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Life After the White House
Far from Retiring, William Howard Taft Took on the Law School

In the spring of 1913, William Howard Taft, Class of 1878, and the first Yale graduate to serve as president of the United States, was nursing some wounds appropriate to his 340-lb. bulk. Not only had he been defeated after only one term in the White House, but he had lost to a Princeton-educated Democrat, Woodrow Wilson, and at least partly because Teddy Roosevelt, of the Harvard class of 1880, had run as an independent on the “Bull Moose” ticket splitting the vote in Wilson’s favor. But Taft was not about to mope, and readily accepted an offer from his alma mater to become Kent Professor of Law.

Taft had missed a summons to Yale in 1899 when he was considered for the Presidency of the University, but he chose public service instead, accepting President McKinleyrsquo;s offer to become the first governor of the Philippines. He was rewarded for his service in 1904 with a cabinet appointment as secretary of war. Two years later, Taft was elected to the Yale Corporation and continued to serve the University faithfully throughout his time in Washington, resigning only when he was appointed to the Yale faculty.

At his 30th reunion in June of 1908, the Republican nominee for president was entertained with several songs written in his honor. One, to the tune of “Waltz Me Around Again Willie,” began, “Get on your running togs Willie… the old ship of state needs a well-rounded boy,” while another proclaimed, “Our biggest man who we always said would fill the White House chair.” The ever good-natured Taft responded that although he had been too busy to see much of New Haven over the years, his heart remained “in the same dear old place.” From the White House he kept an eye on the Elm City and before leaving office secured an appropriation of more than $1 million for the construction of the monumental post office facing the Green.

Some of the better anecdotes relating to Taft’s great size originated with his Yale friends and associates. One of the first was told by Anson Phelps Stokes about the day in 1912 when, as Secretary of the University, he called upon Taft in the White House. “When I suggested to him,” said Stokes, “that he occupy a Chair of Law at the University, he said that he was afraid that a chair would not be adequate, but that if we could provide a Sofa of Law, it might be all right.” On his first day as a professor at the Law School, Taft attended a faculty meeting. According to the legendary English professor William Lyon Phelps: “It appeared there was no chair in the room sufficiently large for his frame. Someone remembered that the campus policeman, Jim Donnelly, who weighed nearly 300 pounds, owned a colossal armchair. It was sent for, brought up on the elevator, and it appeared adorned with the horns of a bull moose! Everyone, including Mr. Taft, laughed aloud.”

Taft’s course in constitutional law was a third-year requirement in the Law School and an elective for seniors in Yale College. After the Republicans reoccupied the White House in 1921, Taft was appointed chief justice of the Supreme Court. At that time, certain interests were attempting to purchase Fort Hale on the east shore of New Haven from the War Department for the purpose of converting it into an amusement park. Taft’s affection for New Haven and his interest in Nathan Hale were so great that he broke precedent as an appointee and appeared before a Congressional committee to ensure the passage of a bill to transfer title of the fort to the city.

Throughout the 1920s, while Taft was living in Washington, he kept his official residency in New Haven for voting purposes. After his death in March 1930, at the age of 72, Taft was universally eulogized for his remarkable record of service. His presidency was unique in that it marked not a high point, but a midpoint in his career. Above all, he was known for his gentle and democratic nature, manifested as he rode the streetcars of the city and conversed with workingmen and women. Said the New York Times: “Of some public men… it is said that they are the most admired of their generation; of others, that they are the most disliked or distrusted; but about Mr. Taft there is a universal agreement that he made himself the most loved.”  the end


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