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The Door of HopeRepublican Presidents and the First Southern Strategy, 1877–1933$

Edward O. Frantz

Print publication date: 2011

Print ISBN-13: 9780813036533

Published to Florida Scholarship Online: September 2011

DOI: 10.5744/florida/9780813036533.001.0001

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Taft Toils Throughout

Taft Toils Throughout

The Frequent Southern Campaigns, 1908–1913

(p.195) 6 Taft Toils Throughout
The Door of Hope

Edward O. Frantz

University Press of Florida

Abstract and Keywords

Between his nomination in 1908 and the end of his first national tour in 1909, William Howard Taft made three critical visits to southern states. In all, the president was on the road more than any of his predecessors. He had been to the South a number of times before he was president and would also venture to the region after 1909, but the 1908–1909 period deserves the most attention. In that time period he not only shattered previous traditions of Republican travel, but also clearly delineated his policies regarding the interrelated issues of race and southern politics. Perhaps more significantly, he also managed to alienate African Americans even more than previous Republican Party presidents had done. The period between 1908 and 1910 was both the high water mark for Republican efforts to capture the whites in the South and—not coincidentally—the nadir in terms of its lack of care for African Americans.

Keywords:   William Howard Taft, president, South, region, Republican Party, race, politics, African Americans, whites

The Negro who can swallow Taft's candidacy must have a stomach larger than an elephant's and tougher than an ostrich's, and be wholly devoid of any interest in the race's future welfare.

Cleveland Gazette, untitled editorial, August 8, 1908, 2.

Such was the opinion of Cleveland Gazette editor Harry Smith. At the time, William Howard Taft was in the midst of an aggressive campaign to lure whites from the Upper South into the folds of the Republican Party. Simultaneously, Taft—the man who as secretary of war had watched as Theodore Roosevelt mishandled the Brownsville situation in 1906—attempted to assuage disgruntled African American supporters. The Gazette, however, would not be fooled. In a separate piece, the paper made two observations. One, the party's lack of sincerity over the past twenty years meant that any Republican promises had to be treated with skepticism. Two, Taft's previous record as a judge and officeholder was not promising when it came to African American rights. Consequently, despite Taft's aggressive push, the Gazette proclaimed: “No Afro-American who is loyal to his people, has manhood, intelligence, and the courage of his convictions will be fooled.…”1

As the years of the Taft administration would show, Harry Smith and his colleagues in the African American press had good reasons for their apprehension. Between his nomination in 1908 and the end of his first national tour in 1909, William Taft made three critical visits to southern states. In all, the president was on the road more than any of his predecessors. He had been to the South a number of times before he was president and would also venture to the region after 1909, but the 1908–1909 period deserves the most attention. In that time period he not only shattered previous traditions of Republican travel, but also clearly delineated his (p.196) policies regarding the interrelated issues of race and southern politics. Perhaps more significantly, he also managed to alienate African Americans even more than previous Republican presidents had done. The period between 1908 and 1910 was both the high water mark for Republican efforts to capture the white South and—not coincidentally—the nadir in terms of its lack of care for African Americans. The three southern journeys were the stage from which Taft would most clearly deliver this lily-white vision.

The lily-white vision was by no means unique to Taft. But his travels did reveal that balance, which had been the defining characteristic of all previous Republican tours, was no longer a watchword. Even when they had sided with white interests, previous presidents had recognized the importance of maintaining symbolic gestures to African Americans. Increasingly, this had meant not only making some speeches to black audiences when traveling, but also paying attention to patronage positions. Taft largely eschewed such balance and also depreciated the value of black office holding. Given the increased entrenchment of Jim Crow laws during his presidency, these decisions were unfortunate. The clearest example of this trend was Georgia, which in 1908 became the final southern state to disfranchise its African American population. During his frequent travels, Taft's inability to heal these wounds raised the ire of the African American press. Unfortunately for Taft, they were not the only group disgruntled by his actions while touring. Whereas other presidents had used their travels to unite the country, Taft had the unfortunate tendency to divide constituencies. Nowhere was this more apparent than within the Republican Party. Long overshadowed by his other shortcomings, Taft's hapless southern tours indicated that the importance of bridging the gap between white and black in the South would cease to be even a rhetorical concern for the Republican Party.2

Taft's penchant for travel was nearly pathological, as the three southern trips indicate. What was the purpose behind each journey? The first visit occurred during the presidential campaign, when Taft broke from tradition by actively campaigning for himself in three southern states. These were the Upper South states of Tennessee, Virginia, and North Carolina. Just a few months later, in late January and early February, Taft again bucked tradition. This time he did so by actively touring through parts of the country educating audiences about his proposed policies. His activities, which constituted his second southern swing, took him to Atlanta (p.197) and New Orleans. Finally, his third journey was a bit more traditional, in the sense that it was a national tour. Unlike his predecessors, however, Taft made the southern leg of his journey at the final, rather than the initial, portion of his trip. Because his family summered in Beverly, Massachusetts, Taft began his trip farther north than his predecessors. Thus, he followed a different path, which proved to be a political liability. In a circuitous route, Taft began the southern leg after having traveled across the Midwest, Great Plains, the Pacific Northwest, and California. From El Paso, Texas on October 17, 1909, the president ventured across the vast state, then traveled north to St. Louis. Departing from the rail, Taft joined governors, congressmen, and other elected officials in a boat ride down the Mississippi River. This journey included stops at Memphis, Vicksburg, Natchez, and Baton Rouge before arriving in New Orleans. From there Taft traveled back through Mississippi, then east through Alabama and Georgia before heading north through South Carolina, North Carolina, and Virginia. Never had southern communities had such ample opportunities for getting to know a Republican president.3

Setting the Presidential Stage: Taft and His Critics

Taft's political star had seemed to rise from out of nowhere. A lawyer by training, Taft wished foremost to become a justice of the United States Supreme Court. Instead, after his success as governor of the Philippines under McKinley and later secretary of war under Roosevelt, it became evident that should he seek it, the presidency was not out of the question. His older brothers, and his wife in particular, urged Taft to pursue the presidential path. Since Roosevelt had renounced running for another term in 1908, the door was open for a Republican to capitalize on the New Yorker's popularity, receive his endorsement, and thereby capture the party's nomination. The genial Ohioan had proven to be a capable administrator during his years as a political appointee. He had never run for public office in his life; all of his positions had been appointed. With the popular Roosevelt's endorsement, however, anything seemed possible. Taft's warmth, his infectious laugh, and his grin had all made him popular as a cabinet member. Sadly, those qualities were rarely on display during his presidency, as the mustachioed president's weight ballooned and his prodigious paunch became a symbol of American excess.4

Despite Roosevelt's desire to see Taft as his heir apparent in terms of (p.198) trust busting and cautious progressive stewardship, Taft was not a political clone of Theodore Roosevelt. The most significant differences could be gleaned quickly. Following the act of TR would have been difficult for anyone, but it proved to be impossible for Taft. There was something to be said for Taft's assertion that the task of the years following the Roosevelt presidency would be consolidating and perfecting the numerous laws that had been passed under Roosevelt's watch. Such a stance, however, also indicated that Taft did not see himself as an activist. In the days of William McKinley, that might have been fine. In the wake of the Roosevelt presidency, however, such reserve was becoming an albatross. Rather than cautious, Taft seemed plodding. Rather than careful, he seemed like a mollycoddle. Even the tireless Roosevelt might have been exasperated by the ways in which the Republican Party increasingly split ranks between its conservative and progressive wings. There is no denying that Taft did much to exacerbate this rift, and that people believed Theodore Roosevelt would never have made such egregious errors. Nevertheless, a great deal of Taft's misfortune was poor timing.5

Although these perceptions were unfair to Taft, they did go a long way toward explaining how he would quickly fall from favor with the American public and the press corps. Taft found that he would soon be flayed not only by the black press—as had his Republican predecessors—but also by the mainstream news media. In Roosevelt, the press had the ideal president: a man whose very presence made for news and who in every way seemed larger than life. In contrast, little about Taft or his presidency would inspire even political insiders, let alone average Americans. Taft's failure to court the favor of the press proved to be one of the largest errors of his mistake-marred tenure. Journalist Arthur Wallace Dunn, who found Taft “personally … a humble character,” noted that his shortcomings were many. “It is difficult to write of President Taft's four years in the White House without seeming to be severely critical. He did so many things which made him unpopular.”6 Fellow Ohio Republican Joseph Foraker observed that Taft had a “peculiar ability to disappoint and make enemies where it would be easier and more natural to meet expectations and make friends.”7 Unlike his two immediate predecessors, Taft did not enjoy the benefit of a skilled personal secretary. Neither Fred W. Carpenter, Charles D. Norton, nor Charles D. Hilles came close to equaling the skills of George Cortelyou or William Loeb. Of Carpenter, Taft's first secretary, (p.199) Dunn wrote: “He had no conception of the relative importance of White House callers, but as for that—neither had the President.”8

Taft's racial cosmology was clearly a critical aspect of the policies that he would pursue as president. As subsequent speeches and letters would show, he was a cautious paternalist. Like William McKinley, he subscribed to a gradual recipe for racial uplift according to the model set by Booker T. Washington. The two and one-half years that Taft spent as governor of the Philippines (1901–1903) were instrumental in informing his views about race relations. Throughout his campaign, Taft linked Filipinos and African Americans together as inferior peoples capable of improvement, but dependent upon white guidance. Unfortunately, Taft also lacked the guile of more skillful politicians and frequently was far too blunt when it came to his views about race. Thus, as with other northerners, he accepted white southern propaganda that had succeeded in depicting African Americans as ignorant wretches responsible for corruption and bad government.

Taft's experiences made him predisposed to see affinity to white southerners. First, he called Cincinnati home. Economically and socially, the Queen City was tied to the cities of the Upper South. Second, Taft served as a justice in the Sixth Circuit Court of Appeals from 1892 to 1900. The district encompassed parts of Ohio, Michigan, Tennessee, and Kentucky, so he looked at region differently from many of his peers. Although he would make some belated moves to ameliorate the prejudices of his administration during his last years in office, Taft would prove to be a consistent ally of conservative white southerners. Most notably, long before Richard Nixon dreamed of doing so, Taft pursued a southern strategy with respect to the Supreme Court. His first three appointments went to white southerners—two of whom were former Confederates.9

With Taft's favor weighted so heavily toward white southerners, African Americans were particularly wary. Like the Republican Party, the leadership of black America was in transition. Original critics in the black press—namely W. Calvin Chase and Harry Smith—still remained. With the foundation of the NAACP in 1909, however, a new chapter in African American leadership commenced. W. E. B. Du Bois (the Crisis), William Monroe Trotter (the Boston Guardian), and Robert Abbott (the Chicago Defender), among others, were increasingly vocal in their denunciation of racial discrimination. This emergent class of leaders quickly found that the Taft presidency provided plenty of opportunities for protest.

(p.200) The Presidential Campaign: 1908

Taft's first foray into the southern states while campaigning for the presidency in the fall of 1908 sharpened the knives of his malefactors in the African American press. He visited North Carolina, Virginia, and Tennessee because each state had a tradition of “respectable Republicanism.” That phrase had at least two meanings. The first concerned the party's relative success in elections. The second was a reference to the class and racial background of party members. Taft's willingness to travel to southern states during the 1908 campaign indicated three further salient factors. First, he felt confident enough in his lead throughout the rest of the country that he did not need to spend more time elsewhere. Second, he did not fear any fallout among traditional Republicans for pursuing conciliatory gestures toward the white South. Third, he did not fear the effect on the African American vote in the North, which he theoretically could lose if he abandoned traditional Republican doctrine by going South. Indeed, Taft was so confident in Republican superiority that this normally deliberate man proved to be more revolutionary and modern in his campaigning than any of his Republican predecessors.

As he would throughout his presidency, while campaigning, Taft sought to assure the electorate that he was carrying on in the tradition of his popular predecessor. He also wanted to establish, however, that he was his own man and would pursue some of his own policies. This was a difficult balancing act. Taft's well-known friendship with Roosevelt and the president's enthusiastic endorsement were undeniable boons. But trying to escape Roosevelt's long shadow was much more difficult than capitalizing on his popularity. One of the ways that Taft hoped to distinguish himself was via a sympathetic southern policy devoid of any of the major controversies encountered during the Roosevelt years. As could be expected, the black press did not react favorably to this strategy.

Taft's speeches throughout select southern locales did not follow the established format for southern tours. Because they were clearly political, Taft could not honestly say that he was merely serving as a steward to all the people—as had the previous Republican sojourners to the South. Shockingly, however, he did try to discount the political element from his calculus when stumping in the South. In essence, even though he was campaigning, Taft attempted to act as though he was not seeking votes. In a speech that he delivered in Chattanooga on October 16, Taft claimed (p.201)

Taft Toils ThroughoutThe Frequent Southern Campaigns, 1908–1913

Figure 6.1. William Howard Taft speaking at Augusta, Georgia. November 8, 1909 (Library of Congress).

that he had always had an interest in the South. He seemed to be persuaded that his presence would lessen, rather than heighten, partisan sectionalism. In the language of the previous presidential tours, he professed his desire to “more closely unite the two sections than they have been united.” By the time of his speech, he was so clearly the frontrunner in his campaign against Democratic nominee William Jennings Bryan that he was able to admit that even though it was “quite possible that we may not get a single electoral vote in the South,” he was confident that “we will get enough without it.” Nevertheless, he hoped that the people of Tennessee and Kentucky would vote for him.10

In the Chattanooga speech Taft betrayed his interest in the states of the Upper South. They had, he admitted, a “natural conservative tendency.” (p.202)

Table 6.1. Percentage of Popular Vote, 1904 and 1908


Roosevelt (1904)

Taf (1908)






















North Carolina



South Carolina












Source: Congressional Quarterly's Guide to U.S. Elections, 5th ed., 1:694–695.

For Taft, this was a major advantage upon which he hoped to capitalize. He was personally extremely conservative, and seemed to admire what he called the “homogeneous character” of the South's people, “the preservations of traditions in the family.” As he would display in his judicial appointment policy as president, he treasured the conservatism of many southern jurists. But the electorate in general piqued Taft's interest, too. Given the country's prosperity and the national popularity of the Republican Party since 1896, the Republican nominee parsed southern Democrats into three groups. The first group would vote for him, the second group would not vote at all, and the third group would “vote for my opponent and hope that I will be elected.” Therefore, it was time, he thought, for the two opposition groups to “just take their first cold bath in leaving historic tradition that naturally is dear to their hearts and come right into the party whose principles they approve.”11

The Chattanooga speech encapsulated Taft's multiple agendas while campaigning through the South. Wedded to the rhetoric of previous presidential tours, Taft attempted to utilize it at a more overtly political moment to achieve political conversions. The results seemed to indicate that the appeal had been successful. He did not carry any southern states in the 1908 election, but Taft did better in Georgia, North Carolina, and Virginia than Theodore Roosevelt had four years earlier. To better the immensely popular Roosevelt was quite an achievement for Taft. The relatively strong (p.203) southern results helped persuade Taft to make the South a major priority during the period between his election and the inauguration. Additionally, with one foray, the new president-elect had removed the taboo forbidding future Republican presidential candidates from campaigning in the region.

The President-Elect: December 1908–March 1909

Taft kicked off his post-election southern strategy by addressing the North Carolina Society of New York on December 7, 1908. Introduced by southern expatriate Walter Hines Page, Taft extolled literacy tests as a boon to democracy. He further ingratiated himself to his audience by clearly distancing the federal government from “social equality” among the races. Finally, he distanced himself from the liberation legacy of the party by claiming that the “best public opinion of the North and the best public opinion of the South seem to be coming together in respect to all the economic and political questions growing out of present race conditions.”12 His audience seemed enamored of Taft's speech and the policy pronouncements therein.

Following the holidays, Taft vacationed in Augusta, Georgia, where along with daily golf games, he hoped to capitalize on the momentum he had established with his “The South and the National Government” speech. Again, he was building on the traditions and protocol established by his predecessors in terms of theme and content, but he was charting a new course by taking such a public stand during the traditional honeymoon period. Taft spoke to black and white audiences in Atlanta during January 1909 and also spoke at New Orleans in February. The result of these journeys was the crystallization of Taft's southern policy.

The first of the two main speeches Taft made in Atlanta was particularly instructive. At a banquet thrown in Atlanta on January 15, 1909, the guest of honor was served a meal of opossum and persimmon beer. The odd symbolism of the event was such that the New York Times started with a description of the food and followed with the content of Taft's important speech. New Yorkers would open their papers to a headline blaring “Taft Eats ‘Possum, Gives South a Pledge’” but the second element of the headline was far more important than the first.13 Taft touched upon the past, his plans for the future, and how the South fit into both. Taft made clear that his future plans were deeply rooted in past Republican efforts. He planned (p.204)

Taft Toils ThroughoutThe Frequent Southern Campaigns, 1908–1913

Figure 6.2. Atlanta's “Possum Dinner.” January 15, 1909 (Library of Congress). Atlanta's white elite feted the president-elect with a “Southern Dinner” of possum and persimmon beer.

to encourage “independent” movements among conservative southerners. Despite the trends that Taft had observed in his Chattanooga speech while campaigning for the presidency, the would-be southern supporters still found it difficult to vote for the Republican Party. Even though they remained hesitant to do so, Taft claimed victory merely for having the courage to campaign in states south of the Mason-Dixon Line. To him, the campaign was important despite “however little its effect upon the electoral college,” because “it is an indication of progress of political independence and political tolerance.” According to Taft, the movement would work gradually. His goal was to build up a “respectable minority,” which would gradually grow into a legitimate political combatant. He gave no timetable for the growth, and apparently was content to ignore the fact that many independent movements had been attempted unsuccessfully before. Nevertheless, Taft was hopeful that such an arrangement might finally work.14

As in the past, as white southerners gained priority within the administration, African Americans lost leverage. For Taft this was not a difficult decision. He did not say that he desired the independents to abandon African Americans, but his entire plan was predicated on the idea that its (p.205) association with African Americans in the South tainted the Republican name. At various times during his Atlanta speech, Taft employed words that could have been understood as only slightly veiled references to race. Hearkening back to his earlier infamous speech to the Society of North Carolina in New York, Taft claimed that he had made references to “the advantages that might arise from a change in the political complexion of some of the Southern states.” Later, in discussing the importance of local officials to a national administration—particularly in regard to the South—he claimed “expression of the Administration toward the Southern people takes its colour [sic] in the character” of the appointed officials. Taft elaborated that he would make every effort to guarantee that none of his appointments in the South was objectionable to the members of the southern communities in which they would work. This, too, was an unmistakable promise to avoid appointing African Americans.15

Having courted white Atlantans on the first day, Taft then turned his attention to African Americans. This was one of the rare times where Taft indicated concern with the traditional balancing act between southern constituencies that had characterized Republican visits to the region. In a maladroit speech entitled “Hopeful Views of Negro Difficulties,” delivered from the pulpit of Atlanta's Big Bethel AME church, Taft came off sounding uninformed and unsympathetic about African American life. He told his audience that his actions as president would be circumscribed. He believed his role was limited to offering “words of encouragement, of suggestion, and of hope to those to whom fate in the past has not been kind….” Further in his speech, despite his willingness to offer words of encouragement, he indicated that there were some basic facts of African American life that he was unwilling to discuss: “I do not intend to discuss race feeling and race prejudice, because the discussion of it and the argument of it never did anybody any good.” In the tradition of past Republicans, he assured African Americans that their white southern neighbors were their best friends, praised the educational efforts of Booker T. Washington, and urged caution. Finally, he ended with an apology. “I did not come here prepared to make a speech,” Taft claimed. “I always come before an audience of your race with a great deal of hesitation because your race is a musical race and it is an oratorical race, and I am neither musical nor oratorical.”16

Having observed the president-elect's unfortunate utterances, the Cleveland Gazette reacted in predictably hostile fashion. For the final (p.206) weeks of January, the paper attacked Taft for his lack of backbone when dealing with white southerners. A reprinted piece by a white man that originally appeared in the Chicago Examiner resurfaced in the Gazette. The writer found it odd that northern Republican politicians continued to apologize to the South about the past forty years. He reminded his readers that the Civil War began “not by the nation firing on the south, but the south firing on the nation. And thus has it continued ever since.” It seemed odd to the writer that Taft was going to such lengths to court the states of the former Confederacy. Therefore, Taft's “expressed intentions of making a pet of the south would, were it carried out, become a double error—an error on his part, error on the side of the south.”17

Meanwhile, one week later, the Gazette's second attack on the administration's southern policy appeared in an untitled editorial. The piece analyzed a statement that Taft had made in Atlanta that he was not trying to capture the South, but that it had succeeded in capturing him. The Gazette responded: “[t]here is no sane member of the race, in or out of office, north or south, who does not understand exactly what he meant and means, when he said that.”18 In other words, he would respect southern conventions in terms of race relations and would not try to enforce the Civil War amendments. Particularly because Taft hailed from the newspaper's home state, the Gazette found his southern sycophancy sickening. At the very least, the Gazette expected Taft to be diligent about courting African Americans in the Buckeye State. Events would soon prove that he would fail even in this respect.

In the past, Taft's January Atlanta speeches would have been more than anyone expected from a president-elect. And yet, he gave another speech in a key southern city before his election. Such an abundance of attention signified that one of Taft's chief priorities was winning the goodwill of southerners. The New Orleans speech to an African American audience also indicated precisely about which southerners Taft cared. En route from a journey to examine the progress being made on the Panama Canal, Taft stopped in New Orleans during Mardi Gras in mid-February. Taft closed an inept speech at Pelican Park on a note that had to bring dread to the ears of the African Americans in the audience. Taft believed that race relations were “working themselves out” in the South, and that he was content to let southerners handle their own affairs. He assured his audience, “we in the North are glad to stand by and help when we can, but we do not want to come in here and, by a process of action that shall arouse (p.207) feeling against the object which we have in view, to mix up matters and deal with things that are better understood here.”19

John Mitchell of the Richmond Planet reacted to Taft's New Orleans visit with keen insight. Recognizing that Taft's speech implicitly promised to ignore issues of civil and voting rights, Mitchell tried to balance respect for Taft with his suspicions about future policies. Mitchell particularly disliked Taft's paternalism, which conveyed the tone of a “father [speaking] to a child, as the Indian Commissioner to the Indian, as the intelligent to the ignorant.” Ironically, Mitchell agreed with Taft that black southerners needed to look to their white southern neighbors for support. The editor believed this, however, because “the doors at Washington have been shut against you for many years and even now the distinguished President-elect is now [sic] making addresses which seem to sound the death knell of all your hopes.”20

Back to the time of Rutherford Hayes, the hands-off policy with respect to the South had been the de facto policy of Republican presidential administrations. None, however, had been so bold—or perhaps so politically naïve—as to have announced themselves unequivocally to the nation before their inauguration. Even if they had concluded that military coercion was not an option, most of Taft's predecessors had at least held out the threat of political action to prevent the most extreme violations of African American rights. One of Taft's chief blunders was establishing such a soft position so early on. He gave white southerners a free hand, promised African Americans nothing, and pursued a policy that offered no guidance to the South. Taft was undoubtedly influenced in his policy-making by the reality of decades of disfranchisement, and in some sense his ability to look the situation squarely in the face was admirable. He failed to understand, however, the symbolic importance that patronage positions offered to African Americans throughout the country. In other words, even though Theodore Roosevelt had done much to undermine his promise to keep open the “door of hope,” he had at least recognized that the door existed. The same could not be said of his handpicked successor.

The Presidency Begins

By the time that Taft's inauguration arrived on March 4, there was little doubt about his policies toward African Americans and the South. White (p.208) southerners would be favored at every turn. Nevertheless, just in case anyone had not been paying attention to his numerous speeches and pronouncements since the November election, Taft reiterated his position. Due in large part to his circumlocutory style of speaking, Taft spent more time delineating his policies than had most of his predecessors. Saying that he hoped to earn the good feeling of southern states, he then assured his fellow Americans that his “chief purpose is not to effect a change in the electoral vote of the Southern States.” What Taft was saying was extremely disingenuous. If he did not care about effecting change in the southern states, why had he spent so much time in the region during the campaign and afterward?21

In his inaugural address, Taft praised southern efforts to restrict suffrage. Rather than seeing disfranchisement as a racial epidemic, he believed it was a positive development. He pointed with pride to the progress that he thought African Americans had made over a fifty-year period, but Taft confessed that giving African Americans the right to vote had “proved to be a failure.” Despite his professed sympathy—he made the ridiculous claim that personally he had “not the slightest race prejudice or feeling”—the president's pity only went so far. When it came to presidential appointments, he did not want to fall prey to the controversies that had plagued his mentor's administration. The chief executive had a duty, Taft said, to “exercise a careful discretion not thereby to do … [the race] more harm than good.”22 Americans had never heard such a frank and unequivocally clear statement from a Republican president. The liberation legacy was dead, exactly 100 years after Abraham Lincoln's birth.

Whereas the inaugural address had been the political starting point for past presidential southern policies, for Taft it represented the culmination of the first stage of his efforts. He jettisoned the traditional honeymoon period in favor of clarity. With two southern trips under his substantial belt, Taft had also appeased white southerners more than any president since the Civil War. Officially, of course, his presidency had just started. The controversy that would soon emerge over the tariff revisions would rob Taft of the goodwill that he might have otherwise enjoyed. Despite the crippling nature of that controversy, his southern policy would remain fundamentally unaltered until the fall of 1910.

The first few months of Taft's administration proved that he took his claim about judicious southern appointments extremely seriously. On many different occasions, he had promised white southerners that he (p.209) would not interfere with their customs so long as they continued to act the way that they had in the past. The result was a moratorium on all African American appointments throughout not only the South, but also the North. The transition into a new, even more lily-white era was symbolized most pertinently by the forced resignation of William Crum from his controversial customhouse position in Charleston, South Carolina. In his place, Taft appointed a white Democrat. Taft also distanced himself from Booker T. Washington. The president claimed that he would confer with the Wizard, but he did not take Washington's advice to heart. For Taft, this was bad politics. For Washington, it was a damaging blow. He was still highly visible, and because Taft professed to count Washington as an adviser, it appeared that the Tuskegee principal condoned the lack of advocacy for African American office seekers. Faced with increasing criticism for his conservative agenda previously, Washington would come under even greater attack thereafter. Taft, meanwhile, did not seem to understand the disaffection that his policies were creating not only among office seekers and black southerners, but also among segments of the North—and African Americans in particular.23

As with previous Republican administrations, the most effective yardstick that contemporaries found for judging the relative commitment to African Americans was the appointment policy. Black newspapers in particular looked at that record quite closely. Taft retained a handful of Roosevelt appointees, but otherwise made no African American appointments. On the other hand, his willingness to appoint white southerners—even loyal Democrats—caused African Americans to pout. Just as Hayes had done so revolutionarily in 1877, Taft appointed a southern Democrat to a major post in his administration. The symbolic act of sectional reconciliation that had been so appealing thirty years before lacked the same gravitas in Taft's time. It demonstrated, however, that his desire to gain the electoral support of a greater portion of the South was a priority. By appointing Tennessean Jacob Dickinson as secretary of war, Taft hoped, he wrote his brother, to “appeal to the young men of the South.”24 Taft believed that a demonstration of gratitude would do even more to garner support in the future, even though Dickinson voted for Bryan in the 1908 election and persisted in thinking of himself as a Democrat. Taft's sights were primarily set on the Upper South states of Tennessee, Kentucky, Virginia, and North Carolina. Republicanism had little life in the states with the highest concentrations of African Americans (particularly South (p.210) Carolina and Mississippi), but it was not similarly dormant throughout the entire area that once encompassed the Confederacy. Taft hoped a piecemeal approach might prove to be a more effective method for dealing with southern issues. Whereas McKinley had hoped to use South Carolina as a starting point for a new policy because party membership was so miniscule in the state, Taft hoped to build upon existing sizable Republican minorities in the states of the Upper South.

The African American press had long since deciphered the direction in which the political winds were blowing with respect to Republican patronage. Years of practice with previous administrations had helped them perfect their forecasting, as, of course, had Taft's deliberate actions and utterances. Consequently, brief editorial blurbs appearing in the Indianapolis Freeman as early as the summer of 1909 hinted at the mounting exasperation throughout African American society. The Freeman was typically conservative and rarely criticized Republican administrations. Consequently, its increasing frustration was a telling indicator. Rather than outraged indignation, the paper's disappointment took the form of humor. “Large bodies move slowly—” a July 3 blurb declared, “President Taft anent the would-be Negro office holders.” Slightly more than a month later, the paper speculated “[m]aybe President Taft don't believe in doin' somethin' for somebody that didn't do something for him.”25 Taft was flouting the well-established patterns of recognition, which no self-respecting black newspaper could easily ignore. Even when previous administrations had pursued similar goals, they had been aware enough to pay a bit of attention to the balancing act. Taft's refusal to appoint African Americans to a handful of patronage positions was grating. He was rapidly wearing out the goodwill that traditionally accompanies a newly elected president.

Among African American newspapers, that goodwill was probably least present in the pages of the Cleveland Gazette. The Cleveland paper became more dissatisfied with the president. As with the Indianapolis Freeman, the Gazette's main sources of frustration regarded the interrelated issues of Taft's appointments of southern Democrats and his refusal to appoint African Americans. Attacks on the administration regularly peppered the pages of the paper throughout the spring and summer of 1909. A reception held by the Southern Club of Chicago in mid-April, at which the new secretary of war was the guest of honor, provided fodder (p.211)

Taft Toils ThroughoutThe Frequent Southern Campaigns, 1908–1913

Figure 6.3. William Howard Taft, golf, and the tariff, as seen in Judge. July 31, 1909 (Library of Congress). Even though he had not yet made his infamous speech related to the tariff, the president could be seen here greeting a wounded tariff bill.

(p.212) for editor Harry Smith's vitriol. Dickinson's speech in the Windy City, according to the Gazette, was designed merely to “publicly gloat over the prejudiced south's acquisition to its ranks of the present chief executive of the nation, and much of the public press of the north!” What was more irksome, sons of Abraham Lincoln and Ulysses Grant were in attendance. With such direct links to the Republican Party's golden years, the Gazette realized the symbolism. Neither Robert Todd Lincoln nor Frederick Grant was following the Republican Party's legacy of liberation. Instead, like the current president (himself the son of a Grant cabinet member), they were enthusiastically cheering the southernization of American life. That Dickinson's speech was received enthusiastically with the rebel yell was the clinching indictment for the Gazette, which poignantly wondered “whither are we drifting?”26

The symbolic presence of a Grant and a Lincoln at a banquet praising the entrance of an ex-Confederate into the ranks of the Republican Party was so rich that the Gazette felt compelled to run a separate editorial. This piece attempted to make sense of Taft's southern and political appointment policies in terms of the traditions of the Republican Party. Even though Taft treated it as such, the Gazette argued that his policy in the South was nothing new. Republicans had tried similar tactics before, and the result had always been the same. “All the Republican presidents from Lincoln down,” the editorial observed, “tried to break the solid south, and all were equally successful in not doing it.” To counter arguments that sectional reconciliation was a good thing, the piece further pointed out that in previous attempts to break up the “solid south,” Republicans had abandoned their traditional strongholds in the Northeast and Midwest. The two times that they had done so most forcefully—in 1884 and 1892—the editorial argued, the result had been defeat for the Republican Party. Particularly for African Americans living outside of the South, continued sectional difference had its appeals. If the Republican Party were willing to concede its weakness in the South, it would not have to pander so significantly to the whims of white southerners. African Americans might then be able to enjoy more presidential appointments, without the fear of southern domination. The Gazette's perspective represented the increasing disenchantment of black Americans with the Taft presidency. By the autumn of 1909, the indications of trouble were even more glaring.

(p.213) Southward Again: Autumn 1909

As it had in the past, a presidential tour through the South proved to be the touchstone for political debate about the future of the Republican Party. Like the first traveler and fellow Buckeye, Rutherford Hayes, William Taft undertook his journey during the autumn of his first year in office. Like Harrison and McKinley, Taft planned an ambitious national tour. Unlike any previous president, however, he did not commence his travels along a southern route. In his attempts to win support for the Payne-Aldrich Tariff he instead began by traveling north and west. This sequence did not receive any attention at the time, but to the student of presidential travel, the arrangement was odd. The Midwest was home to many of the insurgent reformers in the party, whose support Taft desperately needed. The grandiose tour took Taft through thirty-three states and territories and included about 260 speeches in sixty days. The tour began in earnest in Chicago on September 15, on Taft's fifty-second birthday. It would end November 10 back in Washington.

Of all the presidents between 1877 and 1913, Taft has the distinction for the most discussed speech connected to a national tour. This is a mark of infamy, however, rather than achievement. The address delivered at Winona, Minnesota in support of higher tariffs received intense coverage during his own time and has been amply criticized by historians ever since. Taft exacerbated the growing rift between the conservative and progressive branches of the Republican Party when he sided with the conservative faction, which had revised the tariff upward, rather than downward. Taft uttered the unfortunate sentence that he believed the unpopular tariff was “[o]n the whole, … the best tariff bill that the Republican party ever passed….” In the heartland of Republican insurgency, the president had sided with the conservative opposition. His position could not have been more poorly selected. Taft raised the ire of his opponents, who rallied to attack the president with increasing intensity. The tour was only in its embryonic stages, but the remainder of it would be overshadowed by a few ill-chosen words.27

Despite the Winona blunder and Taft's unfortunate facility for alienating a significant section of the central states, the portions of the president's journey that included the South were crucial to his domestic agenda. In addition to the atypical order of his national tour, Taft's 1909 swing through the southern states had two other unique aspects. The president's (p.214) first major departure was that he did not bring his wife with him. Helen Herron, or “Nellie” Taft, as she was known, was by most accounts the best politician in the Taft household. She certainly was the most ambitious. She had suffered a mild stroke in May and was still on the mend. Consequently, the face of the tour had a different look, which affected both the perception and the tenor of the official proceedings. The chief benefit that Helen's absence had is the legacy that it offered to historians. Ever the dutiful husband, Taft wrote his wife almost daily throughout the tour. Those letters, which survive, add a rich level of personal insight unparalleled in the history of the tours.28

The second departure of the Taft tour was even more significant. He was the first president to officially leave the soil of the United States while in office to visit another country (Theodore Roosevelt had visited the Panama Canal Zone in 1906 but claimed that in so doing, he was not entering a foreign country). Taft's brief trip to Juarez, which was part of a series of meetings with Mexican president Porfirio Díaz, provided the impetus for such an occasion. Most of the remainder of the tour contained the types of events and speeches that had become traditional during the southern journeys. As always, this meant there were important moments when special significance could be attached to the president's actions and utterances.29

For the purposes of this study, the portion of Taft's travels that deserve intense scrutiny commenced when he entered Texas. Taft's speeches throughout Texas did not dwell on the state's southern legacy. Instead, he appears to have treated the majority of the Lone Star State as if it were more properly part of the West than the South. In speeches throughout Texas between October 17 and October 23, the president praised the military, discussed the need for conservation, and stressed the importance of maintaining waterways for the people of Texas. These issues were important to some members of his audience and had been part of his appeals in the western states as well, but none was likely to attract much attention. When combined with a four-day stop at his brother's ranch, this meant that Taft was doing little to garner publicity for his southern policies. In fact, the lack of newsworthy copy was so striking that the New York Times, to cite just one example, ran numerous stories about the fallout throughout the Midwest after Taft had spoken there. Even a trip to the Alamo, on October 18, and some brief words at the African American Prairie View Normal School—both of which offered rich opportunities (p.215) for easy publicity—failed to provide Taft with sufficient material to accumulate national attention. Meanwhile, Americans were eagerly reading the exciting stories about two other journeys. Robert Peary had won the exhilarating race to discover the North Pole, while Theodore Roosevelt's African travels were providing sporadic news stories. Even when he was a continent away, Roosevelt found ways to upstage his successor.

Taft was not making headlines, and many critics claimed that he was oblivious to the important role that the press could play in publicizing his political goals. But the president was not as unobservant as he seemed. In various letters to his wife, Taft ruminated on the trip's importance. He seemed to be rationalizing the lengthy tour in his own mind, and although he attempted a positive tone, the letters also give the impression that Taft was increasingly aware of his unpopularity. On October 17 he wrote that he believed the trip had been successful. He admitted, however, “[i]t may be that I am not a good judge. It may be that it has not accomplished the purposes which I started out to accomplish. One can hardly tell in respect to this until some little time has elapsed.”30 A week later, while traveling from Dallas to St. Louis, Taft again addressed the importance of his trip. He was aware that the New York Times was “especially determined to show that this trip has done me and the party no good,” but he thought that only the regular session of Congress and the ensuing election would determine if this were true. What was more important in Taft's mind, he claimed, was the “mood of the people.” Taft took solace in knowing that he “certainly up to this time” had the people's “good will,” because that was a “considerable asset in a political way when the issues are as many and the difference of opinion between individual groups as various as they are today.” He then turned to the future, and ruminated on the growing rift among members of the Republican Party. Because people seemed contented with their condition, Taft predicted that the insurgents would falter during the next election. At that time, the general public would be “thinking of business profits and business prosperity….” In his mind, this meant that the vast majority of Americans would view his administration favorably.31

Throughout the remainder of his journey, Taft demonstrated his thin skin in response to journalistic criticism. For instance, on October 28, while en route to Vicksburg, Mississippi, Taft again complained about the rough treatment he was receiving from newspapers. The president listed the New York Times, the Chicago Tribune, the Kansas City Star, the Chicago Record-Herald, the St. Paul Pioneer Press, and the St. Paul Dispatch (p.216) as papers that were “engaged in hammering me from time to time and attempting to divide up the Republican party.” As he had done in his previous letter, Taft made a bold prediction that failed to materialize: “I think that they are going to fail in their effort…. I think they will find that I am stronger than they suppose.” He already realized the “disposition to use Roosevelt's reputation and popularity to beat me,” but he thought that once people saw how consistent he was in pursuing his beliefs, the criticism would subside.32

In the midst of the newspapers' attack, Taft began the circuitous route of his journey. From Dallas, he traveled up to St. Louis to join governors, congressmen, and senators for a trip down the Mississippi River. The journey was meant to symbolize the importance of the Mississippi River system to national commerce, and determine what measures could be taken to improve the system for trade.

The river excursion was fraught with delays and logistical snags, as many of the steamers carrying the twenty senators, thirty governors, and twenty congressmen proved incapable of keeping pace with the presidential Oleander. Consequently, numerous receptions and speeches were either delayed or canceled. The confusion of the river journey made Taft's secretaries seem less organized than their predecessors (which they were) and angered some of the local committees.33 To compound matters, as Taft traveled down the river, he delivered some of the most stolid and uninspired speeches of his journey. Along the way, he made speeches in Memphis, Helena, Arkansas, Vicksburg, and Natchez, Mississippi, as well as Baton Rouge, before arriving in New Orleans on October 30. His main speech in the Crescent City was meant to be the culmination of a powerful series of addresses advocating the importance of the Mississippi River not only to southern trade, but also to American commerce in general. Instead, although he tackled those themes, the content of his speech was as dry as a desiccated creek bed.34

Taft further diminished his stature by associating with House leader “Uncle Joe” Cannon during the expedition. If there was a more unpopular man than senator Nelson Aldrich among insurgents and budding progressive Republicans, it was the speaker of the House. His dictatorial control over the House had helped drive the Payne-Aldrich Tariff through Congress, despite the objections from many in both parties. In a speech in Chicago on October 20 Cannon denounced Republican insurgents. “If they are Republicans, I am not. If I am a Republican, they are not. That is (p.217) my doctrine and I am not afraid to preach it.” Rather than shunning the speaker in the wake of such divisive remarks, Taft consulted with the aged representative from Illinois and consented to be photographed with him. He had already allied himself with the conservative faction in Minnesota. Instead of taking an opportunity to appeal to party harmony, Taft again disastrously sided with the obstructionist wing of the party, even when he recognized that Cannon was a political liability.35

Once he reached New Orleans Taft finally realized that he was indeed among southerners. The remaining part of his journey witnessed the most frequent appeals that he made to southern interests. He had been traveling some time, and the numerous speeches that he had made since September may have overshadowed the unique situation that Taft was in. Less than a year into his presidency, he was already addressing people in some southern towns for the second time since he received the Republican nomination. Taft's mission therefore was not so much to present himself to the southern people for their initial glimpses at him, but rather to follow up on pledges that he had made while previously in the region.

While in New Orleans, where he had spoken prior to his inauguration, Taft was able to make a number of ceremonial visits. All of those occasions afforded him the opportunity to act presidential without having to make too many important political speeches. Among the activities that he reported to his wife were his attendance at two football games (one between LSU and Sewanee and another between Tulane and Mississippi), a dinner at the city's Pickwick Club, a trip to the opera, a speech and luncheon in Jackson Park, and a speech on Tulane's campus. Taft admitted that such a schedule made life in the city “most strenuous, but I have enjoyed it greatly because the emphasis on the cordiality cannot be misunderstood.” “These people,” Taft gushed like a schoolboy, “really seem to like me.”36

As was so often the case, one major group was largely forgotten in the clamoring over public approval. Given all of Taft's previous speeches and actions as a candidate and president, it was not terribly surprising that African Americans were again receiving short shrift from the president. What was more remarkable, however, was the increasing independence that African Americans were showing. For the first time in the city's history, a piece in the Indianapolis Freeman noted, no African American delegations in New Orleans made efforts to organize a reception for a Republican president. Perhaps the speech from February, in which he had discounted the importance of the Fifteenth Amendment and African (p.218) American office holding, was still fresh in their minds. Perhaps they saw the tenor and content of Taft's speeches throughout the country, and realized how little care he seemed to give to African Americans. Or perhaps they realized that the president still had not appointed a single new African American to a patronage position, a fact that was particularly galling. Most likely, it was a combination of all these factors. Taft himself did not seem bothered, or even aware of the precedent, but it was a dangerous one to set.37

The president further raised the ire of African Americans and progressive Republicans with his actions between October 31 and November 2. In two different speeches, the first at Jackson, Mississippi, and the second at Birmingham, Alabama, Taft spoke and acted in ways that appeared to be deliberate attempts to anger traditional Republican constituencies. Politically, such speeches were a fool's errand at best. He had received only 6.5 percent of Mississippi's popular vote in the 1908 election. Unless the president planned to make a major speech decrying the Mississippi Plan, disfranchisement, and grandfather clauses, there seemed to be little point in going. Taft exacerbated the situation by not only failing to rebuke Mississippians, but also by doing the seemingly unthinkable: he praised former Confederate president Jefferson Davis. Taft described Davis as one of Mississippi's “great heroes.”38

While in Jackson, in yet another ill-considered move, Taft had a private meeting with James K. Vardaman. Vardaman, who had used the Indianola post office hoopla during the Roosevelt administration to achieve the governorship of the state, had unsuccessfully made a Senate bid in 1908. After their five-minute meeting, both Vardaman and Taft were reported to have come out smiling. In evoking the president of the Confederacy and appearing with perhaps the foremost champion of white supremacist demagoguery in his own time, Taft had tipped the scales even more decidedly in favor of the white South.39

The Indianapolis Freeman was outraged at the president's temerity. Taft was a victim of his previous pro-white utterances in regard to the South, because the African American residents of Jackson, like their New Orleans counterparts, did not extend a welcome to the president. The Freeman dismissed Taft's actions in Jackson as yet one more instance of ingratitude. “The Negro,” an editorial stated, “who has always been true to the Republican party, … is now to be given what his blessed Master had offered him on the Cross—‘vinegar and gall.’”40 Yet Taft was naively unaware of how (p.219) he was alienating African Americans. In the report to his wife, he noted with glee that he “could not have been treated with more consideration under any circumstances.” In his judgment, Taft had captured the hearts and minds of his white audience: “The good will of the Southern people I cannot be mistaken about. I am sure I have it, and I could not receive more assurance on that subject and more evidences in every way.” Again and again, Taft made clear that when he spoke of the South, he meant the white South. The possibility of a more inclusive definition of the region was entirely precluded by the president's value system.41

Taft further ingratiated himself with white southerners—and alienated African Americans—with his speech at Birmingham on November 2. In his speech to the city's chamber of commerce, Taft spoke generally about the increased economic opportunity for all classes of Americans. He concluded his remarks by addressing the specifics of the southern situation. Because of business prosperity, particularly in industrial cities such as Birmingham, Taft believed that sectionalism was becoming almost insignificant in American life. But in suggesting this possibility, Taft wanted to make clear to his white audience that he did not mean southerners should give up what made them distinctive. “I would not have the South give up a single one of her noble traditions,” the president assured his audience. Implicit in this statement was an endorsement of white supremacy, Jim Crow, and disfranchisement, if not racial terror. As with his praise of Jefferson Davis, the negative effects of Taft's utterances in Birmingham were exacerbated by his failure to assure African Americans that he considered their protection an issue of paramount importance.42

Even if Taft was oblivious to the lack of enthusiasm among African Americans for his presence, others in his company were not. Military aide Archie Butt, whose Georgian roots made him no particular friend of African Americans, was so struck by Taft's shortcomings that he included a lengthy analysis of the situation to his sister-in-law. Like everyone else, Butt could not help but compare Taft to Roosevelt, and like everywhere else, Taft did not fare favorably in the comparison. If Butt could discern the hostility among African Americans, it must have been truly striking. “The Negroes have greeted him coldly everywhere,” Butt wrote, “and he in turn has done nothing to placate them. In no place has he pandered to them, and he has seemed to avoid them everywhere.” According to the military aide, the appearance was not just coincidence. Taft, he claimed, “dislikes the Negro, and his highest ambition is to eliminate them [sic] (p.220) in politics.” For Butt, such conviction represented promise, because in it lay the foundation for a president who truly appealed to the white South. “His determination to recognize only white men in the South has given him a popularity there which is marvelous,” Butt claimed. Finally, the Georgian noted that the “most impassioned speeches” Taft “made were those in the South, and I cannot but think he will be able to do much in bringing some of the Southern states to him should he be renominated.”43

As the last days of Taft's lengthy journey approached, the pace of his travels increased. The remaining days were spent in the heart of the old Confederacy, visiting cities in Georgia, South Carolina, and Virginia. Taft sensed the impending completion of his trip, and attempted to discuss its significance to his final audiences. He undertook the difficult task of trying to appeal to the uniqueness of the South, while at the same time claiming that the region was really not peculiar at all, but representative. In a speech in Charleston, South Carolina, Taft once again assured his audience about his intentions in the South. He had already made his position painstakingly clear for approximately a year, but the president nevertheless felt compelled to do so at least one more time. Noting that he had enjoyed the warm welcome that he had received throughout the region, Taft attempted to demonstrate that he reciprocated the feeling. In the city that had served as the hotbed of secession, Taft told the crowd that he was not contemplating a political revolution, for that would have been impossible. Instead, he hoped to “smooth out some of the wrinkles that may perhaps have remained from our former differences” and show “that in dealing with the South this Administration looks upon it in no different sense in a general way than upon Ohio or Illinois or the great West.” The chief problem for Taft, however, was that the same could not be said of the majority of people listening to his speech. He was in a state that had given him only 3,945 votes in the presidential election. By assuring white southerners that they had “influence in Washington,” as he put it, Taft encouraged them to continue voting for Democrats. Here Taft was being far too gracious. If white southerners could have influence even though they supported another party, why would they change their political allegiance?44

As Taft began to head north for the end of his journey, he showed clear signs of fatigue. For instance, at Augusta the president gleefully reported the results of his golf game to his wife before he described the speeches that he made there. While on the links, Taft arranged to meet Augusta's (p.221)

Taft Toils ThroughoutThe Frequent Southern Campaigns, 1908–1913

Figure 6.4. The avid golfer, President Taft (Library of Congress). Seen here in Hot Springs, Virginia, Taft golfed nearly every day of his fall tour, and frequently discussed his game in letters to his wife Nellie.

most famous resident, Detroit Tigers' star outfielder Ty Cobb. Cobb was fresh off a World Series appearance that fall. Although his team fell to the Pittsburgh Pirates, the “Georgia Peach” had cemented his position as one of the celebrities of American sport. The precocious twenty-two-year-old reportedly assured the president that he'd be “glad to give you whatever popularity I have.” Taft certainly could have used it.45

Despite his growing restlessness, Taft still had a number of stops to make before he could join his wife in Washington. Between November 7 and 10 he made appearances in Augusta, Georgia, Columbia (where he appeared with both of South Carolina's Democratic senators, including (p.222) Benjamin Tillman) and Sumter, South Carolina, and Wilmington, North Carolina. The last major appearance was at Richmond on November 10. That speech contained many of Taft's stock phrases: his pride at being the first Republican nominee to campaign in the state, the similarity in the appearance of audiences throughout the regions of the country, a review of the importance of conservation and interstate commerce, and his desire to demonstrate to white southerners through his appointment policy that he was sympathetic to their causes. He closed his comments about waning sectional difference with remarks concerning the watershed of American life forty years earlier. In words that might have been lifted from the tours in 1891, 1898, 1901, or 1905, Taft rejoiced that the country had reached a point “when the North can admire to the full the heroes of the South, and the South admire to the full the heroes of the North.” Further, he commended the efforts to dedicate a grand memorial to Robert E. Lee by establishing a school of engineering at Washington and Lee University. Taft expressed his “deep sympathy in that movement and my desire to aid it in every way possible and proper on my part.” Thus, he had been able to laud the two most significant heroes of the Confederacy, Jefferson Davis and Robert E. Lee, in one trip. Such remarks would have warranted scorn and outrage in 1877 or even 1891, but after all of his remarks and the general apathy among many members of the Republican Party, Taft's actions generated little uproar.46

Contemporary Reactions to the Taft Travels

Many northern publications never warmed to Taft's travels. Having endorsed the Payne-Aldrich Tariff in Minnesota, Taft struggled to maintain his reputation. Because the controversial comments had occurred so early in his trip and well before he had even set foot on southern soil, everything that he tried to do thereafter was simply secondary. Perhaps the most damning criticism came from the New York Tribune, which compared Taft's trip to Andrew Johnson's disastrous 1866 “swing around the circle.” Although the New York paper did not think Taft had stumbled as mightily as Johnson had, it believed that the tour had a deleterious effect on the president. Citizens got so excited to see the president, the piece maintained, that he missed the “sober sentiment of the public, who North, South, be they Democrats or Republicans, are almost invariably carried away with enthusiasm….” Most tellingly, the piece was entitled “See a (p.223) Plot to Name Roosevelt,” and contained rampant speculation about the impending break with the former president.47

In southern locales that Taft had visited, the story was different, however. The reaction could best be summed up by a piece appearing in the Richmond Times-Dispatch. In an editorial that ran on the day the president was in town, the paper began with a statement guaranteed to catch Taft's attention. “No President since the war has gotten closer to the hearts of the South than William H. Taft,” the piece proclaimed. Tellingly, the piece lauded Taft because he represented a perspective that was more sympathetic to the white southern worldview. Taft and this new class of Republicans, the Times-Dispatch concluded, “approves the disfranchisement of the worthless negro and the enforcement of a white rule.” Taft had not used words that were quite so harsh, but the Times-Dispatch could hardly be faulted for believing that the president's racial cosmology was identical to that of many white southerners.48

Taft's stock was lowest, not surprisingly, in the African American press. For the remainder of the year Taft continued to ignore African American concerns. Taft's silences throughout 1909 were so profound that the African American appointees who had been retained from the Roosevelt administration felt compelled to defend the president. A sympathetic article appeared in the Indianapolis Freeman, under the aegis of Charles Thompson's regular news column. Noting that it had “been remarked that he [Taft] said nothing touching the problems peculiarly affecting the black men …,” during the tour, the column hastened to the president's defense. Somewhat disingenuously, the article claimed “friends of the administration here intimate that the President's silence was not due by any means to a lack of interest in the Negro. It was simply due to the fact that the Negro's case has not yet been reached upon the calendar.” The article went on to cite a “colored leader known from ocean to ocean,” who tried to assure the race that Taft had many duties to attend. The situation was so bleak that the best spin this “leader” could put on the administration was admitting that “[a]lthough few Negroes have been appointed to office none has been removed by the President, and in the minor places there have been numerous and substantial promotions.” These were half-truths at best. Crum's resignation had technically occurred during the final days of the Roosevelt administration, but Taft had clearly been the one desiring the action. In addition, the “numerous promotions” were sufficiently vague so as to puzzle anyone.49

(p.224) According to the Washington Bee, the picture was not nearly so rosy as Charles Thompson and the “colored leader” would have their readers believe. As 1909 drew to a close, editor W. Calvin Chase was exasperated with the Taft administration and the increasing prevalence of Jim Crow in the federal workplace. In an open letter to Taft appearing in the December 18 edition of the Bee, Chase castigated the president for his reluctance to appoint African Americans to patronage positions, even if those positions were the menial ones typically reserved for the race. Similarly, the editor was critical of Taft's promises to southern Democrats. A rumor spread through Washington that when the terms of African American appointees expired in the South, Taft would not appoint black men to fill their positions. The letter concluded with a statement imploring Taft to tell southerners that he would appoint men based on merit and not on skin color.50 In another open letter to the president just two weeks later, the Bee caustically noted that the few African Americans who remained in Washington offices were not receiving fair treatment. They were, according to Chase, being “treated like slaves.”51

In Cleveland, meanwhile, the feeling of animosity was similar. A letter from a white man to the Cleveland Gazette printed in the closing weeks of 1909 underscored the widespread dissatisfaction that many Republicans had with the Taft administration. The writer was reacting to the statements attributed to Taft in his Birmingham speech, where he had assured his audience that he did not want the South to give up any of its noble traditions. The letter observed that two of those southern traditions had been “the right of the states to secede from the Union whenever they wanted to and the right of the south to hold the black race as slaves.” Furthermore, his laudatory remarks about Jefferson Davis were an outrage to African Americans and the entire Union. “If those speeches were mere flattery, they were reprehensible,” the letter cried, “and if they were his honest sentiments, then he does not represent northern Republicanism …, but southern Democracy.”52 Perhaps an editorial from the Indianapolis Freeman put the situation that African Americans faced at the beginning of Taft's second year in office best when it likened the situation of African Americans in the Republican Party to “a man standing on the vortex of a great precipice, equally as hazardous.” “The Negro has been losing ever since the Rutherford B. Hayes administration,” the piece observed, “and now he has been practically read out of the party ranks….”53

(p.225) Postlude: the Legacy of 1909 and the Final Taft Years

Tension and dissatisfaction within the Republican Party and the nation at large plagued Taft for the remaining years of his presidency. From 1910 through 1912 African Americans in particular remained profoundly disenchanted with the president. Although they had other reasons, in this respect, African Americans differed little from insurgent Republicans. In 1910 Taft revamped his southern policy slightly, and reluctantly appointed a handful of African Americans in the North. He undertook both actions in order to court Republican support during the fall elections. Many black leaders saw through these transparent efforts and continued to attack the president. A few patronage crumbs could not undo the damage of three sycophantic southern tours. Remarkably, rather than shrinking into apathetic despondency, African American leaders viewed their situation as an opportunity rather than a curse. Consequently, they continued to lobby for increased awareness about the role that African Americans could play in electoral politics.

The most incisive insight that Taft received about African American political interests came from Oswald Garrison Villard. Villard, the grandson of the famous abolitionist William Lloyd Garrison, was the editor of the New York Evening Post and one of the founding members of the NAACP. Taft's secretary Norton had written Villard asking for names of “three or four editors or public men of the negro race whose opinions carry the most weight” on September 14. Six days later, Villard responded with a nuanced understanding of the perilous situation that confronted African Americans. He reminded Norton that there were two main camps among African Americans: those following Booker T. Washington and those following W. E. B. Du Bois. With frankness that might have startled the president, Villard informed Taft that the opposition to the Wizard “among his own people increases steadily.” Villard blasted Washington even further, assuring Taft that the “great majority of men who have risen above the ranks consider him a traitor to the race.” Villard assured Norton that it made little sense to ask advice from the present African American office holders, because they were all solidly Washingtonians. “If you consult only with them,” the editor warned, “you will please only them, and you will correspondingly offend the other faction.” Consequently, Villard constructed a list that represented both the Bookerites and the Du Boisians.54

(p.226) Villard's letter was one of the most thoughtful appraisals of the race situation in 1910 that Taft had received as president. It contained more insight into the jealousies and power struggles among African Americans than most of the fawning advice that Taft received from the few African Americans in his administration. Villard saw the shortcomings of Taft's policies that had been so readily apparent in his southern journeys. Taft's vision was so lacking that he failed to understand that even his token gestures toward African Americans missed the mark because they benefited only one particular subset of African American leadership. With African Americans, Taft faced a dilemma similar to the one he confronted with the Republican Party. He could side with the conservative faction, which was closer to his personal inclinations, or he could side with a more radical faction, which although it was not as personally appealing to him, might have been more in touch with the political mood. When faced with such decisions, Taft responded with caution, rather than with the best political move. Although African Americans in the Du Bois camp did not have the same stake in the Republican Party that insurgent whites did, both groups proved willing to abandon the administration if it meant furthering their political agendas. As the president continued to be swayed by the forbidden fruit that he believed was readily obtainable in the form of the white South, he was losing the support of traditional Republicans in the more populous northern and western states.

But despite the input from Villard and postmaster general Frank Hitchcock, Taft looked to court more white southerners. Eager to achieve success in the sea of failure that was his presidency, Taft looked south. The 1910 election would be interpreted as a referendum on his first years in office. If he could show progress in the South, perhaps all of his efforts would not be in vain.

Taft's military aide, Archie Butt, provided a tantalizing perspective into the president's political priorities on the eve of the 1910 midterm elections. In a scene that Butt recreated for his sister-in-law, Taft was in the process of making southern appointments with his secretary. Postmaster General Hitchcock had recommended a number of traditional supporters for vacancies—including African Americans. In reaction, Butt claimed the normally docile Taft pounded the table and told his secretary:

I will not be swerved one iota from my policy to the South, and I want Hitchcock to understand it now, once and for all. I shall not (p.227) appoint Negroes to office in the South, and I shall not appoint Republicans unless they be good men. I shall not relinquish my hope to build up a decent white man's party there, politics or no politics. That section of the country is entitled to have first-class men in federal offices as much as any part of the country, and if I cannot find good Republicans for the offices, then I will fill them with Democrats.

Butt reacted with glee to this exchange. In his opinion, Taft was pursuing the proper course for the presidency and for the white South. For his part, Taft demonstrated that he shared Theodore Roosevelt's belief that most southern Republicans were bad men and that appointing African Americans to the South was out of the question.55

Republicans received crushing defeats in the 1910 elections. For the first time since 1892, there would be a Democratic House. In addition to losing important governorships, Taft was dealt a further humiliating defeat. Insurgent candidates whom he had railed against earlier in the year were swept into office, so that even the number of Republicans was misleading, because many were even more fervently anti-Taft than the Democrats.56 Consequently, the president saw his political agenda severely constrained for the remaining years of his presidency. This should have been an unmistakably clear message to the Republican Party about the wisdom of courting white southerners.

Although the political front appeared to be an unqualified disaster, Supreme Court openings offered Taft another opportunity to craft a legacy. Here too, white southern Democrats received inordinate attention from the president. Taft had the opportunity to appoint six justices to the Court during his single term in office. Three of these appointments, including the chief justiceship, went to southerners. What was more, two of the three—Horace Lurton and Edward Douglass White—were former Confederates. The third southern justice, Joseph Lamar, hailed from a southern locale Taft frequently visited (Augusta, Georgia). Taft nominated all three between 1909 and 1911, during the peak of his efforts at wooing white southern constituencies. White was already a member of the Court when Taft chose to elevate him to the chief position, which had been done only once before in American history. None of these southern appointees had a lasting impact on the Court because of their short tenure as justices. Nevertheless, the symbolism of their appointment was both clear and significant.

(p.228) The scales were again tipped in favor of the South. Taft had previously assured southerners that their region was one of the last bastions of conservatism. Ironically, the section with which Taft had so much ideological affinity was also the most consistently opposed to him politically. Taft was never able to comprehend the meaning of such opposition and consequently exerted too much energy in the hopes of converting southern voters.57 As Richard Nixon would do nearly fifty years later, Taft was attempting to use Supreme Court appointments as a bulwark to his southern strategy.

Over the remaining two years of the Taft presidency southern states received even greater attention from presidential aspirants than they had in the past. The chasm in the Republican Party exacerbated the tendency of presidential candidates to court white southern votes. Theodore Roosevelt's and Taft's struggle for the 1912 nomination has been well documented. But its effect on the balance between the various segments of southern society can easily be overlooked. Once 1912 rolled around and Roosevelt failed in his effort to win the nomination, the stage was set for a fierce showdown. Woodrow Wilson's Democratic nomination signaled that the presidential race would be tripartite.

In such a breach, it might seem natural that African Americans could make the difference between winning and losing the next set of elections. Democrats, who had succeeded in getting endorsements from Du Bois and Trotter in 1908, hoped to attract greater northern black support in 1912. Surely, many people thought, Theodore Roosevelt's new party, the Progressives, would also side with racial justice and endorse a sympathetic platform for African Americans. The Republican Party, for all of its faults, remained the sentimental party of Lincoln and could be expected to solicit the black vote. Yet this was not to be. The major candidates outdid themselves in distancing themselves from, rather than embracing, African Americans. During an election in which candidates vied with one another to appear more progressive, such a predicament spoke volumes about the entrenchment of southern racial conservatism in mainstream American political life.58

The abandonment was not due to a lack of activity by members of the African American press. Their predicament, however, hints at the limited choices offered to those African Americans able to vote. Thirty-odd years after T. Thomas Fortune had advocated throwing off the shackles of filial piety to the Republican Party, most African Americans were unable to do (p.229) so. They were faced with the candidacies of a Democrat who had been born and raised in the South, a Republican who had neglected African Americans, and a third-party candidate who had foresworn black political rights in the South and had the burden of a past presidential record. The choices for African Americans were not enviable. Du Bois stated it best in the Crisis when he listed the options available to African Americans. For him, it made sense to experiment with the unknown quantity of Woodrow Wilson over two proven and disappointing quantities. Other editors, despite their initial opposition to Taft, still backed the incumbent because of party loyalty and a lack of compelling options. This was a man who had journeyed to the South and sided with whites' interests there more than any president since the Civil War and who was no friend to African Americans. Nevertheless, despite their outcries and protestations from 1910 through most of 1912, by the time of the election, even caustic critics such as Harry Smith of the Cleveland Gazette eventually returned to the Republican fold.59 African American political independence, which had been a goal of T. Thomas Fortune's since the 1880s, was no closer to being realized in 1912 than it had been in the past.

Taft's southern tours had made possible the final erosion of African American issues and rights on the national scene. The president's pandering to southern whites built on the worst traditions of some of his predecessors, without their flair for publicity or ability to balance the desires, obligations, and legacy of liberation associated with the Republican Party. Taft hinted at the future with his southern campaigning during the fall of 1908. His wanderlust during his presidency began to obscure the meaning of the southern tour, as it had been defined over the years. The era of lengthy southern and national tours was drawing to a close. This meant white southerners got to see more of a president, but it apparently also meant that their sectional interests—when it came to racial matters—received even more weight than they had in the past. Woodrow Wilson's administration would usher in an era of even greater discrimination and segregation in Washington. By the time the next Republican occupied the White House, African Americans were even less of a national priority than they had been under Taft.


(1.) Cleveland Gazette, “Taft's Speech of Acceptance,” August 8, 1908, 2.

(2.) The most detailed treatment of Taft's record on racial and southern matters is Needham, “William Howard Taft, the Negro, and the White South,” PhD diss., Univ. of Georgia, 1970. See also Sherman, The Republican Party and Black America.

(3.) Taft's frequent travels were so noticeable that two of his biographers commented on them. Judith Icke Anderson's psychological study explained Taft's numerous travels as a defense mechanism by which he could put off the office work associated with the presidency. Anderson, William Howard Taft: An Intimate History, 34. For more on the effects of the tour see Pringle, The Life and Times of William Howard Taft vol. 1, 458.

(p.269) (4.) The best starting point for Taft and his presidency is Gould, The William Howard Taft Presidency. Readers seeking a full biography, however, should still see Pringle, The Life and Times of William Howard Taft.

(5.) Descriptions of the split among Republicans have been a mainstay in American political history. In addition to the description in Pringle, see Cooper, Pivotal Decades; Wiebe, The Search for Order; Mowry, The Era of Theodore Roosevelt; and Hofstadter, The Age of Reform.

(6.) Dunn, From Harrison to Harding vol. 2, 104.

(7.) Foraker, Notes of a Busy Life vol. 2, 407.

(8.) Dunn, From Harrison to Harding vol. 2, 102. For Taft's inability to handle the press, see Juergens, News From the White House, 91–125. For the ineptitude of the secretaries, see Coletta, The Presidency of William Howard Taft, 54–55.

(9.) For an example of the way in which Taft linked African Americans and Filipinos, see Taft's speech, “The Outlook of Negro Education.” Delivered at Augusta, Ga., January 19, 1909. In Political Issues and Outlooks, 263. He discussed his history of dealing with the South in his speech “The Solid South and Its Political Past.” Delivered at Chattanooga, October 16, 1908, 177.

(10.) Taft, “Solid South and Its Political Past.” Delivered at Chattanooga, October 16, 1908. In Political Issues and Outlooks, 178.

(11.) Ibid., 179–181.

(12.) Taft, “The South and the National Government,” December 7, 1908. William Howard Taft Papers [hereafter listed as WHTP], Library of Congress, Manuscript Division, Microfilm Edition, series 9B, reel 575. For one example of what historians have written about the speech, see Cooper, Pivotal Decades, 124–25. Most of the standard discussions of the Taft years have recognized Taft's poor racial politics, but, for instance, neither Paolo Coletta, Henry Pringle, nor George Mowry (In The Era of Theodore Roosevelt) focus on the North Carolina Society of New York speech.

(13.) New York Times, “Taft Eats 'Possum, Gives South a Pledge,” January 16, 1909, 1.

(14.) Taft, “The Winning of the South.” Delivered in Atlanta, January 15, 1909. In Political Issues and Outlooks, 230–239.

(16.) Taft, “Views of Negro Difficulties.” Delivered at the Big Bethel Church, Atlanta, January 16, 1909. In Political Issues and Outlooks, 240–244.

(17.) Alfred Henry Lewis, “The South is Only to Blame!” Cleveland Gazette, January 23, 1909, 2.

(18.) Cleveland Gazette, untitled editorial. January 30, 1909, 2,

(19.) Taft, “Uniting of Whites and Negroes.” Delivered at Pelican Park, New Orleans, February 12, 1909. In Political Issues and Outlooks, 274.

(20.) Richmond Planet, editorial, “Mr. Taft and the Negro,” February 20, 1909, 4.

(21.) William Howard Taft, “Inaugural Address,” March 4, 1909. In Presidential Addresses and State Papers, 63.

(p.270) (22.) Ibid., 65–66.

(23.) For more on Washington's role during the Taft administration, see “Black Politics in the Taft Era” in Harlan, Booker T. Washington: the Wizard of Tuskegee, 338–358.

(24.) William Howard Taft to Henry Taft, February 1, 1909. Quoted in Needham, 93.

(25.) Indianapolis Freeman, untitled editorials. July 13, 1909, 4, and August 14, 1909, 4,

(26.) Cleveland Gazette, “Gave the Southern Rebel Yell,” April 17, 1909, 2.

(27.) Taft, “Tariff Speech.” Delivered at Winona, MN, September 17, 1909. In Presidential Addresses and State Papers, 222. For more on Winona, see Coletta, 73–74; Pringle, 453–57; and Mowry, The Era of Theodore Roosevelt, 248–49. For more on the western portions of the trip in general, see Pringle, 451–469 and Coletta, 73–74.

(28.) For more on the ill health of Helen Taft see Coletta, 48 and 53. A more detailed description of Helen Taft can be found in Anderson, particularly the chapter “Holding Court in the Red Room: Nellie in the White House,” 153–168. Mrs. Taft's political scheming had earned her the enmity of some newspaper reporters. A story in the Louisville Courier-Journal depicted Helen as “ambitious, dominant, and burning the candle at both ends.” See Courier-Journal, “First Lady,” October 24, 1909, Section 2, 6.

(29.) For more on the Juarez and El Paso visits—the latter of which included a fatal knife fight between two school children—see the New York Times, October 18 and 19 and the Louisville Courier-Journal October 17, 1909, section 4, 1. Taft described the visit to his wife in a letter, too. See Taft to Helen Taft, October 17, 1909. WHTP, series 2, reel 26.

(30.) William Howard Taft to Helen Taft, October 17, 1909. WHTP, series 2, reel 26.

(31.) William Howard Taft to Helen Taft, October 24, 1909. WHTP, series 2, reel 26. Critical reaction to Taft's tariff stance on the tour can be found in various New York Times editorials. See, for example, “Lost,” September 21, 1909, 8; “The Tariff and Sectionalism,” September 30, 1909, 8; “Mr. Taft's Tactics,” October 20, 1909, 8.

(32.) William Howard Taft to Helen Taft, October 28, 1909. WHTP, series 2, reel 26.

(33.) For details on the delays associated with the steamers, see New York Times, October 27, October 28, and October 30.

(34.) In Taft's speech in Natchez, he equated the river with a “beautiful and powerful woman.” See New York Times, “Taft Nearing End of Trip On River,” October 30, 1909, 6.

(35.) Cannon's remarks can be found in the Washington Post, “Insurgents Read Out,” October 21, 1909, 4.

(36.) William Howard Taft to Helen Taft, October 31, 1909. WHTP, series 2, reel 26.

(37.) The observation about the African American community in New Orleans is from V. P. Thomas, “Will Not Welcome Taft,” Indianapolis Freeman, October 23, 1909, 1.

(38.) New York Times, “Taft for Suffrage If Women Want It,” November 3, 7.

(p.271) (39.) On the meeting with Vardaman, see New York Times, “Taft in Mississippi Lauds Farmer's Life,” November 2, 1909, 5.

(40.) Indianapolis Freeman, editorial, “President Taft and the Negro,” November 27, 1909, 4.

(41.) William Howard Taft to Helen Taft, November 2, 1909. WHTP, series 2, reel 26.

(42.) Taft, “Speech at the Chamber of Commerce Banquet, Birmingham, Ala.” November 2, 1909. In Presidential Addresses and State Papers, 402.

(43.) Archibald Butt to Clara Butt, November 14, 1909. In Taft and Roosevelt: The Intimate Letters of Archie Butt, Military Aide vol. 2, 204–5.

(44.) Taft, “Speech at the Banquet Tendered by the Citizens of Charleston, S.C.” November 5, 1909. In Presidential Addresses and State Papers, 411–13.

(45.) William Howard Taft to Helen Taft, November 7 and November 9, 1909. WHTP, series 2, reel 26. The Ty Cobb meeting can be found in the New York Times, “Taft Eats Pine Bark Stew,” November 9, 1909, 2.

(46.) Taft, “Speech at the Auditorium, Richmond, Virginia,” November 10, 1909. In Presidential Addresses and State Papers, 424–431.

(47.) New York Tribune, “See A Plot to Name Roosevelt,” November 10, 1909, 2.

(48.) Richmond Times-Dispatch, editorial, “The President,” November 10, 1909, 6.

(49.) Indianapolis Freeman, “At the National Capital,” November 27, 1909, 1.

(50.) Washington Bee, “Open Letter To President,” December 18, 1909, 1.

(51.) Washington Bee, “Open Letter To President,” January 1, 1910, 1.

(52.) H. H. Pryce, “President Taft's Southern Trip!” Cleveland Gazette, December 25, 1909, 1.

(53.) The Freeman piece was reprinted in the Cleveland Gazette on January 15, 1910, under the title, “President Taft! Causes the Break!” 1.

(54.) Oswald Garrison Villard to Charles Norton, September 20, 1910. WHTP, series 6, reel 372, case file 190.

(55.) Archibald Butt to Clara Butt, September 13, 1910. In Taft and Roosevelt vol. 2, 511–12.

(56.) For a discussion of how Taft spoke out against insurgents and the corresponding effect that it had on the 1910 election, see Coletta, 114–120.

(57.) In an address at the Atlanta Chamber of Commerce on March 10, 1911, Taft called the selection of judges “the most sacred duty that a President has to perform” and pointed with pride at the number of southerners he had appointed to the Supreme Court. The speech is in WHTP, series 9C, reel 579.

(58.) See Arthur S. Link, “Theodore Roosevelt and the South in 1912,” North Carolina Historical Review 33 (1946): 313–324; Link, “Correspondence Relating to the Progressive Party's ‘Lily White’ Policy in 1912,” Journal of Southern History 10 (1944): 480–490; George Mowry, “The South and the Progressive Lily White Party of 1912,” Journal of Southern History 6 (1940): 237–247; and Gable, The Bull Moose Years, 60–74. Roosevelt's most infamous statement in favor of the “lily white” strategy appeared in (p.272) a letter to Julian Harris on August 1, 1912. It can be found in Morrison, ed., The Letters of Theodore Roosevelt, vol. 7, 584–594.

(59.) Du Bois ran a number of excellent editorials throughout 1912. One of the best appears in the Crisis, November 1912, 29.