said, for instance, "It is my judgment that there are many schedules of the tariff in which the rates are excessive, and there are a few in which the rates are not sufficient to fill the measure of conservative protection. It is my judgment that a revision of the tariff in accordance with the pledge of the platform, will be, on the whole, a substantial revision downward, though there probably will be a few exceptions in this regard." Five months after Taft's inauguration the Payne-Aldrich bill became law with his signature. In signing it the President said, "The bill is not a perfect bill or a complete compliance with the promises made, strictly interpreted"; but he further declared that he signed it because he believed it to be "the result of a sincere effort on the part of the Republican party to make downward revision."

This view was not shared by even all Republicans. Twenty of them in the House voted against the bill on its final passage, and seven of them in the Senate. They represented the Middle West and the new element and spirit in the Republican party. Their dissatisfaction with the performance of their party associates in Congress and in the White House was shared by their constituents and by many other Republicans throughout the country. A month after the signing of the tariff law, Taft made a speech at Winona, Minnesota, in support of Congressman James A. Tawney, the one Republican representative from Minnesota who had not voted against the bill. In the course of that speech he said; "This is the best tariff bill that the Republican party has ever passed, and, therefore, the best tariff bill that has been passed at all."

He justified Mr. Tawney's action in voting for the bill and his own in signing it on the ground that "the interests of the country, the interests of the party" required the sacrifice of the accomplishment of certain things in the revision of the tariff which had been hoped for, "in order to maintain party solidity," which he believed to be much more important than the reduction of rates in one or two schedules of the tariff.

A second disaster to the Taft Administration came in the famous Ballinger-Pinchot controversy. Louis R. Glavis, who bad served as a special agent of the General Land Office to investigate alleged frauds in certain claims to coal lands in Alaska, accused Richard Ballinger, the Secretary of the Interior, of favoritism toward those who were attempting to get public lands fraudulently. The charges were vigorously supported by Mr. Pinchot, who broadened the accusation to cover a general indifference on the part of the Secretary of the Interior to the whole conservation movement. President Taft, however, completely exonerated Secretary Ballinger from blame and removed Glavis for "filing a disingenuous statement unjustly impeaching the official integrity of his superior officer." Later Pinchot was also dismissed from the service. The charges against Secretary Ballinger were investigated by a joint committee of Congress, a majority of which exonerated the accused Cabinet officer. Nevertheless the whole controversy, which raged with virulence for many months, convinced many ardent supporters of the conservation movement, and especially many admirers of Mr. Pinchot and of Roosevelt, that the Taft Administration at the best was possessed of little enthusiasm for conservation. There was a widespread belief, as well, that the President had handled the whole matter maladroitly and that in permitting himself to be driven to a point where he had to deprive the country of the services of Gifford Pinchot, the originator of the conservation movement, he had displayed unsound judgment and deplorable lack of administrative ability.

The first half of Mr. Taft's term was further marked by acute dissensions in the Republican ranks in Congress. Joseph G. Cannon was Speaker of the House, as he had been in three preceding Congresses. He was a reactionary Republican of the most pronounced type. Under his leadership the system of autocratic party control of legislation in the House had been developed to a high point of effectiveness. The Speaker's authority had become in practice almost unrestricted.

In the congressional session of 1909-10 a strong movement of insurgency arose within the Republican party in Congress against the control of the little band of leaders dominated by the Speaker. In March, 1910, the Republican Insurgents, forty in number, united with the Democratic minority to overrule a formal decision of the Speaker. A four days' parliamentary battle resulted, culminating in a reorganization of the all-powerful Rules Committee, with the Speaker no longer a member of it. The right of the Speaker to appoint this committee was also taken away. When the Democrats came into control of the House in 1911, they completed the dethronement of the Speaker by depriving him of the appointment of all committees.

The old system had not been without its advantages, when the power of the Speaker and his small group of associate party leaders was not abused. It at least concentrated responsibility in a few prominent members of the majority party. But it made it possible for these few men to perpetuate a machine and to ignore the desires of the rest of the party representatives and of the voters of the party throughout the country. The defeat of Cannonism put an end to the autocratic power of the Speaker and relegated him to the position of a mere presiding officer. It had also a wider significance, for it portended the division in the old Republican party out of which was to come the new Progressive party.

When the mid-point of the Taft Administration was reached, a practical test was given of the measure of popular approval which the President and his party associates had achieved. The congressional elections went decidedly against the Republicans. The Republican majority of forty-seven in the House was changed to a Democratic majority of fifty-four. The Republican majority in the Senate was cut down from twenty-eight to ten. Not only were the Democrats successful in this substantial degree, but many of the Western States elected Progressive Republicans instead of Republicans of the old type. During the last two years of his term, the President was consequently obliged to work with a Democratic House and with a Senate in which Democrats and Insurgent Republicans predominated over the old-line Republicans.

The second half of Taft's Presidency was productive of little but discord and dissatisfaction. The Democrats in power in the House were quite ready to harass the Republican President, especially in view of the approaching Presidential election. The Insurgents in House and Senate were not entirely unwilling to take a hand in the same game. Besides, they found themselves more and more in sincere disagreement with the President on matters of fundamental policy, though not one of them could fairly question his integrity of purpose, impugn his purity of character, or deny his charm of personality.

Three weeks after Taft's inauguration, Roosevelt sailed for Africa, to be gone for a year hunting big game. He went with a warm feeling of friendship and admiration for the man whom he had done so much to make President. He had high confidence that Taft would be successful in his great office. He had no reason to believe that any change would come in the friendship between them, which had been peculiarly intimate. From the steamer on which he sailed for Africa, he sent a long telegram of cordial and hearty good wishes to his successor in Washington.

The next year Roosevelt came back to the United States, after a triumphal tour of the capitals of Europe, to find his party disrupted and the progressive movement in danger of shipwreck. He had no intention of entering politics again. But he had no intention, either, of ceasing to champion the things in which he believed. This he made obvious, in his first speech after his return, to the cheering thousands who welcomed him at the Battery. He said:

"I have thoroughly enjoyed myself; and now I am more glad than I can say to get home, to be back in my own country, back among people I love. And I am ready and eager to do my part so far as I am able, in helping solve problems which must be solved, if we of this, the greatest democratic republic upon which the sun has ever shone, are to see its destinies rise to the high level of our hopes and its opportunities. This is the duty of every citizen, but is peculiarly my duty; for any man who has ever been honored by being made President of the United States is thereby forever rendered the debtor of the American people and is bound throughout his life to remember this, his prime obligation."

The welcome over, Roosevelt tried to take up the life of a private citizen. He had become Contributing Editor of The Outlook and had planned to give his energies largely to writing. But he was not to be let alone. The people who loved him demanded that they be permitted to see and to hear him. Those who were in the thick of the political fight on behalf of progress and righteousness called loudly to him for aid. Only a few days after Roosevelt had landed from Europe, Governor Hughes of New York met him at the Commencement exercises at Harvard and urged him to help in the fight which the Governor was then making for a direct primary law. Roosevelt did not wish to enter the lists again until he had had more time for orientation; but he always found it difficult to refuse a plea for help on behalf of a good cause. He therefore sent a vigorous telegram to the Republican legislators at Albany urging them to support Governor Hughes and to vote for the primary bill. But the appeal went in vain: the Legislature was too thoroughly boss-ridden. This telegram, however, sounded a warning to the usurpers in the house of the Republican Penelope that the fingers of the returned Odysseus had not lost their prowess with the heroic bow.

During the summer of 1910, Roosevelt made a trip to the West and in a speech at Ossawattomie, Kansas, set forth what came to be described as the New Nationalism. It was his draft of a platform, not for himself, but for the nation. A few fragments from that speech will suggest what Roosevelt was thinking about in those days when the Progressive party was stirring in the womb. "At many stages in the advance of humanity, this conflict between the men who possess more than they have earned and the men who have earned more than they possess is the central condition of progress. In our day it appears as the struggle of free men to gain and hold the right of self-government as against the special interests, who twist the methods of free government into machinery for defeating the popular will. At every stage, and under all circumstances, the essence of the struggle is to equalize opportunity, destroy privilege, and give to the life and citizenship of every individual the highest possible value both to himself and to the commonwealth.

"Every special interest is entitled to justice, but not one is entitled to a vote in Congress, to a voice on the bench, or to representation in any public office. The Constitution guarantees protection to property, and we must make that promise good. But it does not give the right of suffrage to any corporation.

"The absence of effective state and, especially, national restraint upon unfair money getting has tended to create a small class of enormously wealthy and economically powerful men, whose chief object is to hold and increase their power. The prime need is to change the conditions which enable these men to accumulate power which it is not for the general welfare that they should hold or exercise.

"We are face to face with new conceptions of the relations of property to human welfare, chiefly because certain advocates of the rights of property as against the rights of men have been pushing their claims too far.

"The State must be made efficient for the work which concerns only the people of the State; and the nation for that which concerns all the people. There must remain no neutral ground to serve as a refuge for lawbreakers, and especially for lawbreakers of great wealth, who can hire the vulpine legal cunning which will teach them how to avoid both jurisdictions.

"I do not ask for overcentralization; but I do ask that we work in a spirit of broad and far-reaching nationalism when we work for what concerns our people as a whole.

"We must have the right kind of character--character that makes a man, first of all, a good man in the home, a good father, a good husband--that makes a man a good neighbor . . . . The prime problem of our nation is to get the right kind of good citizenship, and to get it, we must have progress, and our public men must be genuinely progressive.

"I stand for the Square Deal. But when I say that I am for the square deal I mean not merely that I stand for fair play under the present rules of the game, but that I stand for having those rules changed so as to work for a more substantial equality of opportunity and of reward for equally good service."

These generalizations Roosevelt accompanied by specific recommendations. They included proposals for publicity of corporate affairs; prohibition of the use of corporate funds, for political purposes; governmental supervision of the capitalization of all corporations doing an interstate business; control and supervision of corporations and combinations controlling necessaries of life; holding the officers and directors of corporations personally liable when any corporation breaks the law; an expert tariff commission and revision of the tariff schedule by schedule; a graduated income tax and a graduated inheritance tax, increasing rapidly in amount with the size of the estate; conservation of natural resources and their use for the benefit of all rather than their monopolization for the benefit of the few; public accounting for all campaign funds before election; comprehensive workmen's compensation acts, state and national laws to regulate child labor and work for women, the enforcement of sanitary conditions for workers and the compulsory use of safety appliances in industry.

There was nothing in all these proposals that should have seemed revolutionary or extreme. But there was much that disturbed the reactionaries who were thinking primarily in terms of property and only belatedly or not at all of human rights. The Bourbons in the Republican party and their supporters among the special interests "viewed with, alarm" this frank attack upon their intrenched privileges. The Progressives, however, welcomed with eagerness this robust leadership. The breach in the Republican party was widening with steadily accelerating speed.

In the fall of 1910 a new demand arose that Roosevelt should enter actively into politics. Though it came from his own State, he resisted it with energy and determination. Nevertheless the pressure from his close political associates in New York finally became too much for him, and he yielded. They wanted him to go as a delegate to the Republican State Convention at Saratoga and to be a candidate for Temporary Chairman of the Convention--the officer whose opening speech is traditionally presumed to sound the keynote of the campaign. Roosevelt went and, after a bitter fight with the reactionists in the party, led by William Barnes of Albany, was elected Temporary Chairman over Vice-President James S. Sherman. The keynote was sounded in no uncertain tones, while Mr. Barnes and his associates fidgeted and suffered.

Then came a Homeric conflict, with a dramatic climax. The reactionary gang did not know that it was beaten. Its members resisted stridently an attempt to write a direct primary plank into the party platform. They wished to rebuke Governor Hughes, who was as little to their liking as Roosevelt himself, and they did not want the direct primary. After speeches by young James Wadsworth, later United States Senator, Job Hedges, and Barnes himself, in which they bewailed the impending demise of representative government and the coming of mob rule, it was clear that the primary plank was defeated. Then rose Roosevelt. In a speech that lashed and flayed the forces of reaction and obscurantism, he demanded that the party stand by the right of the people to rule. Single-handed he drove a majority of the delegates into line. The plank was adopted. Thenceforward the convention was his. It selected, as candidate for Governor, Henry W. Stimson, who had been a Federal attorney in New York under Roosevelt and Secretary of War in Taft's Cabinet. When this victory had been won, Roosevelt threw himself into the campaign with his usual abandon and toured the State, making fighting speeches in scores of cities and towns. But in spite of Roosevelt's best efforts, Stimson was defeated.

All this active participation in local political conflicts seriously distressed many of Roosevelt's friends and associates. They felt that he was too big to fritter himself away on small matters from which he--and the cause whose great champion he was--had so little to gain and so much to lose. They wanted him to wait patiently for the moment of destiny which they felt sure would come. But it was never easy for Roosevelt to wait. It was the hardest thing in the world for him to decline an invitation to enter a fight--when the cause was a righteous one.

So the year 1911 passed by, with the Taft Administration steadily losing prestige, and the revolt of the Progressives within the Republican party continually gathering momentum. Then came 1912, the year of the Glorious Failure.