Good Old Bill

Good Old Bill

W hile New Haven has been home to many who have gone on to do great things, few are more accomplished than 27th President of the United States and 10th Chief Justice of the Supreme Court William Howard Taft.

Taft’s personal relationship with New Haven stemmed from his father’s: Alphonso Taft graduated from Yale College in 1833, co-founded the secretive yet infamous Skull and Bones society and graduated from Yale Law in 1838.

William grew up in Mount Auburn, Ohio, but it was New Haven where, following in his father’s footsteps, he earned his undergraduate degree at Yale and accepted what was likely a sho0-in membership in Skull and Bones, and where he distinguished himself from Dad with an intramural wrestling championship. There, his friends came to refer to him as “Old Bill.”

Though William returned to Ohio for a time following graduation, New Haven was to be his adopted home for much of his life. During his presidential term from 1909 to 1912, Taft returned to New Haven for two summers, making his home at a Victorian mansion on Davis Island, one of the Thimble Islands. And at the end of his tenure as President, New Haven was his destination. (More on that later.)

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The list of key presidential accomplishments for Taft, a Republican, doesn’t exactly track with the Republican Party we know today:

• He helped pass the Mann-Elkins Act of 1910, which gave the Interstate Commerce Commission more authority to regulate railroad rates and expanded their jurisdiction to include regulating telephone, telegraph, and wireless radio. This was the precursor to the FCC.

• He oversaw anti-trust breakups of Standard Oil, American Tobacco Company, American Sugar Refining Company, and 96 others.

• He employed “Dollar Diplomacy,” pushing investment in Latin American and East Asian countries where the U.S. sought to have an interest in business and political policy.

• He avoided direct war with Mexico during uprisings that killed and injured several Americans.

• He helped pass the 16th Amendment, which allowed the federal government to levy an income tax.

Then, in 1912, America experienced one of its most unusual presidential elections. Teddy Roosevelt, bitterly disappointed with Taft for, among other things, his part in what’s known as the Ballinger-Pinchot Affair—in which Taft fired Department of Agriculture heavyweight Gifford Pinchot for his opposition to a sell-off of public lands to private developers—tried to reclaim the Republican nomination, lost at the convention and founded the short-lived Progressive—a.k.a. Bull Moose—Party. As the Bull Moose candidate, Roosevelt ran an upstart campaign during the general election, achieving a second-place finish behind winner Woodrow Wilson. Embarrassingly, the incumbent Taft came in third, carrying only Vermont and Utah.

But Washington’s loss was New Haven’s gain, and perhaps Taft’s as well. He was appointed Chancellor Kent Professor of Law and Legal History at Yale Law School and once again returned to the Elm City, making his home at The Hotel Taft—now The Taft Apartments—in 1913. (While many have assumed that the hotel was named for William, it was actually named for his brother Horace, who was headmaster of the Taft School in Watertown.)

Sometime afterward, Taft, perhaps tired of hotel living, purchased a home at 111 Whitney Avenue to serve as his New Haven estate. In 1918, Taft was called back to Washington to co-chair the National War Labor Board. He would lease out the Whitney property and return to The Hotel Taft when he came home to New Haven. But with his appointment as Chief Justice of the Supreme Court in 1921—he’s the only person in American history to have held both the Presidency and the Chief Justice’s seat on the Court, by the way—Washington had finally pulled Taft away for good. He sold his house in New Haven for $25,000, and bade what we imagine was a very fond farewell to the city that had nurtured his most formative years, soothed the incomparable stresses of his presidency, and revived him following his most public defeat.

Over the years, many a Taft has attended Yale and then gone on to public service. In a dynasty that reads like the character list of a Gabriel García Márquez novel, Alphonso, William Howard, Robert Alphonso, Robert Jr., Robert Alphonso “Bob” II, William Howard IV and more have made New Haven their home during that formative time in their lives.

Why this generations-long drive to serve? Likely, it’s due in part to a family culture of public engagement. High-minded Yale’s influence probably has something to do with it too.

But maybe it’s also in the fabric of New Haven. The next time you stroll by The Taft Apartments or 111 Whitney Avenue or through the Yale campus, take a moment to consider that New Haven has produced thousands of public servants who have worked toward the common good, with more on the way. William Howard Taft would be proud.

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