William Howard Taft

See the interesting blog post attached below, recently from the Yale Alumni Magazine’s “This Just In” blog. The post discusses former president Taft’s consideration, and reasons for not wanting to accept, the position of president of Yale University. There are a number of different historical resources related to this article at Manuscripts and Archives, including the class books the Class of 1878, Skull and Bones membership lists that include Taft, as well as photos and records from commencement and other events attended by Taft.


When Taft turned Yale down

  • Former Yale President Timothy Dwight (the younger), United States President William Howard Taft, and Yale President Arthur Twining Hadley.
    President Taft, then a Yale trustee, at Commencement in 1911 with former Yale president Timothy Dwight (left) and then Yale president Arthur Twining Hadley. Photo: Manuscripts and Archives.

At about this time 100 years ago, William Howard Taft (Yale Class of 1878) had just left the White House and was taking a short vacation before starting a new job: professor of constitutional law at Yale. But as I learned while writing a short piece for our new issue about the chairs Taft sat in during his professorship, Taft had earlier been considered for another job at Yale. And his reason for not taking it tells you how much times have changed.

When Yale president Timothy Dwight left office in 1899, Taft’s friends urged the Yale Corporation to consider him for the job. At age 42, Taft was then a federal judge and former US solicitor general; he was also serving as dean of the University of Cincinnati law school. A sympathetic Taft biographer says that he modestly declined because he did not feel he had enough experience in higher education. But Taft had a more interesting reason not to pursue the job: in 1899, Yale was still moored, if loosely, to its Congregationalist roots, and every president to that date had been an ordained minister. Taft saw this as a problem, as he wrote in a letter to his brother Henry:

It would shock the large conservative element of those who give Yale her power and influence in the country to see one chosen to the Presidency who could not subscribe to the creed of the orthodox Congregational Church of New England . . . I am a Unitarian.  I believe in God.  I do not believe in the Divinity of Christ, and there are many other of the postulates of the orthodox creed to which I cannot subscribe.  I am not, however, a scoffer at religion but on the contrary recognize, in the fullest manner, the elevating influence that it has had and always will have in the history of mankind.”

Taft’s religious beliefs were not a major issue, though, when he ran for president of the United States in 1908. Today, Yale’s second Jewish president is preparing to take office. But how would a candidate who didn’t “believe in the Divinity of Christ” fare in a race for president of the US today?

Yale Alumni Magazine | Blogs.

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