By George W. Liebmann
(Twelve Tables Press, 432 pages, $29)
Which is America’s longest-lived influential political dynasty? Author George W. Liebmann says it is the five generations of Taft Ohio Republicans, compared to only “four generations of Adamses, three of Rockefellers and Kennedys, and two each of Oyster Bay and Hyde Park Roosevelts.” Liebmann even contends that the Tafts had an impact on the present shape of American society that “may well be greater than that of any of the other political families” that are better known. The well-researched and captivating details about the several dozen successful family members of both sexes in his new book, The Tafts, proves him correct.
Liebmann writes to “interest conservative Republicans and independent voters who suspect that fashionable historians have provided them with only a partial and partisan version of twentieth-century history.” Readers will not be disappointed in learning about the many amazing Taft family members, although it is obviously impossible to cover that many in a review. Clearly, William Howard Taft (the president) and Robert A. Taft (the longtime Senate Republican leader) cannot be ignored, and I consider the two here as representative of the depth of consideration Liebmann gives to the remainder of his excellent characterizations.
Liebmann claims and demonstrates that President William Howard Taft “served in more significant and varied public offices than any other American.” Consider this: He was a local government prosecutor, lawyer, and judge. He took on the positions of U.S. solicitor general, judge for the 6th Circuit Court of Appeals, governor-general of the Philippines, and U.S. secretary of war, a resume difficult to match. But then he became president of the United States and, finally, chief justice of the U.S. Supreme Court. And those are just the highlights, the rest of which can be obtained by reading the book itself.
The author argues that William Howard’s political career was unified by a “hostility to concentrations of power, public, private and nonprofit.” He was a principal draftsman of the progressive Sherman Antitrust Act and, as solicitor general, brought its first cases. He continued this campaign as president, when he brought more antitrust cases than Teddy Roosevelt. William supported the income-tax amendment and corporate income taxes, as well as most of the provisions of the regulatory Hepburn and Clayton acts.
Yet, Liebmann also shows that the president “preserved the Republican party as a conservative force.” He supported lowering the protective tariff and strongly opposed national strikes and union secondary boycotts. He was against judges writing temporary restraining orders. He upheld the federal commerce power but opposed exercising taxing power for regulatory purposes. His Judiciary Act expanded the Supreme Court’s control over its docket, with specific limits placed on the president and Congress. He favored congressional support to declare war and a restrained foreign-policy approach with Mexico.
As chief justice, he struck down Clayton Antitrust Act provisions that barred injunctions against labor picketing, arguing that even peaceful picketing could deprive business owners of their property without due process of law. His majority opinion in Myers v. United States invalidated tenure of office acts, thus limiting the power of the president to remove subordinates.
Liebmann describes the Tafts as “examples of responsible citizenship,” with his goal being “to remove the bushel over their light” placed there by political partiality.
Liebmann throughout refers to the Taft family’s progressive aspects — presumably to appeal to the historians who he believes have underplayed the importance of the senior Taft. But that strategy becomes even more difficult for his eldest son, Senate leader Robert A. Taft. Born in 1889, Robert was admitted to the Ohio bar in 1913, worked as a businessman, and served as a counsel to food and relief administrations during and following World War I, in the Ohio House of Representatives (1921–31), and in the state senate (1931–32). He was elected to the U.S. Senate in 1938 and became a leader almost from the start, raising in power when Republicans broke through the New Deal stronghold and won a Senate majority in 1947. A bit behind Dad, but not much.
Liebmann again describes several areas where the younger Taft took a more progressive stance. Robert opposed abuse of the Senate filibuster and revenue-sharing grants without national controls. Even with labor-law restrictions, he continued to support Norris–La Guardia Act private labor injunctions. He opposed the wartime conscription of labor, seizures of industrial plants, drafting of strikers, universal military training, segregation, and legislation authorizing detention of native-born persons of Japanese descent. He favored the solution of taxation rather than borrowing to meet war expenses, and he opposed executive wars entered without the authorization of Congress.
But Robert is also shown as having one of the most-conservative Senate voting records. He supported economy in government, a balanced budget, and decreased centralization of power in the nation’s capital. He was an anti-interventionist before the Pearl Harbor attack but a moderate on foreign policy thereafter. He sponsored limited federal aid for education, health, and housing, but with two conditions: Public housing would only go to people in slums, and administration would be placed in the hands of state and local authorities. The Senate leader’s greatest achievement was the 1947 Taft–Hartley Labor-Management Relations Act, which restricted excessive New Deal union power, rewriting constraints still in force today.
There is no question that the Tafts are a remarkable family and have remained so throughout a very long period of time. William Howard’s daughter, Helen Taft Manning, was a dean at Bryn Mawr College; Robert’s son Robert A. Taft Jr. became a U.S. senator; Robert A. Taft III was governor of Ohio; John T. Taft was an author; John G. Taft has fought fiduciary abuses; William Howard Taft IV was relatively recently deputy secretary of defense; and there are many, many more.
Liebmann writes about them all as “examples of responsible citizenship,” with his goal being “to remove the bushel over their light” placed there by academic or political partiality. The book has been promoted with the explanation that it represents a “narrative of a kind of progressive conservatism not presently in vogue.” This progressive conservatism is defined very broadly as an “unusual commitment to academic excellence, personal self-discipline, and modesty in public life,” as support for “vocational education, children’s health inspections, building-level works councils, limitation of great fortunes, prudence in foreign policy, dislike of unfunded pension plans, caution about foreign adventures, a disciplined judiciary, and hostility to over-large institutions, corporations, unions and foundations.”
Liebmann’s research is impressive and teaches much, but it certainly does not make a case for Taft progressivism — even if only “in important respects” — especially for 14-year “Mr. Republican” Senate leader Robert Taft Sr., who was defeated for the Republican presidential nomination twice by more-progressive-supported GOP candidates. While President Taft was conventionally progressive in his early years, he moved right and was denied reelection by archetypical progressives Teddy Roosevelt and Woodrow Wilson. And of his chief-justice years, it is hard to disagree with the conservative think tank conclusion that “[m]ost of his decisions were cautiously conservative and constraining of government.”
The Heritage Foundation’s Lee Edwards has noted that Robert once said he was a liberal conservative but defined liberal as merely someone “willing to accept change, who believes in freedom for others, and is sufficiently open-minded to be able to consider any proposal that is made to him.” I would agree that there is some continuity among the major Tafts, but the unifying theme seems to be more that of a Midwest-Ohio-township moderate conservatism rather than that of a theoretical progressivism added to mollify critics.
Better to read the book and come to your own conclusion about a family that provided responsible conservative leadership for so long. It will be a rewarding and mind-expanding experience.
Donald Devine is senior scholar at the Fund for American Studies. He is the author of The Enduring Tension: Capitalism and the Moral Order, from Encounter Books; America’s Way Back: Reclaiming Freedom, Tradition, and Constitution; and Political Management of the Bureaucracy. He served as President Ronald Reagan’s director of the U.S. Office of Personnel Management during his first term and can be followed on Twitter @donalddevineco1.
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