If Taft was satisfied with what he had accomplished by 1912, the country was not. Although he now shared the patronage and other party honors with progressives and so appeared to be their leader, the insurgents could not forget how he had hounded them in 1910. In addition, La Follette had established the National Republican League, which sought to restore the government to the people by reforms that would provide more democratic procedures not only in government but in political party organization as well. Believing the league to be La Follette's instrument for seeking the presidential nomination, Roosevelt had refused to join it, but on 21 January 1911, La Follette and others had created the National Progressive Republican League, which grew so rapidly that both Taft and Roosevelt had to take it seriously into account.
La Follette made great gains in the Middle and Far West by lambasting Taft's lack of policy and direction, but he could not shake off the feeling that his leadership of the league would be lost to Roosevelt if he claimed it and well knew that Taft would control the delegates to the Republican National Convention. Moreover, in an extensive tour in September and October 1911, Taft criticized Roosevelt while nailing down southern delegates. When Roosevelt changed his mind and threw his hat into the ring, Taft felt betrayed and predicted his own defeat in 1912. He nevertheless decided to fight him because "I believe I represent a safer and saner view of our government and its Constitution than does Theodore Roosevelt, and whether beaten or not I mean to continue to labor in the vineyard for those principles."
The delegates to the first National Progressive Republican Conference, held on 16 October, endorsed La Follette and his ideas for returning the government to the people, highlighting presidential primaries, and criticized Taft's antitrust policies. On the twenty-seventh, Roosevelt also opted for presidential primaries and criticized Taft for siding with business and the old guard and never once saying anything "in consonance with humanity." In December, when Roosevelt discounted the no-third-term tradition, it was clear that he was open to a draft. Headquarters for him were opened in important cities, and in February 1912 he announced his platform and hinted to several reform governors that they should ask him to run. This they did, and he promptly accepted. After saying that human rights should be placed above all others, he went on to demand a "fair distribution of property," direct voting methods, and the recall of judicial decisions involving constitutional questions on the state level—the last soon perverted into the recall of judicial decisions. "Nothing but death can keep me out of the fight now," said Taft. It helped Roosevelt that an ill and anguished La Follette broke down while delivering an address in February, even though he did not withdraw from the race.
Thoroughly angered, Taft fought hard in a meeting of his national committee and won convention officers friendly to him. The first president to stump in a primary campaign, he struck hard at Roosevelt, saying that he fought to preserve the Constitution and saw nothing that disentitled him to stand for a second term. So believing, he rejected all progressive demands for direct political action by the people, defended the independence of the judiciary, and spoke contemptuously of the Democratic party. The old guard naturally supported this "regular" conservator of constitutionalism against the "progressive" Roosevelt.
By the end of March, with southern delegates giving him half of the majority he needed, Taft was virtually impregnable, even if many delegates chosen elsewhere were contested by Roosevelt men. By May, Taft began referring in personal terms to Roosevelt and telling his audiences that he was going to "fight him," though he confessed privately that to do so wrenched his soul. After a particularly vicious attack, he blurted out that "Roosevelt was my closest friend," and wept. Roosevelt replied in kind, saying that "it is a bad trait to bite the hand that feeds you" and that this was "a fight to the finish." In any event, the thirteen states using presidential primaries went heavily to Roosevelt, thus making him appear the truly popular choice, whereas states using the convention system generally went to Taft.
By steamroller tactics the national committee gave Taft 235 of the 254 contested delegates, whereupon Roosevelt took the unprecedented step of going to Chicago and personally assuming direction of his lost cause. With Roosevelt's men not participating in the proceedings, Taft was named on the first ballot. On the next day, shouting "We Want Teddy," Roosevelt supporters organized their own party in the greatest revolt against the Republican party since the Silver Republicans had been defeated in 1896. Roosevelt declared himself a presidential candidate and announced the formation of the National Progressive, or "Bull Moose," party. In Baltimore, Democrats chose the progressive Woodrow Wilson as their candidate for president. Since the Democratic platform closely paralleled the Progressive, Taft remained a lonely conservative.
Taft campaigned openly and honestly as a conservative, but by avoiding histrionics he failed to excite his followers. In contrast, Roosevelt's delegates, who met on 5 August at what was more a religious revival than a political meeting, spoke of the need for "social brotherhood" and "representative government" and said they would "Pass Prosperity Around." After naming Roosevelt and, for vice president, Hiram Johnson of California, the "Moosevelt" party adopted the most progressive political and social platform in American history. Roosevelt stumped the West and South; Wilson, the East and Middle West; and Taft abandoned his party. The elections gave the Democrats their greatest victory since 1892—the presidency, both houses of Congress, and twenty-one of the thirty-five gubernatorial contests. The split between Taft and Roosevelt made Wilson a minority president, with the most spectacular gains made by the Socialist candidate, Eugene V. Debs. That the country had not gone Democratic was proved because Taft and Roosevelt together polled 1,311,444 more votes than Wilson. But adding the votes of Debs, Roosevelt, and Wilson showed that 75.26 percent of the vote was progressive. Wilson received 435 electoral votes, Roosevelt 88, and Taft a mere 8 in the worst drubbing a presidential candidate had yet received.
Little was accomplished in the second and last sessions of the Sixty-second Congress by men already repudiated by the public, yet Taft had the pleasure of announcing the ratification of the Sixteenth Amendment and congressional approval of the Seventeenth. Meanwhile, he had accepted a professor-ship of law at his alma mater, Yale University.
As president, Taft had revealed himself to be a conservative conservator. In his book Popular Government (1913), he questioned the validity of enlarging the suffrage and of more democratic methods of achieving political, economic, and social democracy, and in a book published in 1916 he revealed his very restricted view of presidential power. Meanwhile, in March 1913, he went to Yale as Kent Professor of Constitutional Law and served until 30 June 1921, when President Warren Harding fulfilled Taft's lifelong hope by naming him the chief justice of the United States Supreme Court.
Taft took over a bench that was far behind in its work, so badly divided that dissents were offered in about one-fourth of the opinions handed down, and in need of new quarters. He obtained a new building and, by creating a conference of senior circuit judges to work with him, brought the business of the court almost up to date by the time he retired from the court in February 1930 because of heart trouble. As for his own decisions, on the whole he was conservative in his interpretation of the law. In Bailey v. Drexel Furniture Company , for example, he held that Congress infringed upon the rights of the states and improperly used the tax power when it taxed the products of child labor that went into interstate trade. In the Coronado Coal Company case, he denied federal jurisdiction over coal mining because such mining was not interstate commerce; as for the United Mine Workers, who had struck the company, they had unlawfully used for strike purposes the funds they had accumulated. On the other hand, his most important dissent was against a majority opinion invalidating a 1918 law that fixed a minimum wage for women in the District of Columbia ( Adkins v. Children's Hospital ). All in all, he showed a preference for federal, rather than state, control of business, while advocating broad federal power under the commerce clause of the Constitution. Although no leader in judicial thought in the same sense as Oliver W. Holmes, Louis Brandeis, or Benjamin N. Cardozo, he was a good administrator. When he died on 8 March 1930, the new Supreme Court building seemed likely to remain his most enduring monument.