Taft in the White House
In the election of 1908, Roosevelt’s hand picked successor, William
Howard Taft, won by a large margin on a conservative platform.
Taft, however, could not match Roosevelt’s popularity or legislative
success. Although he continued Roosevelt’s progressive reform programs,
his pace was more gradual, and he even lent his support to some
conservative pro-business policies. His policies divided the Republican
Party into progressive and conservative factions.
Reform Under Taft
Taft supported corporate regulation, and even strengthened
the Interstate Commerce Commission’s powers and extended its authority
to the telephone and telegraph industries. He surpassed the Roosevelt
administration in trust-busting. Taft prosecuted ninety cases compared
to Roosevelt’s forty-three. These cases, however, did not achieve
the same level of publicity or impact as those under Roosevelt,
and so Taft was generally considered a less aggressive trust-buster.
Additional reform under Taft centered on two amendments
to the Constitution, both ratified after he exited office. In 1913,
the Sixteenth Amendment granted Congress the authority
to tax income. After the amendment passed, Congress quickly established
a graduated income tax with a maximum tax rate of 7 percent. The Seventeenth
Amendment, also ratified in 1913, provided for direct election
of U.S. senators by the people rather than their selection by state
legislatures. This amendment was one part of a general movement for
government reform, under which the public took an increasingly powerful
and direct role in electing officials.
In foreign affairs, Taft moved away from Roosevelt’s
“big stick” policies toward what became known as “dollar diplomacy.”
Aiming to avoid military intervention, Taft argued that the influx of
American investment abroad, as well as the advancement of American
economic interests, would promote stability. Dollar diplomacy failed
in China, where European and Japanese economic interests squeezed
American businesses out, and it proved only marginally more successful
elsewhere. In 1912, Taft finally resorted to military intervention
in Nicaragua when he sent marines in to suppress a revolt.
Taft alienated the progressive members of his party by
supporting the Payne-Aldrich Act, which raised protective tariff
rates—a move supported by conservative pro-business interests. He
further outraged progressives by supporting the ultra-conservative
speaker of the house, Joseph Cannon, and the ultra-conservative
secretary of the interior, Richard A. Ballinger, who reversed Roosevelt’s
conservation efforts by, among other things, selling off several
million acres of public land in Alaska to bankers interested in
mining the land for coal. Angered by Taft’s lack of enthusiasm for
reform, Roosevelt himself campaigned for progressive candidates
in the 1910 midterm election. Roosevelt advocated increasing regulation
for business and even went so far as to suggest that the popular
vote be used to overturn Supreme Court decisions. Roosevelt’s defection
split the Republican Party in half entering the election of 1912.
Taft’s support for the Payne-Aldrich
Act and other conservative moves precipitated a split within the
Republican Party approaching the election of 1912.
The Election of 1912
In 1912, Roosevelt declared his intention to run against
Taft for the Republican nomination. When Taft supporters blocked
Roosevelt’s nomination at the Republican Convention, Roosevelt and
his supporters broke with the Republican Party and formed the Progressive
Party, nicknamed the Bull Moose Party. Roosevelt and
Taft entered the election against Socialist Eugene Debs and Democrat Woodrow
Wilson. The Bull Moose Party proved to be the most successful
third party in American history, with Roosevelt winning over 27
percent of the popular vote to Taft’s 23 percent. Yet with the Republican
vote split, Democrat Wilson captured the presidency, winning 42
percent of the vote.
Woodrow Wilson won the election of 1912 partially
owing to the split in the Republican Party, which ruined both Roosevelt
and Taft’s chances for the presidency.