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This Day in History: William Taft's ambitious wife

On this day in 1930, William Taft resigns his position as Chief Justice of the United States. He remains the only person to serve both on the Supreme Court and as President of the United States.

He preferred the Court and thought that appointment his greatest honor. “I don’t remember that I ever was President,” he wrote. Indeed, Taft might never have been President but for his choice of a spouse.

Helen Herron Taft, 1910, portrait by Karl B.A. Kronstad.

Helen (“Nellie”) Herron was the daughter of an attorney who just happened to be friends with two future U.S. Presidents. As a teenager, Nellie was thus afforded a unique opportunity to visit the White House. She later claimed that the visit sparked a desire to marry a man “destined to be President.” She really wanted to be the First Lady!

Presumably, she thought she’d found this guy in Taft. Unfortunately, Taft simply wanted to be a judge, preferably on the U.S. Supreme Court.

Nellie was not to be deterred. She was a strong-willed woman, and she directed Taft’s career path. She encouraged him to accept a position as U.S. Solicitor General. She coached him on the art of public speaking. She even persuaded him to decline the much-coveted nomination to the U.S. Supreme Court once he received it. Eventually, Taft became Secretary of War under Teddy Roosevelt.

Toward the end of that term, Roosevelt wanted to offer Taft a place on the Supreme Court (again). Roosevelt arranged a meeting with Nellie, thinking that Nellie could push Taft to accept the nomination. Instead, Roosevelt soon found that Nellie wanted HIM to support Taft as his successor during the next presidential election cycle. For many months afterwards, Nellie lobbied to gain and keep Roosevelt’s support for her husband’s candidacy.

Maybe you won’t be surprised to hear that Nellie got her way? Between Roosevelt’s support and Nellie’s behind-the-scenes help, Taft was elected in 1908. Nellie became the first First Lady to ride next to her husband in the procession from the Capitol to the White House on Inauguration Day.

Unfortunately, Nellie ran into problems nearly as soon as she achieved her much-desired status as First Lady. She had a stroke in 1909 and suffered partial paralysis afterwards. She literally could not talk at first. Being the determined woman that she was, she worked her way back over time and left her mark anyway.

Did you know that she brought the cherry blossom trees to D.C.? The trees were shipped from Japan. She also became the first First Lady to have her memoirs written.

She may have left one other, unexpected legacy: Would Woodrow Wilson have been elected without Nellie’s intervention into presidential politics? Consider that Nellie worked hard to gain Roosevelt’s support: She convinced him that Taft would be a good steward of the presidency. Unfortunately, Roosevelt did not think that Taft lived up to these expectations. He was unhappy with Taft’s presidency and wished that he had not supported Taft in the first place. As a consequence, Roosevelt decided to throw his hat into the ring again, during the presidential election of 1912. That election ultimately turned into a three-way race among Roosevelt, Taft, and Wilson. In all likelihood, a unified Republican Party could have defeated Wilson that year. But a fractured Republican Party could not. Wilson won the Electoral College handily, 435 electors to Roosevelt’s 88 electors. Taft obtained only 8 electors.

Perhaps many of you are now blaming Nellie for the progressive presidency of Woodrow Wilson!?

As for Taft, he probably felt that the story had a happy ending. In 1921, Warren G. Harding finally nominated Taft to the Supreme Court. He held the position for more than 8 years.

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