Teddy Roosevelt’s Third Term, Part IV

William Howard Taft was a nice guy who didn’t really want to be President.

His earliest and most enduring ambition was a seat on the Supreme Court. Much like Secretary of State John Hay, who had been next in line to the presidency more than once, Taft had been considered for a vacancy on the bench multiple times. The first was in 1889, when he was just thirty-two years old. He was appointed Solicitor General instead, and then secured a lifetime appointment as a federal judge on the Sixth Circuit.

(If you’d rather listen than read, check out this episode at The History’s Trainwrecks Podcast):

He was summoned to the White House in 1900 to meet with President McKinley. He thought that here at last was his Supreme Court nomination, but McKinley assigned him to a commission whose task it was to organize a civilian government in the new American territory of the Philippines. Taft accepted on condition that he be put in charge of the commission, so that the responsibility for success or failure would be his. The President agreed, and off he went, resigning his judgeship.

He and Teddy Roosevelt had met and become friends when Taft was Solicitor General. Taft had pressed for Teddy to become Assistant Secretary of the Navy. Teddy’s wife Edith wasn’t a fan of the friendship between the two men. She thought they were too much alike, and, knowing her husband like she did, believed that Teddy did not benefit from someone who always agreed with him.

(If you prefer to listen instead of read, check out this episode at The History’s Trainwrecks Podcast)

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Taft wanted to be liked. In the overbearing presence of Theodore Roosevelt, he was more of a pliable confidante than someone who spoke truth to power. When Teddy was President, he had a little fun with his big friend’s judicial ambitions, showing him a photo of the current healthy-looking Chief Justice and telling him that he would “have to wait a long time.”

A Supreme Court vacancy opened up in 1902, and President Roosevelt considered Taft, who refused, believing that finishing his work in the Philippines was more important. This was a big lesson for the President, who realized the value of Taft’s commitment and abilities. He nominated Taft to be his Secretary of War when his Philippines gig ended.

Instead of overseeing the military, Taft became Teddy’s executive troubleshooter, becoming involved in issues outside of the normal portfolio of War Secretary, like getting the Panama Canal off the ground and going to Japan to facilitate the preliminary negotiations that ended the Russo-Japanese War and got Theodore Roosevelt his Nobel Peace Prize. He was so reliable that Teddy felt free to leave Washington on more extended trips, leaving “Big Bill” (Taft weighed three hundred pounds) to “sit on the lid.”

Another Supreme Court seat came open in 1905, but Taft refused it, even though it was offered by his best pal the President of the United States.

For a guy with a lifelong ambition to sit on the nation’s highest court, this was a perplexing strategy.

Turns out it was his wife, Nellie Taft, who kept getting him to turn down these appointments. She wanted her husband to be President more than her husband wanted to be Chief Justice of the Supreme Court, and she wore the pants in the Taft house. By 1905, it was clear to everyone that Taft would be Teddy’s successor in 1908, and Nellie Taft was already “mentally redecorating the White House.”

The elephant in the room was Teddy’s overwhelming popularity and the indisputable list of his achievements: the Panama Canal, American hegemony over the Western Hemisphere, a navy that had leapfrogged to one of the top five in the world, a successful end to the Russo-Japanese War, a booming economy, improved working conditions, safer food and drugs, and a check on American monopolists. Even Teddy’s sworn enemies like Senator Ben Tillman admitted that he “strides the world like a colossus.” Mark Twain called him “the most popular human being that has ever existed in the United States.”

Another term as President, except for his impulsive pledge on Election Night in 1904, lay neatly in his hands.

And he knew it.

***

Roosevelt’s preference for his successor, whether undergoing surgery, trekking through the wilderness in search of game, or in the back of his mind while he daily engaged in dangerous shenanigans (his wife Edith, frustrated, said she wished he would do his bleeding in the bathroom) was Elihu Root, who had alternately served as Secretary of War and Secretary of State in the Roosevelt Administration. Root was as intellectually fierce as Teddy but less flamboyant, with a cool levelheadedness that Teddy admired and aspired to but was congenitally unable to achieve. He knew Root couldn’t be elected — his private practice as a corporate lawyer, ironically, put him in the class of people that his boss had singled out as America’s great enemy.

Teddy waffled between the kind of stable and responsible statesmanship Root (and plenty of other candidates) offered, and his desire to remain President by proxy through a pliant surrogate. Elihu Root was made of steel; Taft was “warm dough” that Teddy believed “could be permanently imprinted ‘T.R.’” If Theodore Roosevelt had kept himself from serving another term, Taft was as close as he could get.

But still, temptation. The Washington Post said, “There is but one man who can prevent the Republican Party from nominating Theodore Roosevelt for re-election in 1908, and that man is Theodore Roosevelt himself.”

Teddy spent the last two years of his presidency fending off re-nomination and no doubt kicking himself for promising not to run. Aside from costing him another wild ride through the White House, he had made himself a lame-duck President. Were it not for his mastery of public relations and the press, his legislative achievements would have been few, and the only problems left for him to solve would have been like the one he dug up on his trip to the Panama Canal Zone in 1906: the quality of yams.

His seventeen-day trip to the Canal Zone made Teddy the first President to “make an official diplomatic tour outside the United States.” Being who he was, he also had to take the controls of a giant steam shovel and drive it around for a bit. While poking his nose into conditions of the workers, he found that morale was low among the nineteen thousand workers from the British West Indies. One of the major reasons was that Panama yams were markedly inferior to Jamaica yams. “There appeared to be a direct correlation between yam quality and productivity along the line, perilous to the future of world commerce.”

Covered in mud, the President stomped into one of the Canal Zone’s commissaries, demanding “Let me see your yams!”

International Diplomacy Safety Tip Number Two Hundred Fifty Seven: When the President of the United States wants to see your yams, you show him your yams.

Teddy’s intervention resulted in an improvement of the food overall in the Canal Zone (with special yam emphasis) and the work continued.

Teddy was riding high in the run up to the 1908 election, knowing that “if he so much as winked, a popular majority would form to re-elect him.” And he was just forty-eight years old. Consider for a moment what those couple of years must have been like. Victory was pretty much guaranteed, Teddy was still a young man, and he believed, along with the country and the world, that he was doing the kind of good he had always wanted to do. He had known since his first elective office that power in the right hands could change the world for the better, but here he was, actively working to give it up. For those who thought that Teddy was incapable of self-control, this was the real answer.

Teddy’s struggles to avoid another term were subject to presidential understatement. He wrote his son Kermit, “At the moment I am having a slightly irritating time with well-meaning but foolish friends who want me to run for a third term.” His forthright and sassy eldest daughter Alice referred to it as a “second elective term.” Other than Democrats, Teddy himself was one of the few men in the country who didn’t want to see him run in 1908. He had to keep repeating his 1904 pledge, though it must have galled him: “I have not changed and shall not change the decision thus announced.”

Even worse, William Howard Taft, that nice fellow who just wanted to sit on the bench, was a disappointing candidate with no shortage of challengers. In order to help his chosen successor, Teddy had to do more planning and campaigning than Taft himself did, using his bully pulpit to steal the spotlight from Taft’s more energetic challengers like the popular Governor Charles Evans Hughes.

As the Republican convention approached, the attempts to get Teddy to run again intensified. Two West Virginia delegates pledged to Taft switched their votes to Roosevelt, who had to write a strongly worded letter to their congressman ordering them to go back to Taft. Even while scolding those who believed he was secretly scheming for another term, he said, “There has never been a moment when I could not have had practical unanimity without raising a finger.”

But he was serious about it. Henry Adams, scion of America’s greatest family of adorable curmudgeons (and no fan of Theodore Roosevelt), peered dyspeptically out his window at the Executive Mansion and wrote, “The old house will seem dull and sad when my Theodore has gone.”

***

The Democrats ran two-time presidential loser William Jennings Bryan once again, somehow believing that the handpicked successor of the most popular President in decades could be beaten by the fellow who hadn’t even been able to best William McKinley. Twice.

The Republican convention of 1908 was a mess. The clear frontrunner secretly dreaded winning, his predecessor was fighting himself to keep from claiming the nomination, and the nominee’s wife, mentally rearranging furniture in the West Wing, alternated between resenting Theodore Roosevelt’s crucial assistance to her husband’s candidacy and praying that his support didn’t disappear. The convention had erupted into bedlam for forty-nine minutes at the mention of Teddy’s name. When the telegrams tabulating the length of applause for Taft started to come in, Nellie Taft snapped, “I only want it to last more than forty-nine minutes.” Sadly, the ovation was over in less than thirty. The nominee himself had recently told a friend that if someone on the Supreme Court suddenly died, he’d be happy to take the job.

The next four years were not looking so good for Mr. and Mrs. William Howard Taft.

Taft and his overweight running mate, Congressman James Sherman, with a combined weight of over five hundred pounds, was surely “the heaviest package ever presented to the American people.” The Republican ticket got nearly twice the Electoral College votes as their opponents. Teddy, who “knew himself well enough to know that he would want to reassume control of the government within weeks” after Inauguration Day, planned a year-long safari to Africa. It was said that “The stability of the country, and his own blood pressure, might best be preserved if he withdrew to an environment as remote as possible from Washington.”

The next First Lady probably would have helped him pack and driven him to the train station herself.

***

Both the contemporary and subsequent historical conclusion on Theodore Roosevelt’s self-imposed exile from the the United States after Taft’s swearing in is that he left the country to remove the temptation to take over the Taft Administration.

He knew that Taft himself would be seeking his counsel (like the embarrassing day Taft spent at Teddy’s house on Sagamore Hill on his way to make his first speech as the Republican nominee. It looked like the heir apparent was stopping to get his instructions, or, incapable of independent thought, advice on what to do next. The press whispered about a puppet in the White House.

But it is important to remember that Teddy Roosevelt’s political life, and his astounding success, was due in a large part to his morality. He had no mind for economics or the intricacies of domestic policy; he operated from a clear sense of right and wrong.

It is entirely plausible that he went to Africa to give Taft no option but to stand on his own two feet, and be President in his own right. Not only did he want Taft to succeed, but he wanted Taft to do it on his own.

Also, we’re talking about a fellow who fought off the Presidency tooth and nail when taking it would have been the easiest thing in the world. Substituting popular election for some kind of puppet master role made no sense.

In short, we should not underestimate Theodore Roosevelt the way many of his contemporaries did. By leaving the country, he was doing what he thought was best for the nation and his friend, the new President of the United States.

***

One other concern, which probably weighed more heavily on Edith Roosevelt than Theodore, was that, in the way of ex-Presidents at the time, the Roosevelt’s were kind of broke. No pension or underwriting of expenses for former Presidents yet existed, and former occupants of the White House were faced with the prospect of getting a job once they left Washington.

Teddy had spent his entire presidential salary on entertaining, had given away the $40,000 that came with his Nobel Prize because, as he told Congress, he hadn’t won it as a private citizen, and he had squandered much of his inherited wealth on bad investments out west. The expenses of the African safari were underwritten by Andrew Carnegie, evil business mogul turned philanthropist, and Teddy had a lucrative magazine contract to write about his experiences. Edith reminded him upon leaving the White House that he still had two children to put through college and that he was absolutely horrible when it came to money.

For many, many good reasons, Theodore Roosevelt went to Africa.

Ultimately, what would have been best for all concerned was for each man to get his heart’s fondest desire: another (and final) term as President for Teddy, after which he could finally lay down his burdens, knowing that he had done all he could. A seat on the highest court in the land for Taft, where his brilliant legal mind could do what it was always meant to do. Forcing these two square pegs into round holes created an off-kilter situation that could only be resolved through disaster.

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There are many historical figures who seemed to have everything going for them — Aaron Burr, George McClellan, Herbert Hoover, Douglas MacArthur, and more — but lost out to people who had been relative nobodies. History’s Trainwrecks tries to figure out what happened…

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Historian

Historian

Host of the History’s Trainwrecks Podcast — this is the stuff they never taught us in history class.

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