William Howard Taft - Conclusions
What did Taft accomplish? No great scandal or corruption marred his term, he did not take any steps backward, and his legislative record included many solid achievements: the first tariff revision since 1897, the placing of conservation on a legal basis, improvement of railroad regulation, and an antitrust crusade. To these should be added the building of most of the Panama Canal and, despite cabinet, congressional, and family advisers who counseled against reform measures, the passage of more than fifty minor progressive acts. Two amendments were added to the Constitution, and he had economized on spending yet made government more efficient. He also had peacefully settled a number of international disputes, launched the most ambitious attempt yet made to obtain world peace, and steadily maintained a policy of neutrality toward Mexico.
Against Taft's accomplishments must be weighed several failures: his gaff with respect to the Payne-Aldrich Tariff; his inability to obtain Canadian reciprocity and general arbitration treaties; his poor handling of the Ballinger-Pinchot affair; his failure to follow the Roosevelt policies; and his treatment of the insurgents, which split his party and allowed Democrats and progressive Republicans to win Congress in 1910 and the presidency and Congress in 1912. Liberals were appalled at his refusal to do anything for blacks or to grant independence to the Filipinos. Last, his dollar diplomacy in Latin America and the Far East greatly added to ill will against the United States and failed to earn profits for American business or obtain economic and political stability or peace in the countries to which it was directed, and his "shopkeeper mentality" irritated Britain, Japan, and Russia. Last, in part because of his parsimoniousness, he did little to strengthen the military power of the nation.
Whether Taft was a good, rather than bad, president calls for an examination of personal characteristics that may explain his lack of additional accomplishment. An unpretentious man with singular charm and simple personal desires, high-minded, just-minded, and clean-minded, he was in no way devious or demagogic. A sensitive man, he craved affection and approval, and often deprecated himself in favor of those he thought better men. He was not a competitive or congenital politician like Roosevelt; he simply had no political ambition and could not become another Roosevelt. He took color from those last around him. He lacked the sense to lead the people along the paths they wished to travel. Very lazy, loving tranquillity, no renovator or innovator, he was more suited to inhabit the cloistered serenity of a high court, particularly when he was better at judicial than legislative interpretation.
With a mechanistic view of government, President Taft acted like an engineer trying to make the agencies of government work together. A conservative by education and choice, he did not understand the dynamics of pressure groups and never learned how to mobilize power in the political system, how to balance (as Roosevelt did) the advocates of reform against those of reaction, or how to forgive those who crossed him in politics. Unlike Roosevelt, he sought advice from very few men, disdained publicity, and lacked the flair for engaging the public's emotions. In consequence, he got a bad press. Roosevelt thought of the impact his words would carry; Taft procrastinated in preparing his speeches and too often said the wrong thing. His view of the presidency and of the Constitution was narrow and defensive, and he had high regard for the rights of the business community. In sum, he concerned himself with materialistic rather than social or moral matters, and he was praised most for his great service "to the cause of conservative constitutionalism, which he defended steadily against the assaults of direct democracy." Even when one grants the tempestuous politics of his tenure, his administration alone can be held responsible for the breakup of the Republican party.
Taft's contemporaries placed him "far from the bottom, though not near the top." Neither a Washington nor a Grant, he was as average as Madison or Monroe, a conclusion upheld in several studies of the presidency. Particularly when viewed between the progressive presidents Roosevelt and Wilson, he remains a constitutional conservator.