William Howard Taft, the twenty-seventh president of the United States, and his wife Helen Louise Herron, had three children: Robert, Helen and Charles. All of them were born in Cincinnati, Ohio; their parents were married there in 1886, and the family kept close ties to the city. As children, though, the three Taft youngsters were citizens of the world, who accompanied their parents throughout the United States, and lived in the Philippines, where their father served as Governor-General from 1901-1903. Only one child—the youngest, Charles—lived in the White House during William Howard Taft’s 1909-1913 presidency. These experiences, and their parents’ commitments to learning and self-improvement, insured that each of the three would differentiate himself in adulthood—brilliantly.
Born on September 8, 1889, Robert A. Taft was a scholar from an early age. After attending school in Cincinnati, he continued his education in the Philippines, where his mother “Nellie” Taft worked to ensure that her children garnered a strong understanding of Filipino society. When he returned, Robert Taft attended the Taft School (run by his uncle) in Watertown, Conn., then excelled on the 1906 Yale entrance examination—and while there–was a member of the Skull and Bones Society. He graduated with honors in 1910, and was voted the most scholarly man in the class.
Next, was Harvard Law School.
“I’m here to study,” Taft told reporters as he entered Harvard. “I do not intend to go into athletics or to be a social lion, or to do missionary work, or to be interviewed. I’m here to work hard. A fellow may go to college to have a good time, but when he gets through he thinks of more serious things. I thought of law.” He was as good as his word. He excelled in his studies, edited the Harvard Law Review, and completed his degree in 1913. When Taft took the Ohio bar exam, he got the highest score in the state. Soon, he was practicing law in Cincinnati, successfully, and personal happiness followed: in 1914 he married the love of his life, Martha Wheaton Bowers. They would have four sons.
Politics soon overshadowed the law; in 1919 he went to Paris to work for Herbert Hoover’s American Relief Association, which fed millions of starving people, especially children, in war-torn Europe. Inspired by the future president’s conservatism, Taft entered politics and was elected to the Ohio House of Representatives in 1920. Over the next several years there, and in the Ohio Senate, where he served in the early 1930s, Taft gained a reputation as a deep thinker, generally supporting the Republican Party platform, but also cautiously endorsing American membership in the League of Nations, opposing Prohibition, and strenuously fighting the activities of the Ku Klux Klan.
When Franklin D. Roosevelt became president in 1933, Taft stood out as a critic of the New Deal as a means for tackling the Great Depression. His fervent opposition to Roosevelt earned Taft the nickname “Mr. Republican.” Still, he supported banking regulations, unemployment insurance, senior pensions, and certain federal relief programs. He was elected to the U.S. Senate in 1938, where he would serve until his death, Taft became a leading advocate of isolationism, or keeping the United States out of wars abroad.
Once the United States entered World War II, he threw himself behind the war effort; when it ended, Taft became a supporter of the United Nations and the Marshall Plan for European relief. He also championed free speech, including criticism of the government–even in wartime (he attacked the Harry Truman administration’s handling of the Korean War). These opinions infuriated many of Taft’s fellow Republicans, and he failed multiple times to gain his party’s nomination for the presidency. After he died from cancer in 1953, however, Taft was recognized as one of the leading political thinkers of his generation, and his body lay in state in the rotunda of the United States Capitol.
Born on August 1, 1891, Helen Taft was to break numerous barriers in her lifetime quest for achievement. As a teenager, she attended Washington, D.C.’s Cathedral School, where she became friends with President Theodore Roosevelt’s youngest daughter, Ethel. When her father was elected president in 1908, the media hardly knew what to make of seventeen-year-old Helen, who had recently entered Bryn Mawr College on a scholarship. She “probably takes as little interest in social matters as any young woman ever called upon to grace the White House,” complained one newspaper article. “Books and study are her delights. . . . She likes outdoor sports, but social matters so far have occupied her mind least of all.”
Duty called when Helen’s mother suffered a stroke in 1909, and she moved into the White House to assist her parents and take on the social functions of the First Lady. At her 1910 “coming out”, newspapers attempted to define Helen according to her physical appearance and social prospects, but she had other ideas. Helen went back to Bryn Mawr after her mother’s recovery, resumed her studies and graduated with a degree in history in 1915. Her record was so distinguished that the college appointed her dean in 1917 when she was only twenty-six. Two years later she became Bryn Mawr’s acting president.
An outspoken advocate of women’s suffrage, Helen Taft also ruffled feathers by, for example, supporting the right of college professors to strike in search of higher salaries. After a year as Bryn Mawr’s president she moved on to Yale, where she earned a doctorate in British colonial history. Helen returned to Bryn Mawr in 1925, once more as a dean. She served in that role until 1941, and then became a history professor until her retirement in 1957.
In 1920 she had married another history professor, Frederick Johnson Manning, who taught at Yale and Swarthmore College; they had two daughters. By the time of her 1987 death, Helen Taft Manning had authored two books and become a leading member of the Women’s International League for Peace, and Freedom and the American Association of University Women.
The youngest son of William H. and Nellie Taft was born in Cincinnati on September 20, 1897, and spent his early years abroad in the Philippines. Returning to the United States while his father served as President Theodore Roosevelt’s Secretary of War from 1904-1908, young Charles often frolicked with the Roosevelt children in the decidedly child-friendly White House. Afterwards, he followed his older brother’s example by enrolling in the Taft School and then at Yale, where he stood out for his academic accomplishments and prowess on the football field. In 1917, he married Eleanor Kellogg Chase, with whom he would have seven children. That year, Charles dropped out of college when the United States entered World War I, and he went to Europe to get a commission in the artillery. Despite the interruption, he graduated in 1918, coached football for a year, and completed Yale Law School in 1921. Passing the bar exam, he moved immediately into law practice in Ohio, initially alongside his brother.
More easygoing and extroverted than Robert, Charles Taft elected to stay out of national politics. Instead, he devoted himself to his family, his practice, public philanthropy, and to the affairs of his beloved city of Cincinnati. He also was an avid fisherman and sports fan, who helped with the funding of the reconstruction of Cincinnati’s Riverfront Stadium. Taft served as city mayor from 1955-1957, but worked as a city councilman for much longer, and became an authority on the complexities of municipal government. He passed away in 1983, having led a quieter life that was every bit as impressive as his brother’s and sister’s.