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History of the United States by Charles A. Beard and Mary R. Beard

«·Legislative and Executive Activities · Progressive Insurgency and the Election of 1912·»

The Administration of President Taft

The Campaign of 1908.—Long before the end of his elective term, President Roosevelt let it be known that he favored as his successor, William Howard Taft, of Ohio, his Secretary of War. To attain this end he used every shred of his powerful influence. When the Republican convention assembled, Mr. Taft easily won the nomination. Though the party platform was conservative in tone, he gave it a progressive tinge by expressing his personal belief in the popular election of United States Senators, an income tax, and other liberal measures. President Roosevelt announced his faith in the Republican candidate and appealed to the country for his election.

The turn in Republican affairs now convinced Mr. Bryan that the signs were propitious for a third attempt to win the presidency. The disaster to Judge Parker had taught the party that victory did not lie in a conservative policy. With little difficulty, therefore, the veteran leader from Nebraska once more rallied the Democrats around his standard, won the nomination, and wrote a platform vigorously attacking the tariff, trusts, and monopolies. Supported by a loyal following, he entered the lists, only to meet another defeat. Though he polled almost a million and a half more votes than did Judge Parker in 1904, the palm went to Mr. Taft.

The Tariff Revision and Party Dissensions.—At the very beginning of his term, President Taft had to face the tariff issue. He had met it in the campaign. Moved by the Democratic demand for a drastic reduction, he had expressed opinions which were thought to imply a “downward revision.” The Democrats made much of the implication and the Republicans from the Middle West rejoiced in it. Pressure was coming from all sides. More than ten years had elapsed since the enactment of the Dingley bill and the position of many industries had been altered with the course of time. Evidently the day for revision—at best a thankless task—had arrived. Taft accepted the inevitable and called Congress in a special session. Until the midsummer of 1909, Republican Senators and Representatives wrangled over tariff schedules, the President making little effort to influence their decisions. When on August 5 the Payne-Aldrich bill became a law, a breach had been made in Republican ranks. Powerful Senators from the Middle West had spoken angrily against many of the high rates imposed by the bill. They had even broken with their party colleagues to vote against the entire scheme of tariff revision.

The Income Tax Amendment.—The rift in party harmony was widened by another serious difference of opinion. During the debate on the tariff bill, there was a concerted movement to include in it an income tax provision—this in spite of the decision of the Supreme Court in 1895 declaring it unconstitutional. Conservative men were alarmed by the evident willingness of some members to flout a solemn decree of that eminent tribunal. At the same time they saw a powerful combination of Republicans and Democrats determined upon shifting some of the burden of taxation to large incomes. In the press of circumstances, a compromise was reached. The income tax bill was dropped for the present; but Congress passed the sixteenth amendment to the Constitution, authorizing taxes upon incomes from whatever source they might be derived, without reference to any apportionment among the states on the basis of population. The states ratified the amendment and early in 1913 it was proclaimed.

President Taft’s Policies.—After the enactment of the tariff bill, Taft continued to push forward with his legislative program. He recommended, and Congress created, a special court of commerce with jurisdiction, among other things, over appeals from the interstate commerce commission, thus facilitating judicial review of the railway rates fixed and the orders issued by that body. This measure was quickly followed by an act establishing a system of postal savings banks in connection with the post office—a scheme which had long been opposed by private banks. Two years later, Congress defied the lobby of the express companies and supplemented the savings banks with a parcels post system, thus enabling the American postal service to catch up with that of other progressive nations. With a view to improving the business administration of the federal government, the President obtained from Congress a large appropriation for an economy and efficiency commission charged with the duty of inquiring into wasteful and obsolete methods and recommending improved devices and practices. The chief result of this investigation was a vigorous report in favor of a national budget system, which soon found public backing.

President Taft negotiated with England and France general treaties providing for the arbitration of disputes which were “justiciable” in character even though they might involve questions of “vital interest and national honor.” They were coldly received in the Senate and so amended that Taft abandoned them altogether. A tariff reciprocity agreement with Canada, however, he forced through Congress in the face of strong opposition from his own party. After making a serious breach in Republican ranks, he was chagrined to see the whole scheme come to naught by the overthrow of the Liberals in the Canadian elections of 1911.

Prosecution of the Trusts.—The party schism was even enlarged by what appeared to be the successful prosecution of several great combinations. In two important cases, the Supreme Court ordered the dissolution of the Standard Oil Company and the American Tobacco Company on the ground that they violated the Sherman Anti-Trust law. In taking this step Chief Justice White was at some pains to state that the law did not apply to combinations which did not “unduly” restrain trade. His remark, construed to mean that the Court would not interfere with corporations as such, became the subject of a popular outcry against the President and the judges.

«·Legislative and Executive Activities · Progressive Insurgency and the Election of 1912·»