Biography of William Howard Taft Through 10 Interesting Facts


William Howard Taft was an American politician and jurist who holds the unique honor of serving as both the President of the United States and the Chief Justice of the Supreme Court. Born into an influential family, Taft attended the Yale College where he was a member of the famous secret society Skull and Bones. With support of Theodore Roosevelt, Taft became the 27th President of U.S. but the two later became bitter rivals and stood against each other for the Republican nomination in the 1912 elections. Taft remained devoted to his wife Helen Herron throughout their marriage. They had three children who did well in their fields. Despite his achievements, Taft is often remembered for being the heaviest U.S. President and for being stuck in the White House bathtub, even though that incident is most probably untrue. Know more about the family, life, career, wife and death of President Taft through these 10 interesting facts.


#1 His father served as U.S. Secretary of War under President Ulysses S. Grant

The first known ancestor of the Taft family is Robert Taft Sr., who was born about 1640 in England and immigrated to Braintree, Massachusetts, U.S. around 1675. The wife of his grandson, Lydia Chapin Taft, is the first woman known to legally vote in colonial America, which she did on October 30, 1756. William Howard Taft’s father, Alphonso Taft, was an American jurist and politician who served as Attorney General and Secretary of War under President Ulysses S. Grant in 1876–77. William Howard Taft was the second child of Alphonso and his second wife Louisa Maria “Louise” Torrey. Their first child died in infancy. William Howard had two brothers and a sister; and two elder step brothers. Alphonso fathered four more children, three with his first wife and one with his second, but they all died young. William Howard’s brothers Henry Waters Taft and Horace Dutton Taft became renowned in the fields of law and education respectively.

Alphonso Taft
Alphonso Taft – Father of William Howard Taft


#2 Taft was a member of the famous Yale secret society Skull and Bones

William Howard Taft was born on September 15, 1857 in Cincinnati, Ohio. In 1870, at the age of 13, William entered the Woodward High School in Cincinnati. He graduated from the school in 1874. The same year he entered the Yale College in New Haven, Connecticut. Skull and Bones is a famous secret society at Yale University which often features in conspiracy theories, which claim that the society plays a role in a global conspiracy for world control. William Howard Taft was a member of Skull and Bones. His father Alphonso Taft had in fact co-founded the society with William Huntington Russell. William Howard was also a wrestler during his college years. He was known more for his hard work than for being the most intelligent. William Howard Taft graduated from Yale in 1878, second in his class of 121. He then attended Cincinnati Law School and graduated with a Bachelor of Laws degree in 1880.

Yale Photograph of William Howard Taft
Photograph of William Howard Taft when he was at Yale College


#3 He met his future wife at a bobsledding party

Bobsleigh or bobsled is a sport of sliding down an incline in a sleigh, with teammates. Taft met Helen Herron, often referred to by her nickname “Nellie”, at a bobsledding party in Cincinnati in 1879; when he was 22 and she was 18. He asked her out for the first time in February 1880 and a couple of years later they started going out regularly. Taft proposed to Nellie in 1885 and they married on June 19, 1886, at the home of the bride’s parents in Cincinnati. They had two sons and a daughter: Robert A. Taft, who went on to represent Ohio in the U.S. senate; Helen Taft Manning, who became the dean of Bryn Mawr College in Pennsylvania; and Charles Phelps Taft II, who served as Mayor of Cincinnati. Nellie Taft was ambitious for her husband and encouraged his political career despite his often-stated preference for the judiciary. She played an important role when Taft oversaw US rule in the Philippines in the 1900s by working on cultural projects and through her insistence on complete racial equality.

William Howard Taft with wife and son
William Howard Taft with his wife Nellie and his son Charles Phelps


#4 His work in the Philippines is considered one of his most important achievements

In 1881, Taft was appointed Assistant Prosecutor of Hamilton County, Ohio. In 1887, he was appointed judge of the Cincinnati Superior Court. In February 1890, President Benjamin Harrison appointed him as the Solicitor General of the United States. Taft was successful as Solicitor General winning 15 of the 18 cases he argued before the Supreme Court. He held that post till March 1892. From 1892 to 1900, Taft served as the judge of the Sixth U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals. In 1900, Taft was asked by President William McKinley to head a commission to oversee US rule in the Philippines. Taft’s Philippine commission is considered to be highly successful improving the education and infrastructure of the island nation, among other things. Taft’s work in the Philippines brought him national attention and he was appointed U.S. Secretary of War under President Theodore Roosevelt in 1904. A post he kept till 1908.

William Howard Taft in 1909
William Howard Taft in 1909


#5 The presidency of Taft is most known for anti-trust legislation and Dollar Diplomacy

When Roosevelt declared that he would not run for re-election in 1908, he believed his War Secretory was his logical successor. With Roosevelt’s support, Taft easily gained the Republican nomination. In the 1908 United States presidential election, William Howard Taft defeated the Democratic nominee William Jennings Bryan to become the 27th President of the United States. As president, Taft implemented vigorous anti-trust legislation to promote fair competition for the benefit of consumers; expanded the jurisdiction of the Interstate Commerce Commission (ICC) allowing it to suspend railroad rate hikes and to set rates; and used a foreign policy known as Dollar Diplomacy by which America used its economic power and private capital to further its interests overseas.


#6 Taft had a close friendship, and later a bitter rivalry, with Theodore Roosevelt

William Howard Taft and Theodore Roosevelt had once been close friends. However during the Presidency of Taft a rift grew between Roosevelt and Taft as they became the leaders of the Republican Party’s two wings: the progressives, led by Roosevelt, and the conservatives, led by Taft. Among other things, the progressive Republicans favored restrictions on the employment of women and children, were sympathetic toward labor unions and wanted popular election of federal and state judges as opposed to appointments. The conservatives favored business leaders over labor unions and were generally opposed to the popular election of judges. The Republican nomination battle for the 1912 U.S. presidential election was brutal and personal. Though Taft won, Roosevelt created the Progressive Party with his supporters and ran for election. In the end Democrat Woodrow Wilson won the election with Roosevelt in second place and Taft at third.

Cartoon on Taft-Roosevelt quarrel
For Auld Lang Syne – 1912 political cartoon on the Taft-Roosevelt quarrel


#7 William Howard Taft is the only U.S. President who also served as Chief Justice

Though Taft had become the President of U.S., he had always wanted to be the Chief Justice. He achieved this goal post presidency when on July 11, 1921, he was sworn in as Chief Justice of the Supreme Court. William Howard Taft was the first and to date he remains the only person to serve both as the President and the Chief Justice of U.S. As Chief Justice, he administered the oath of office to the 30th and 31st Presidents of the United States, Calvin Coolidge and Herbert Hoover, who were both incidentally Republican like Taft. When Taft became Chief Justice, the court didn’t have its own building and met at the United States Capitol. In 1929, Taft argued successfully for the Court to have its own headquarters to distance itself from Congress as an independent branch of government. The United States Supreme Court Building was completed in 1935, five years after the death of Taft.

1925 U.S. Supreme Court Justices
1925 U.S. Supreme Court Justices with Taft seated at the center


#8 The famous bathtub incident regarding Taft is most probably untrue

William Howard Taft weighed more than 300 pounds (136 kg) in most of his adult life with his weight being around 340 pounds (154 kg) toward the end of his presidency. He was nicknamed “Big Bill”. A popular story regarding Taft is that he became stuck in the White House bathtub and a new one had to be installed. This story is not backed by evidence and is most probably untrue. When Taft was President, a specially crafted tub, which was more than 7 feet long, 41 inches wide and weighed a ton, was installed in the White House in which he couldn’t possibly get stuck. There is a well known photo of that tub with the four bathtub installers sitting in it. However, there was at least one incident involving a bathtub which was true. In 1915, Taft entered a hotel tub but failed to take the fluid displacement into account. The dirty water flooded the floor and trickled onto the heads of guests in the downstairs dining room.

Taft White House bathtub
Four bathtub installers sitting in Taft’s especially designed giagantic bathtub


#9 He is often remembered for being the heaviest President in U.S. history

Taft had a constant struggle with his weight. He lost weight a number of times in his life but he usually regained it, probably by reverting to his old eating habits. However, after leaving the White House, Taft lost 70 pounds under the guidance of a doctor. He gave up meat and liquor among other things and stated, I can truthfully say that I never felt any younger in all my life. He carefully planned a fitness regime and by 1929 he weighed just 244 pounds (111 kg). Despite his accomplishments, Taft is often remembered as the heaviest President in U.S. history. It has also been noted that he was the most recent president to have facial hair throughout his presidency as opposed to being clean shaven. Another fun fact about him is that he had a tendency to sleep at public functions and was often seen snoozing at operas, funerals and church services. His wife Nellie called him “Sleeping Beauty”.

Presidential portrait of William Howard Taft
Official White House portrait of William Howard Taft


#10 Taft is considered one the greatest chief justices of the United States

Taft retired from the post of Chief Justice of the Supreme Court on February 3, 1930 due to failing health. His health had been declining for the past few years. At the time of his retirement, he was so weak that he could barely sign a reply to a letter of tribute from the eight associate justices. William Howard Taft died at his home in Washington, D.C. on March 8, 1930. He was 72 years old and his death was caused by cerebral arteriosclerosis, a condition which is caused by thickening and hardening of the walls of the arteries in the brain. Taft was buried at Arlington National Cemetery, a military cemetery in Arlington County, Virginia. Though William Howard Taft is usually ranked in the middle of U.S. presidents by greatness, he is considered among the greatest of the chief justices. The house in Cincinnati where Taft was born and lived as a boy is now the William Howard Taft National Historic Site.

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