The 1908 Presidential election featured the incumbent Republican President Theodore Roosevelt following through on his promise to not seek a third term and encouraging the Republicans to nominate Secretary of War William Howard Taft. While a number of third party candidates ran against Taft, the only non-Republican candidate who garnered any significant votes was the Democratic nominee, William Jennings Bryan. Bryan had been the Democratic nominee for President in 1896 and 1900, but the 1908 election was the most lopsided of his three defeats in the race for President.
Taft was an Ohio lawyer and judge who was recommended to President Benjamin Harrison in 1889 to fill a vacancy on the United States Supreme Court. Only 32 at the time, Taft actively sought the seat as becoming a Supreme Court Justice was his professional goal. Harrison filled the Court vacancy by nominating David Brewer, but Harrison nominated Taft to the position of United States Solicitor General. Taft served two years as Solicitor General, and in 1892 became a Unites States Circuit Court Judge for the Sixth Circuit. He served as a Circuit Court Judge for the next eight years.
In 1900, Taft was called to the White House to meet with President William McKinley. Taft hoped it was to be informed that he was being nominated to the Supreme Court, but McKinley instead requested Taft help form a government for the Philippines. Taft joined the commission to form the government and in 1901, became the 1st Governor-General of the Philippines, serving in that role until the end of 1903, when Roosevelt asked him to become Secretary of War.
The 1908 Republican nomination was notable in that it featured the first presidential preference primary process in American history. At the nominating convention in Chicago in June, Taft won the nomination by a landslide. His home state of Ohio, one of the primary states, overwhelmingly supported him as the Republican nominee.
Bryan was a Nebraskan who early in his career met the Nebraska Democratic Party Chair, James Dahlman, who supported Bryan over the years. In 1890, Bryan rode the Democratic wave that resulted in an electoral landslide by the Democrats, with Bryan being elected to the United States House of Representatives. Bryan served two terms as a Representative. Bryan first ran for President in the 1896 presidential election and ran again in 1900. 1908 was his third nomination for President by the Democratic Party. The Democratic nominating convention took place in Denver in July of 1908. Bryan easily won the overwhelming support of his party and received the nomination.
Other nominees for President in 1908 included: Eugene Debs (Socialist Party); Eugene Chafin (Prohibition Party); Thomas Hisgen (Independence Party); Thomas Watson (Populist Party); and August Gillhaus (Socialist Labor). Debs received less than 3% of the popular vote and no Electoral College votes, but was the leading vote getter of the group of third party candidates.
The Election of 1908
Bryan campaigned on a progressive platform against political privilege, using a slogan, “Shall the People Rule?” Taft adopted some of Bryan’s reform positions to soften Bryan’s appeal to liberals and progressives. Some Republicans used a slogan making sarcastic references to Bryan’s previous two runs for President. During the campaign, Roosevelt inundated Taft with advice and guidance, fearing that Taft would lose to Bryan. Taft tended to ignore Roosevelt’s advice. Bryan did not do well with labor, and businessmen voted for Republican Taft. Taft won the election, with 51.6% of the popular vote and 321 Electoral College votes to Bryan’s 43.0% of the popular vote and 162 Electoral College votes.
The Taft Presidency
Over the next four years, Taft and Roosevelt led the conservative and progressive wings, respectively, of the Republican Party. One legal legacy Taft left was appointing six Justices to the Supreme Court, the most by any President in our nation’s history except for Franklin Delano Roosevelt (eight) and George Washington (ten). In 1912, not happy with how Taft had governed the country and citing differences on antitrust and conservation issues, Roosevelt ran for President again, this time as nominee of the Progressive Party. With Roosevelt splitting the votes with Taft, Woodrow Wilson won the Presidency, making Taft a one-term President.
Taft preferred law to politics and did not enjoy his term as President. In 1921, Taft achieved his lifelong professional goal when President Warren Harding nominated Taft to fill the Supreme Court vacancy created by Chief Justice White’s death. Taft happily served as Chief Justice until his resignation shortly before his death in 1930.
While Chief Justice, Taft stated, “The truth is that in my present life I don’t remember that I ever was president.” Taft was responsible for securing new quarters for the Supreme Court, although he would not see the new Court building during his lifetime. Taft’s constitutional legacy is in his nominations of six Justices to the Supreme Court and, more importantly, becoming the first and only former President to serve as Chief Justice (or any Justice) of the Supreme Court. His main competitor in the 1908 election, Bryan, went on to challenge Darwinism and evolution, arguing for the prosecution in the Scopes Trial.
Dan Cotter is a Partner at Butler Rubin Saltarelli & Boyd LLP and an Adjunct Professor at The John Marshall Law School, where he teaches SCOTUS Judicial Biographies. He is also Immediate Past President of The Chicago Bar Association. The article contains his opinions and is not to be attributed to Butler Rubin or any of its clients, The Chicago Bar Association, or John Marshall.