US Senator Robert A Taft is remembered for several things: he was a member of Ohio's Taft family dynasty, he co-sponsored the Taft-Hartley Act and he was a principled ultra-conservative Republican. On 19 October, 2000 a Senate resolution named Robert Taft as one of the seven greatest senators in history, alongside such political greats as Daniel Webster1 and Henry Clay2.
Robert Alphonso Taft was born on 8 September, 1889 in Cincinnati, Ohio, which was also the birthplace of his parents. He grew up first in Cincinnati and then in the Philippine Islands, where his father was US chief civil administrator for several years. In 1910, Robert graduated from Yale University like his father before him and three years later graduated from Harvard Law School. That same year, he went back to his home state of Ohio and was admitted to the Ohio bar.
William H Taft
Robert Taft's father, William H Taft, was a friend of Teddy Roosevelt, who had taken the Presidency upon the assassination of William McKinley (another Ohioan) in 1901. Teddy Roosevelt had been partially responsible for sending the Taft family to the Philippines, and William H Taft also served as Roosevelt's Secretary of War for about five years.
In 1908, Roosevelt helped make William H Taft the Republican nominee for President, and at about the same time as Robert Taft was receiving his higher education, his father was duly elected President of the United States. Roosevelt thought that William H Taft would be one of the greatest to serve the office in the history of the country. However, William H Taft didn't really like politics, and preferred law. He was a rather poor politician and was stuck in the crossfire of conservatives and liberals of the time. Robert Taft would have a more comfortable time in politics.
Other Family Members
Robert's uncle was Charles Phelps Taft, who was a representative of Ohio to Congress and a Republican delegate for several years. Robert's younger brother, Charles Phelps Taft II, ran for Governor of Ohio in two elections. He served as mayor of Cincinnati in the mid-1950s. Robert's grandfather was Alphonso Taft, who served as a Secretary of War and Attorney General of the United States.
The Taft family clearly had an important place in the history of the US and especially the state of Ohio. And more to the point, Robert A Taft's family connections and the prestige of his name would help him in the political world.
Government for Young Robert
Robert started work in Cincinnati, working for and operating several businesses in the town. When World War I began, he took his first government job as an assistant counsel for the Food and Drug Administration. He also served as a lawyer for the American Relief Administration when peace came.
Around this time, Robert decided that he might have a future in politics. Already a fairly successful lawyer, he knew the law well, had a good education, strong beliefs and was from a good Ohio family. It was a good start for any politician.
In 1921, Robert was elected to the Ohio State House of Representatives. He quickly made a name for himself there, and advanced rapidly. As the Republicans were in power in Ohio at the time, he was able to take the position of Speaker of the House within five years. At the beginning of the next decade, shortly after the beginning of the Great Depression, he moved into a slightly more powerful post at the State Senate.
A Seat in Congress
Fairly well-known in his state by this time, Robert ran for a seat in the United States Senate. This was quite a difficult jump for anyone to make, as the office of state senator is seen to be much less important than that of US senator. After all, a state senator is one of many in a body that only legislates for one state, while a US senator (at that time) was one of only 96 legislating for the entire country - and Ohio only elected two US senators. The fact that Robert was able to get elected to the US senate from the Ohio state senate is a testament to his natural ability as a politician. In addition, he was a strong conservative Republican, which was the prevailing position of most Ohioans at the time.
Robert took office on Capitol Hill on 3 January, 1939. His forceful conservatism quickly made him one of the party's rising stars, and he would eventually become the leader and voice of the entire conservative aspect of the Republican party. He fought the liberal aspects of the government (which he usually believed were either attacks on the Constitution or against his principles) with vigour.
Specifically, he battled against the New Deal Democrats led by Franklin Delano Roosevelt. He believed that Roosevelt's plans were in breach of the Constitution in providing additional power to the Federal government by taking it away from the states and the local governments. He further believed in balanced budgets and US neutrality in World War II. Of course, even a strong isolationist such as he gave up ground on this issue following the Japanese attack at Pearl Harbor.
Because he so embodied the Republican beliefs of that era, Robert earned the unimaginative but quite accurate nickname 'Mr Republican'. In 1944, he became Chairman of the Senate Republican Conference, and was re-elected as a senator that year. Eventually serving in the Senate for about 13 years, he took advantage of the seniority system of deciding committee chairmanships, and chaired both the Joint Committee on the Economic Report and the Committee on Labor and Public Welfare. Every senator had their own interests, and Robert's were labour and the economy.
Following World War II, Robert initially supported the United Nations, but changed his position to become more isolationist. He voted against the North Atlantic Treaty Organisation and was against the Truman administration's policy in Korea.
I Wanna Be President!
Robert Taft attempted to gain the Republican nomination for President three times but never won it. The first time was in 1940, only about a year after he was elected to the Senate. Though he had already become a significant figure in the party, it could be argued that he did not yet have the experience necessary to be a Presidential nominee. The nomination went to Wendell Wilkie (a former Democrat), who lost the election to Franklin Roosevelt.
Robert did not seek the nomination in 1944, but did look for it in 1948 against Harry Truman. Truman, who had taken office as President after Franklin Roosevelt died in his fourth term, had terrible approval ratings (literally some of the worst of all time) and had suffered a political catastrophe in his healthcare plan. It would have seemed that the Republican nominee would have been able to easily defeat Truman. However, Robert allowed Thomas Dewey to take the nomination, and in a close race, Truman defeated Dewey.
In 1952, America was growing more conservative and the Republicans were still the conservative party. 'Mr Republican' would have been a logical choice for the Presidency and the first Republican administration in two decades. In fact, Robert had grown more influential and connected within the party. His connections with insiders made him the favourite for the nomination at one point.
Unfortunately for Robert, Dwight D Eisenhower decided that he wanted the Republican nomination. In the world of American politics, it would be difficult to come out on top of the Supreme Allied Commander of D-Day. In the Republican National Convention, Robert came very close to winning the nomination, but in the end Eisenhower prevailed, largely due to recognition of his name and service.
For about six months after Eisenhower defeated Democrat Adlai Stevenson to become President, Robert served as a close advisor and friend to him. He was also given the powerful position of Majority Leader of the US Senate. As it turned out, however, less than a year after the election Robert Taft died of cancer. Had he been elected President, he probably would have died about six months into his first term. Robert died in New York City on 31 July, 1953. He was placed in the Capitol Rotunda for a time of mourning and then buried back in Ohio.
Though liked for his principles and calm determination, as a conservative Robert did not leave much of a mark on the US. He spent most of his time opposing the action of the liberals and the Democrats, but saw changes in the system despite his best efforts. He wrote few bills, and his idea of the future of America is quite different to the America of today. For instance, despite his opposition to NATO and the UN, the US is a member of each of those bodies today.
By identifying himself as the face of the Republicans and of the conservatives, he helped shape the idea of his party being the conservatives and the Democrats the liberals, so pushing his party to the right. He also helped to unify the eastern and midwestern portions of the party.
Eventually Robert's son, Robert Taft Jr, would also take a seat in both houses of the US Congress. Robert's grandson, Robert Taft III, would go on to take a seat in the US House of Representatives in 1977 and become Governor of Ohio in 1999.
That Labour Law
Robert Taft is probably best known for a labour law named the 'Taft-Hartley Act', or more officially 'The Labor-Management Relations Act'. It was co-sponsored by Robert Taft in the Senate and Representative Fred Allan Hartley in the House.
The law was rather broad in scope, and some important features were as follows:
Unions were forbidden from contributing money to political campaigns.
Union leaders had to pledge that they were not members of the Communist Party.
The Attorney General could issue an 80 day injunction to a strike if it was deemed a threat to national security or health.
Employers were exempt from bargaining with unions unless they wanted to.
The act was passed on 23 June, 1947 despite a veto by President Truman, who called the act a 'slave labor bill'. In order to override a veto, both houses of Congress must pass the bill with two-thirds support. However, despite this strong support on Capitol Hill, it was still a very controversial law.
The act was mostly an addition or amendment to other previous acts. However, as of today, it is still mostly intact, as no Congress has repealed it (though there have been some unsuccessful attempts). Some parts were changed with the Landrum-Griffin Act of 1959.