William Howard Taft, by Jeffrey Rosen

In this provocative assessment, Jeffrey Rosen reveals Taft’s crucial role in shaping how America balances populism against the rule of law. Taft approached each decision as president by asking whether it comported with the Constitution, seeking to put Roosevelt’s activist executive orders on firm legal grounds. But unlike Roosevelt, who thought the president could do anything the Constitution didn’t forbid, Taft insisted he could do only what the Constitution explicitly allowed. This led to a dramatic breach with Roosevelt in the historic election of 1912, which Taft viewed as a crusade to defend the Constitution against the demagogic populism of Roosevelt and Woodrow Wilson.

Nine years later, Taft achieved his lifelong dream when President Warren Harding appointed him chief justice, and during his years on the Court he promoted consensus among the justices and transformed the judiciary into a modern, fully equal branch. Though he had chafed in the White House as a judicial president, he thrived as a presidential chief justice.

Praise for William Howard Taft

“Rosen aptly observes that by some measures — trusts prosecuted, acreage protected, tariffs reduced — Taft was more progressive than Roosevelt. Yet his style could hardly have been less Rooseveltian. Rosen, a law professor and a biographer of Louis Brandeis, makes a compelling argument for Taft’s importance as a conservator of the Constitution on the subject of presidential powers.”—The Washington Post


More about Author Jeffrey Rosen
Jeffrey Rosen is the author of several books, including Louis D. Brandeis: American Prophet. He is the president and CEO of the National Constitution Center, a law professor at George Washington University, and a contributing editor for The Atlantic. He was previously the legal affairs editor of The New Republic and a staff writer for The New Yorker.

Jeffrey Rosen is the CEO of the nonprofit National Constitution Center in Philadelphia.


Articles by Jeffrey Rosen

What Would William Howard Taft Do About Attacks on Judges?

President Taft, the Anti-Trump


The Bully Pulpit: Theodore Roosevelt, William Howard Taft and the Golden Age of Journalism, by Doris Kearns Goodwin

Doris Kearns Goodwin, winner of the Pulitzer Prize and author of Team of Rivals, captures the Progressive Era through the story of the broken friendship between Theodore Roosevelt and William Howard Taft, culminating in their running against one another for president in 1912.


More about Author Doris Kearns Goodwin

Doris Kearns Goodwin is a world-renowned presidential historian, public speaker and Pulitzer Prize-winning author.


Video link to discussion with Doris Kearns Goodwin

Library of Congress historian Michelle Krowl talks to noted author Doris Kearns Goodwin about her book, “The Bully Pulpit: Theodore Roosevelt, William Howard Taft and the Golden Age of Journalism.”



Library of Congress collection

The Library of Congress’ collection of William Howard Taft’s correspondence including letterpress books; diaries; speeches and addresses; presidential and judicial files; legal files and notebooks; family papers and correspondence; business and estate papers; engagement calendars; guest lists; scrapbooks; clippings; printed matter; memorabilia; photographs; and other papers documenting Taft’s career as U.S. solicitor general (1890-1892), U.S. circuit court judge (1892-1900), president of the U.S. Philippine Commission (1900-1901), governor of the Philippines (1901-1904), secretary of war in Theodore Roosevelt’s cabinet (1904-1908), president of the United States (1909-1913), professor of constitutional law at Yale Law School (1913-1921), and chief justice of the U.S. Supreme Court. Also documents Taft’s service as president of the American Bar Association (1913), president of the League to Enforce Peace (1915), and member and cochairman of the National War Labor Board (1918-1919).


Library of Congress video link

Library of Congress documentation of Taft’s visit to Panama. On one of many visits to Panama, William Howard Taft inspects canal construction and visits ruins in what may be the Panamanian jungle. Views of crowd of men and women on dock, posing for camera; a tugboat pulls into unidentified harbor, with Taft and General George W. Goethals, chief engineer of the Panama Canal project, seated on upper deck; Taft and entourage in formal dress board what may be the armored cruiser Tennessee, while crew stands at attention; view of cruiser deck; Taft and entourage disembark from unidentified vessel, with crowd gathered on dock; Taft party is greeted at train by General Goethals: party includes Mrs. Helen Herron Taft, wife of the President, and Federico Alfonso Pezet, minister to the United States from Peru. In last scene Taft and members of his party visit site of stone ruins in the jungle.


UVA Miller Center presidential biography

The Miller Center’s biographical information about Taft. The Miller Center is a nonpartisan affiliate of the University of Virginia that specializes in presidential scholarship, public policy, and political history and strives to apply the lessons of history to the nation’s most pressing contemporary governance challenges.


National Constitution Center video link

National Constitution Center President and CEO Jeffrey Rosen discusses his book, William Howard Taft. Rosen argues that Taft, the only man in history to serve as president and chief justice, was “our most judicial president and presidential chief justice” and explores Taft’s crucial role in shaping how America balances populism with the rule of law. Judge Douglas Ginsburg, who calls Taft “the most under-appreciated constitutional guru since George Mason”, moderates the discussion.


National Constitution Center blog link

The National Constitution Center’s discussion about Taft’s historic position as the only individual to serve as both the United States President and the Chief Justice of the Supreme Court.


Smithsonian Magazine article link

Smithsonian Magazine article by author Erick Trickey discussing how Taft left a more lasting impression on our nation through his service as Chief Justice, versus President.

“Chief Justice, Not President, Was William Howard Taft’s Dream Job”.

More about Author Erick Trickey

Erick Trickey is a writer in Boston, covering politics, history, cities, arts, and science. He has written for POLITICO Magazine, Next City, the Boston Globe, Boston Magazine, and Cleveland Magazine.


Link to America’s Library references for elementary and middle school students

Designed for elementary and middle school students, America’s Library provides the following stories related to William Howard Taft:


Jump Back in Time: Western Expansion and Reform

Jump Back in Time: Progressive Era



Library of Congress video link

In her most lasting contribution as First Lady, Nellie Taft arranged for the planting of the 3,020 Japanese cherry trees around the Tidal Basin and on Capitol grounds; with the wife of the Japanese ambassador, she personally planted the first two saplings in ceremonies on March 27, 1912.

Members of the Library of Congress discuss the exhibition “Sakura: Cherry Blossom as Living Symbols of Friendship”, as they lead a gallery tour while discussing the special collections that illuminate the history of Washington’s landmark cherry trees, the significance of cherry blossoms in Japan, and their continuing resonance in American culture and for Washingtonians in particular. Dating from the 18th to 21st centuries, the collection highlights include exquisite watercolor drawings of original blossom varieties, Japanese color woodblock prints and books, manuscripts, and an array of photographs, cartoons, posters, and other printed ephemera.


JFK Presidential Library page about Profiles in Courage, by John F. Kennedy

In the preface to Profiles in Courage, author Kennedy discusses the “problems of political courage in the face of constituent pressures, and the light shed on those problems by the lives of past statesmen.’’ He describes the three types of pressure faced by senators as pressure to be liked, pressure to be re-elected, and pressure of the constituency and interest groups. Senator Robert Taft, son of William Howard Taft, is one of the profiles.

Kennedy wrote: “This is a book about that most admirable of human virtues – courage. ‘Grace under pressure,’ Ernest Hemingway defined it.”


Ohio History Central page about Alphonso Taft

Patriarch of the Taft family, Alphonso moved to Cincinnati from Vermont in the mid 1800s.


University of Cincinnati Magazine article link

Overview of the Taft family’s contributions to Cincinnati.