A Tale of Two Presidents

Fifty-two years separated the presidencies of James Buchanan and William Howard Taft, but
there are many similarities in their public lives. Both were born into prosperous families
and became promising young lawyers. Both spent most of their lives in public service, but
when elected to the nation’s highest office, both of them failed as presidents. Buchanan
was unable to bring the Northern and Southern states together to avoid a civil war, and
Taft angered his supporters by refusing to follow the ideologies of his predecessor,
Theodore Roosevelt. While some favorable legislation came from each of these presidents,
their failures far outnumbered their successes. Under pressure from their political
parties, both ran for reelection with disastrous results. In 1859, with the country on the
brink of the War Between the States, Buchanan’s ineptitude as president caused a split in
the Democratic Party and the demise of the Whigs, paving the way for the Republicans to put
Abraham Lincoln into office. Fifty-two years later, when a reluctant Taft was pressured
into running for reelection, Theodore Roosevelt bolted from the Republican Party to form
the Bull Moose party and ran against Taft. The Democrats had no problem putting Woodrow
Wilson into the White House. Although Buchanan and Taft were ineffective as presidents,
each spent nearly 50 years as successful public servants, accomplishing in other positions
what they were unable to accomplish as presidents. On April 23, 1791, James Buchanan was
born in a log cabin that now stands on the beautiful campus of the Mercersburg Academy in
the south-central Pennsylvania community that bears the same name. However, Buchanan’s
father achieved success as a businessman and had the means to provide his son with an
education. In 1807, at the age of 16, Buchanan entered Dickinson College in Carlisle, and,
on graduating two years later, began to study law. In 1812, he was admitted to practice and
soon was a prosperous lawyer in Lancaster. His renown as a gifted debater and his knowledge
of the law aided him in his rise to the presidency. Unfortunately, Buchanan’s personal life
did not follow such an easy path. As he was starting his law practice, he fell in love and
was engaged to marry Ann Coleman, but shortly after breakingoff their engagement, Ann died
and Buchanan became a lifelong bachelor, the only president who never married. Visitors to
Mercersburg, a pleasant little community of some 1,700, can see the cabin where Buchanan
was born. Signs on the academy campus lead to the cabin, which is situated on a gentle
slope in a grove of trees. Continuing through town on Main Street, you’ll see the Buchanan
Hotel. As noted on a sign in front of the building, the log portion of the structure was
the Buchanan family home and store, where James spent much of his childhood. Across the
street is a handsome brick home that was built by the Lane family. It was here that Harriet
Lane, who became her uncle’s White House hostess, was born. A few miles northwest of
Mercersburg is Buchanan’s Birthplace State Park in Cove Gap. Follow the tree-shaded road to
the pyramid of mountain stone that marks the place where the log cabin stood when Buchanan
was born. Buchanan’s father bought the place in 1789. It came complete with cabins, barns,
stables, storehouses, a store and an orchard. He renamed it Stony Batter after the Buchanan
home in northern Ireland and continued to operate the business until moving it to nearby
Mercersburg when young James reached the age of six. It’s a lovely place to pause for a
picnic or to take a stroll along the stream that once provided the family with water. When
James Buchanan became the 15th president of the United States in 1857, he already had an
impressive record of public service that spanned more than four decades. After being
elected to the House of Representatives five times, the Pennsylvania native served as
minister to Russia before returning to the United States to serve for a decade in the U.S.
Senate. He also was Secretary of State under President James Polk and minister to Great
Britain under President Franklin Pierce. In spite of these experiences, he was ill-prepared
for the task before him as he took the reins of a nation that was on the brink of civil
war. Although he was from a state that supported the ideals of the North, Buchanan was
sympathetic to the South and failed to understand why the North would not accept
constitutional arguments that favored the South. He was convinced that the crisis would
disappear if his cabinet appointments were fairly divided, but, alas, the problem escalated
during his four years in office. It was only two days after Buchanan took office that the
Dred Scott decision was delivered by the U.S. Supreme Court, asserting that Congress had no
constitutional power to deprive individuals of their property rights with regard to slaves,
a decision that was heralded in the South, but infuriated Northerners. During Buchanan’s
tumultuous term in office, the John Brown raid occurred at Harper’s Ferry, West Virginia,
and in Illinois, Abraham Lincoln was rising to prominence. In addition, the Confederate
States of America declared their independence. However, it is to Buchanan’s credit that he
prevented the border states of Delaware, Kentucky, Maryland, Missouri and the western part
of Virginia from seceding and joining the Southern cause. Buchanan’s efforts at compromise
were futile, especially among secessionist leaders, causing him to revert to a policy of
inactivity that had dire consequences for his party and changed the course of history. As
the election of 1860 approached, the existing Democratic Party split and the Whigs were
destroyed, guaranteeing the election of Abraham Lincoln, the Republican Party’s candidate.
On September 15, 1857, William Howard Taft was born into one of Cincinnati, Ohio’s most
academic and socially prominent families, but one with roots firmly planted in the more
gentile culture of New England. Along with his siblings, Taft was reared in the tradition
of hard work, fair play and public service. His father was a stern taskmaster who reminded
his six children that “all play and no work makes Jack a mere toy.” His mother, a
well-educated woman, had a keen interest in politics, and dinner-table discussions often
centered around antislavery legislation and women’s suffrage. Prominent guests often sat in
on these conversations, and the family’s parlor was the setting for frequent social events.
Taft attended Yale, graduating second in the class of 1878, and then obtained a law degree.
From the time he was a young lawyer, he had one goal in mind: to be a U.S. Supreme Court
justice. At 30, he became a judge in the Ohio Superior Court. By then, he had met and wed
Helen “Nellie” Herron, who became his most trusted advisor and consultant throughout his
political life. Taft’s dedication to the Republican Party did not go unnoticed in the
nation’s capital, and prompted President William McKinley to send the young lawyer to the
Philippines to establish a civil government for the new U.S. possession in 1901. Taft was
adored by the Filipinos, and so dedicated to the task at hand that when he was asked by
President Theodore Roosevelt to fill a vacancy on the Supreme Court, he reluctantly
declined, feeling an obligation to finish what he had started in the islands. Later, as
secretary of war under President Theodore Roosevelt, Taft was named the provisional
governor of Cuba and was instrumental in the completion of the Panama Canal. On his return
to the United States, his popularity was running high, and Roosevelt pushed the reluctant
Taft into accepting the Republican nomination for president in the election of 1908. Taft’s
friends and family members encouraged him to run for the presidency, but his mother knew
that her son, who detested conflict, did not have the heart to run the country.
Unfortunately for Taft and the nation, Louise Taft was correct, and during the following
four years Taft became more and more miserable. Those four years were the darkest of his
life. Although he did accomplish some positive changes, including abolishing child labor,
his inability to lead, to shape public opinion or to make decisions led to many defeats. He
went out of his way to avoid controversy. Perhaps his greatest disappointment was seeing
his mentor, Roosevelt, turn against him. When Taft was forced to run for reelection against
Roosevelt, who split the Republican Party by forming the Bull Moose Party (Progressive
Party) in order to return to the presidency, he knew that the Democrats would have no
trouble putting Woodrow Wilson into office. Disillusioned, Taft returned to Yale to teach
constitutional law for eight years, abandoning his dream of serving as the country’s chief
justice. But in 1921, President Warren Harding called on Taft to fill the position. With
his health failing, Taft was forced to resign the post in 1930. He died a month later at
the age of 72. He is buried in Arlington National Cemetery. The Taft Home
When Alfonso Taft purchased the two-story Greek Revival home in 1851 to move his family
above the summer heat and coal dust of Cincinnati, it was too small to accommodate the
growing family, prompting him to put a large addition on the rear of the original
structure. It was here that William Howard Taft was born on September 15, 1857. The house
stayed in the Taft family, but after 1889, with all of the offspring on their own and the
senior Tafts in California, tenants occupied the house. The last time the Taft family
gathered in the larger parlor, at the invitation of the tenants, was in 1891 for Alfonso
Taft’s funeral. In 1899, the Taft family sold the house. It changed owners several times
and eventually was divided into apartments. When it was threatened with demolition in 1938,
the William Howard Taft Memorial Association was formed to save the historic property. In
1969, it was designated a national historic site and is now operated by the National Park
Service. It is the only memorial to the nation’s 27tth president and 10th chief justice.
Using letters that Louise Taft wrote describing the home and its furnishings, historians
have restored the home as it probably looked while occupied by the Taft family. Many pieces
of original furniture have found their way back to the home. Rooms that have been restored
include the study, where the family gathered in the evenings to study or engage in a game
of chess. On display in some of the second-floor rooms are articles from many publications,
including political drawings that focused on Taft’s portly proportions. (At one time, he
tipped the scales at 300 pounds.) One of the anecdotes about his weight came from Elihu
Root, a friend and advisor. When Taft wrote to Root about the ordeal of traveling 25 miles
on horseback through the Philippine mountains on a goodwill mission, Root responded by
asking, “How is the horse?” Before touring the home, be sure to visit the Taft Education
Center, which is next door, to view an orientation film and interactive exhibits. Buchanan
Top Photo: National Park Service-Harpers Ferry Center Taft Top Photo: William Howard Taft
National Historic Site


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