As Donald Trump’s executive orders punishing steel and aluminum imports threaten a trade war around the globe, Republicans on Capitol Hill are debating whether to reassert Congress’s ultimate constitutional authority over tariffs and trade. This isn’t the first time the GOP has split itself in two on the question of protective tariffs. But the last time, just over 100 years ago, the Republican president’s policies were the exact opposite of Trump’s.
William Howard Taft—in his opposition to populism and protectionism, as well as his devotion to constitutional limits on the powers of the presidency—was essentially the anti-Trump. Unlike the current president, and his own predecessor, Theodore Roosevelt, Taft refused to rule by executive order, insisting that the chief executive could only exercise those powers that the Constitution explicitly authorizes.
This posture was especially clear on matters of trade. Acknowledging that Congress, not the president, has the power to “lay and collect Taxes, Duties, Imposts and Excises,” Taft persuaded lawmakers to pass one of his core campaign goals: lower tariffs (although not as low as he hoped).
It’s still too early to say how much, if any, political fallout Trump’s diversion from current GOP orthodoxy over trade will cause. In Taft’s day, his moderate changes to trade policy ended up dividing the party, and ultimately guaranteed the election of an internationalist Democrat, Woodrow Wilson. But Taft could still claim victory in the long run: Because his trade agenda was enacted by Congress, not by executive fiat, it outlived his presidency. Even more significantly, it established a relatively consistent bipartisan commitment to free trade that persisted for more than a century—until Trump shattered it earlier this month.
Taft’s central promise in the campaign of 1908 was to call Congress into a special session to lower tariffs. Through much of the 19th century, the Republican Party had been committed to moderate protective tariffs on foreign imports to allow U.S. manufacturers to undersell their foreign competitors. But by the time Taft ran for office, that consensus had broken down, and the GOP was immersed in an internecine debate on whether tariffs should be high or low.
The fight was connected, in part, to a longtime debate within the United States over what kind of taxes should be used to fund the national debt. Since the Founding era, most federal revenue had come from import taxes raised by “imposts,” or tariffs, along with excise taxes on staples like sugar and salt. The two taxes worked in tandem: When the tariff failed to raise enough revenue to fund federal expenditures, excise taxes, which were often unpopular with consumers, filled the gap.
After the Panic of 1893, populist Democrats led a brief national experiment reducing tariffs—which they argued discriminated against farmers and the producing classes—combined with a 2 percent federal income tax for high earners, the first income tax since the Lincoln administration introduced one to fund the Civil War. After only a year, however, the Supreme Court struck the income tax down as unconstitutional, on the grounds that direct taxes had to be apportioned among the states. The decision, the most controversial of its day, cleared the way for Congress to raise the tariff up again, goaded by the popularity of the new President William McKinley’s protectionist policies. In 1897, the Republican Congress passed the Dingley Tariff, setting rates as high as 50 percent. (By contrast, European rates at the time were closer to 10 percent.)
By the beginning of Taft’s presidency, however, the protectionist consensus among Republicans had begun to splinter. Recent articles by the muckraking journalist Ida Tarbell helped galvanize a bipartisan revolt against protectionism, as consumers came to recognize that they were paying higher prices for domestic as well as imported goods. Domestic manufacturers, they learned, could jack up prices without fear of foreign competition.
That meant that by the time Taft called a special session of Congress on the tariff—just days after his inauguration—many of his fellow Republicans agreed on the need for reform. Unfortunately for Taft, however, there were three competing camps of reformers.
Moderate Revisionists, like Taft himself, wanted to reduce but not eliminate tariffs, returning to the original Hamiltonian vision of modest import duties as sources of federal revenue. Any tariff bill, Taft had stressed during the campaign, should try to achieve a balanced budget by offsetting any reductions with an increase in corporate taxes—not an income tax. The federal government had an obligation to be “as economical as possible” in its spending, he said, and “to make the burden of taxation as light as possible.”
Insurgent Republicans, led by progressives such as Senator Robert La Follette of Wisconsin, wanted to reduce tariffs even further to increase competition and lower consumer prices, although they, too, did not advocate eliminating them entirely. And standpat Republican protectionists—led by Speaker Joe Cannon and the powerful Senator Nelson Aldrich of Rhode Island—wanted to maintain or even increase the rates of the Dingley tariff.
These warring Republican factions might have defeated even the shrewdest and most determined politician. But Taft, a former judge who approached every decision in constitutional terms, didn’t act like much of a politician at all, insisting that the Constitution prohibited him from interfering with Congress’s deliberations. After summoning Congress for a special session, he was content to wait for its verdict.
He did not wait long. Sereno E. Payne, the chairman of the House Ways and Means Committee, was, like Taft, a Republican moderate who supported downward revision. He promptly introduced a tariff bill that Taft praised “as near [to] complying with our promises as we can hope.” However, it soon hit a roadblock: After it passed the House on April 9, over the objections of Cannon, the bill went to the Senate, where it was eviscerated by nearly 800 amendments, more than half of which restored rates to the levels of the Dingley law.
Taft drew a line in the sand: Unless Congress revised the tariff downward, he would veto the bill. Always most comfortable as a judicious conciliator, he then invited the House and Senate conference committees to the White House for dinner on the veranda—the press called it the “White House lovefeast”—where he scrupulously avoided discussing substantive issues, which he considered Congress’s prerogative. “I don’t much believe in a president’s interfering with the legislative department while doing its work,” Taft told La Follette later. The senator had urged him to rally public support against Congress’s attempt at a compromise between Aldrich and Payne—a bill that increased hundreds of duties while lowering others. “They have their responsibility,” Taft added, “and I have mine.”
As a result of this hands-off approach, congressional Republicans had more or less ignored Taft in working out the details of the bill. Nevertheless, his ultimatum worked. On August 5, 1909, convinced that the Payne-Aldrich bill was consistent with his promise to revise the tariff, Taft signed it into law. Taft argued plausibly that the bill was the best he could have achieved, given the explosiveness of the politics. The Washington Post agreed: “It is easy to pick flaws in the bill, but it cannot be denied that, as a whole, it is as good as any tariff legislation that has preceded it,” the editors declared.
Still, Taft’s uncharacteristic boast—he called it “the best tariff bill the Republican Party ever passed”—provoked a dramatic backlash. The progressive press attacked the bill as a capitulation to big business, reinforcing the public perception that Taft had sided with the conservatives, who wanted to hike the tariffs, over the insurgents, who wanted to lower them.
In the end, instead of uniting the party, Taft’s insistence that the Constitution precluded him from interfering with Congress divided it. The debate over the Dingley Tariff set into motion a series of misunderstandings that ultimately alienated Taft from his predecessor and mentor, Theodore Roosevelt. Roosevelt decided to challenge Taft in the election of 1912, in part over frustration with Taft’s handling of economic policy and his reluctance to influence Congress by exercising popular leadership. The election became a referendum on the Constitution, with Taft attacking Roosevelt as a populist demagogue who threatened the rule of law, and Roosevelt insisting the president should be a populist steward of the people.
The result was the splintering of the Republican Party: Taft carried only two states (Utah and Vermont) and Roosevelt carried six, guaranteeing an electoral-college landslide for Woodrow Wilson. By dividing the GOP vote, a fight that started with disagreement over tariffs sealed the election of the first Democratic president in nearly two decades. As Speaker Cannon noted: “No matter how great an improvement the new tariff may be, it almost always results in the party in power losing the election.”
Nevertheless, Taft set the GOP down a path of supporting free trade and balanced budgets that continued, with only minor interruption, for nearly a hundred years. His refusal to use executive orders to circumvent Congress’s legislative authority on tariffs—as well as other matters—led to moderate policies with broad bipartisan support that were sustained by the next administration, even after the Democrats won the presidency and control of Congress.
Now, Trump has rekindled the protectionist flames that Taft tried to dampen. Where Taft wanted lower tariffs, Trump wants higher ones. Where Taft turned a budget deficit into a surplus—by pairing tariff reductions with an increase in the corporate tax rate—Trump has staked his presidency on budget-busting corporate tax cuts. And where Taft supported international free-trade agreements—notably, a free-trade pact with Canada he persuaded Congress to pass—Trump has threatened to pull out of NAFTA and the Paris Agreement.
But what most clearly distinguishes Taft from Trump is Taft’s respect for constitutional constraints on executive power. Trump, like Theodore Roosevelt, has assailed individual judges by name. But Taft, the only president who went on to serve as a chief justice of the Supreme Court, was a lifelong defender of judicial independence. Where Trump has used executive orders to impose his policies by fiat, Taft denounced executive orders as unconstitutional end runs around Congress. And where Trump has made populist appeals based on the idea that he “alone can fix” America, Taft believed that populist appeals would encourage demagoguery and mob rule.
In the end, Taft’s constitutional restraint helped solidify his legacy as our most judicial president and most presidential chief justice. “The thing which impresses me most is not the power I have to exercise under the Constitution,” Taft said in a 1909 address, “but the limitations and restrictions to which I am subject under that instrument.”
This article is adapted from Jeffrey Rosen’s new book, William Howard Taft.
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