William Howard Taft (1857-1930) was the only American president to also sit on the Supreme Court. The Republican was an effective administrator but a poor politician; caught in the intense battles between progressives and conservatives, he received little credit for his administration’s achievements, which included establishing a postal savings system, admitting Arizona and New Mexico as states, and passing constitutional amendments for a federal income tax and the direct election of United States senators.
Taft’s pro-Jewish affinities can be traced back to his childhood, when he attended a Unitarian church in Cincinnati across the street from the Reform synagogue headed by Rabbi Isaac Mayer Wise, America’s leading Reform rabbi, who established the Union of American Hebrew Congregations, Hebrew Union College, and the Central Conference of American Rabbis.
Taft’s clergyman and Wise exchanged pulpits – the first time in the United States that there was an interchange of Christian and Jewish pulpits – and Taft later spoke of being impressed and inspired by the sermons delivered by Wise from the church pulpit.
The Jewish population of the U.S. increased dramatically during the Taft presidency (1909-1913) due in no small part to Taft’s open policy on Jewish immigration. The Taft years included some of the most dynamic participation by American Jews in national affairs to that point in time; not only did Jews play an important role in the political struggles of the day, they also took a deep interest in foreign affairs, particularly with regard to the fate of their co-religionists in Russia and Russia’s violations of the Russo-American Treaty of 1832.
The treaty was a commercial pact between America and Russia that afforded “reciprocal liberty of commerce and navigation” and that allowed mutual freedom of entry to citizens on both sides. Though Russia had erected significant obstacles to the rights of American Jews traveling to Russia since the turn of the 19th century, these violations became much more stringent after Taft was elected president, and the issue came to a head because Russia was denying admission to Jewish-American citizens.
The problem was exacerbated when Foreign Minister Sergey Sazonov, arguing that Russia did not discriminate because it treated American Jews the same way it treated all other foreign Jews (!), explained that “Many agitators, revolutionaries, and anarchists who were adherents of the Hebrew religion had emigrated to America during the recent troubles, and it was not to be expected that Russia should encourage the return of these elements.”
The issue became a political flashpoint. The New York Times (then owned by the Jewish Adolph Ochs) opined that “this is not a Jewish question, it is an American question” and the Literary Digest asked: “When is an American not an American? When his religion doesn’t suit the Czar, evidently…”
The Jewish Oscar Straus, whom Taft had appointed as U.S. ambassador to Turkey, refrained from making a trip to Russia when he learned he would be able to travel there only because a special exception was to be made in his favor.
At a time of broad anti-immigration sentiment and plain old anti-Semitism in America, Taft faced significant political opposition to revoking the Russo-American Treaty, not only from traditional anti-Semitic groups, which still carried considerable influence in American politics, but even from officials in his own administration, not the least of whom was Secretary of State Philander Chase Knox, who argued that the nullification of the treaty was not in America’s interest.
Perhaps not entirely surprisingly, there was even significant condemnation of the very idea of abrogating the treaty from Jewish quarters. For example, Zionist leader Max Nordau, manifesting the classic mindset of the “Ghetto Jew,” published a letter in The Jewish Chronicle in which he denounced Taft, concluding: “The situation for the Jews in Russia will be worse than before and the anti-Semites in America will make the American Jews pay heavily for their manful stand.”
In the April 1, 1910 correspondence exhibited on this page, President Taft, referring to the Jews of Russia, writes to Judge Mayer Sulzberger, the first president of the American Jewish Congress (AJC) who, along with Jacob Schiff, an AJC founder, represented the AJC executive committee in its protest against the Russian government’s violation of the Russo-American Treaty of 1832:
“I shall be very glad to see you and Mr. Schiff on Thursday, April 7th, at 12 o’clock in respect to the matter that you mention in your letter.”
In November 1911, the AJC committee met again with Taft, and it marked the first time an American president had invited a Jewish delegation to dine with him at the White House. They were shocked and disappointed when the president announced he would decline to rescind the treaty. But in one of the earliest and most successful national lobbying campaigns by American Jews, the AJC led the way in bringing extraordinary pressure to bear on both Congress and the president.
The risks inherent in undertaking this campaign were monumental. The AJC and its supporters would need to take on the full power of the administration, which could be perceived as “Jewish agitation” inimical with the public interest. They would have to undertake an ambitious public and media campaign, with no assurance that the American public would be persuaded, and they knew that failure would result in significant adverse repercussions, not the least of which would be a reduction of “Jewish capital” with the American public.
Their effort proved enormously successful, however, as they effectively convinced the media and the public – and, significantly, New Jersey Governor Woodrow Wilson, who would defeat Taft for the presidency the following year – that the abrogation of the treaty was an American interest, not merely a Jewish one.
In short order, a bill of abrogation was passed by the House of Representatives in an astounding 301-1 vote (the lone dissenter was George R. Malby of New York); the Senate, after only forty minutes of debate, unanimously passed it on December 19, 1911; and Taft, saying he would give the Jews a Chanukah present, signed it into law the very next day.
Reflecting this Chanukah theme, one publication ran a political cartoon juxtaposing an image of Judah Maccabee, the great Jewish hero, with an image of Taft thrashing a Russian figure.
Not surprisingly, the general response of the European press was to accuse Taft and Congress of catering to the all-important Jewish vote, especially in New York. There can be little doubt that the efforts of Sulzberger and Schiff, the activist role played by American Jews in general and the AJC lobbying effort in particular, and the passionate outrage against the Russians promulgated by much of the American media all played an important part in Taft’s ultimate decision to annul the treaty.
In a White House ceremony on January 6, 1913, Taft was awarded the B’nai Brith gold medal “in recognition of his service to the Jewish race,” particularly with respect to his championing the Jewish cause in the diplomatic imbroglio with Russia. On January 13, in what would turn out to be his last public appearance as president, he gave an address at Temple Beth-El in New York City to the attendees at the 70th anniversary of the founding of B’nai Brith.
In 1963, the Jews of Cincinnati, in conjunction with the Jewish National Fund, planted a William Howard Taft Forest in Israel to commemorate the president’s action in severing America’s relations with Czarist Russia in protest of the Russian treatment of Jews.
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Taft’s revocation of the Russo-American Treaty was but one manifestation of his feelings of friendship for the Jewish people.
Taft became the first president to speak in an American synagogue during a regular service when, on the Shabbat of May 29, 1909, he addressed the (Reform) Rodef Shalom Temple in Pittsburgh, issuing a plea for religious tolerance in America (and, in an amusing faux pas, referring to Rodef Shalom as “this beautiful church”).
As a fascinating side note, Barney Dreyfus, the owner of the Pittsburgh Pirates and a Rodef Shalom member, announced that the start of the baseball game that afternoon would be delayed to afford Taft the opportunity to travel from the synagogue to the ballpark. (A year later, Taft became the first president to throw out the ceremonial first pitch on major league baseball’s opening day.)
In May 1911, Taft addressed the Washington Hebrew Congregation and advocated the erection of a monument to Haym Solomon, the financier of the American Revolution, thereby promoting the growth of interest in this great Jewish patriot, whose contributions to America had been neglected by historians.
Taft also personally interceded and facilitated the promotion of a Jewish soldier who was the subject of official military discrimination. And he was the first president to attend a Seder while in office when in 1912 he visited Providence, Rhode Island, and participated in the family Seder of Colonel Harry Cutler, first president of the National Jewish Welfare Board.
Taft’s protective disposition toward Jews was displayed in one of his final official acts as president, when he earned broad Jewish gratitude for vetoing the proposed Dillingham-Gardner immigration bill, which contained an objectionable literacy test that was anathema to American Jews.
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On June 12, 1912, Taft became the first president to meet formally with a delegation of rabbis. The rabbis had debated whether to remove their head coverings as a sign of respect for the president, but Rav Eliezer Silver, who would go on to serve as president of the Union of Orthodox Rabbis (Agudath Harabonim), insisted that members of the group keep their hats on so that they could recite the blessing one makes upon encountering royalty: “who has given from his Glory to mortal man.”
In a touching gesture of respect, the president quickly donned his own hat in order not to embarrass his guests, and he was deeply moved when Rav Silver translated the blessing for him.
Taft and Rav Silver developed a warm relationship. According to a story that may be apocryphal but that captures the essence of the relationship, when Taft asked how he could win over Jewish voters, Rav Silver advised him: “Be a Zionist.” When Taft noted that Rav Silver, as a member of an ultra-Orthodox group opposed to secular Zionism, was not himself a Zionist, the rav replied: “That’s internal Jewish business. You be a Zionist.”
Indeed, Taft remained a Zionist through his political career.
Years later, Taft interceded on behalf of his good friend when Rav Silver wanted to build a mikveh across the street from one of the largest Reform temples in Cincinnati. The temple’s membership, determined at all costs to stop any attempt by Orthodox rabbis and synagogues to promote traditional Torah practice, retained a true legal powerhouse to represent them: Murray Seasongood, a leader of their congregation who had served three terms as mayor of Cincinnati.
Seasongood was going to argue that the proposed mikveh violated local zoning rules, a tactic used to this day by those opposed to the spread of Orthodox observance.
Rav Silver lost no time: he put on his formal top hat and went to see Taft, who had just retired as chief justice of the Supreme Court, and persuaded him to take the case. When Seasongood and the Reform Jews of Cincinnati learned they would be opposed by a former president and chief justice, they abandoned the case and the mikveh was built.
Asked how he had convinced Taft to become personally involved in defending the construction of a mikveh, of all things, Rav Silver replied: “I simply explained to him that we wanted a Jewish baptismal font.”
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As reflected in the case of the Cincinnati mikveh, Taft retained a deep kinship with the Jews well after his presidency. When World War I ended he declared that all men had the affirmative duty to work for Jewish emancipation in Eastern Europe and, in a powerful January 19, 1917 address to the National Geographic Society, he issued a heartfelt plea on behalf of the Jews of Europe while extolling the contributions Jews had made to the United States.
When Henry Ford published the Protocols of the Elders of Zion in his Dearborn Independent newspaper, Taft publicly labeled the Protocols a monumental fraud. His name was atop a list of 116 prominent Americans denouncing the Protocols, and in a 1920 address he unambiguously condemned Ford’s spreading of anti-Semitism, which Taft characterized as “a noxious weed” that is “un-American.”
Finally, in “The Progressive World Struggle of the Jews for Civil Equality” a July 1919 National Geographic article (the cover of that issue is reproduced on this page), Taft wrote with deep understanding, profound sympathy, and remarkable insight about the Jewish people, drawing a loving picture of Jewish character and Jewish contributions to civilization comparable to the better-known ode to Jews by Mark Twain (“Concerning the Jews,” Harper’s Magazine, September 1889).
It’s a shame that few today know of – much less appreciate – Taft’s keen sensitivity to the sufferings and concerns of Jews, his admiration for their accomplishments, and his efforts on their behalf. Such a perspective, it bears remembering, was far from the norm in his day.
William Howard Taft remains one of our greatest, if least recognized, pro-Jewish presidents.