William Howard Taft
Taft Avenue, connecting Manila City Hall to Pasay City in the south, is one of the oldest and most famous thoroughfares in the country. Along this road can be found some of the more prominent institutions of the land — the Supreme Court, the National Bureau of Investigation, the Philippine General Hospital, De La Salle University, and the Philippine Women’s University. It is named after William Howard Taft, the first American governor-general of the Philippine Islands. While many of the streets in Metro Manila have been baptized with new names — Dewey Boulevard to Roxas Boulevard is one example — Taft Avenue has been able to withstand numerous attempts to give it a new title.
Major military installations in the capital region have likewise not been able to maintain their original identities. Fort William McKinley is now Fort Bonifacio; Camp Murphy is Camp General Emilio Aguinaldo, while Nichols Air Base is Col. Jesus Villamor Air Base. But Taft Avenue has kept its name through the years.
In her Pulitzer Prize-winning book, “The Bully Pulpit,” Doris Kearns Goodwin provides us with some insights on the life of Taft, the man whose works in the Philippines left a legacy greater than that of any other US official. For almost 13 years — as governor-general, secretary of war, and president of the United States — he kept an eye on the Philippines as the foundations of nationhood continued to be laid down.
During the administration of President William McKinley, it was then New York Gov. Theodore Roosevelt who wanted badly the post of governor-general of the Philippines. From the moment the United States acquired the Islands under the treaty ending the Spanish-American War, Roosevelt “coveted the job of creating a new government in a Philippines free of Spanish tyranny.”
While President McKinley believed that Roosevelt was “the ideal man to be the first pioneer governor,” others in his party who did not see eye-to-eye with Roosevelt moved to have him “promoted” to the vice presidency. And so he eventually became McKinley’s vice president.
In his search for a governor-general, McKinley turned to an Ohio judge, William Howard Taft, whose great ambition was to become a Supreme Court justice. The promise of such an appointment made it easier for Taft to accept the new position especially when his wife Nellie declared: “The opportunity gave me nothing but pleasure.”
In April 1900, Taft and his wife left San Francisco onboard the Hancock. The expected welcome was not there, recalls Taft. “I cannot describe the coldness of the Army officers and Army men who received us any better than by saying that it somewhat exceeded the coldness of the populace.” For one thing, Gen. Arthur MacArthur who was serving as military governor, was not among the welcomers. And while MacArthur occupied Malacañang Palace, Taft was left to fend for himself.
In his first public statement Taft said, “We are civil officers. We are men of peace. We are here to do justice to the Philippine people and to secure to them the best government in our power.” His policy of conciliation did not sit well with the military establishment MacArthur had set up. On one occasion Taft condescendingly referred to Filipinos as “our little brown brothers.” Unhappy US soldiers came up with their own ditty:
“They say I’ve got brown brothers here, but I still draw the line. He may be a brother of Big Bill Taft, but he ain’t no
brother of mine.”
Taft realized that the military saw Filipinos as “niggers.” He and his wife sought to change things, making it a rule that “neither politics nor race should influence their hospitality in any way.” But “while Nellie insisted upon complete racial equality, her guest lists were nonetheless drawn from a narrow segment of the population — educated Filipinos of wealth and position.”
It was during Taft’s tenure that idealistic college graduates from America, better known as the Thomasites, came to the Philippines “carrying baseball bats, tennis rackets, musical instruments, cameras, and binoculars.” They would be the vanguard of a great effort to spread education through a public school system nationwide.
It was William Howard Taft who discovered Baguio, with its pine trees and cool weather, and proceeded to make it the summer capital of the country. Stanley Karnow in his book, “In Our Image,” narrates how Taft who weighed about 340 pounds, was on an inspection trip to Baguio. Upon reaching the place, he sent a cable to Secretary of War Elihu Root in Washington, DC. The cable read: “Stood trip well. Rode horseback 25 miles to 5,000 feet altitude.” Root, realizing Taft’s girth, replied, “How is horse?”
It was William Howard Taft who negotiated a deal with the Vatican for the sale of Church lands for redistribution to Filipino farmers. The Church would consent to sell its property for $7 million but it would not remove its friars from the Philippines.
When Theodore Roosevelt became president upon the assassination of William McKinley, he asked Taft to return to Washington to serve in his Cabinet. Twice Taft turned down the offer, citing the need to continue his work in the Philippines. He eventually accepted the new assignment with the stipulation that the Philippines would remain under his supervision.
Taft returned to the Philippines in 1907 to preside over the inauguration of the first Philippine Assembly. “To his amazement, Taft’s arrival triggered what was said to be the grandest demonstration of popular support ever recorded in the
history of the Philippines. Thirty thousand Filipinos had come from the hills and neighboring provinces to welcome Taft home… Visibly moved, he promised to work unremittingly for the people of the Islands. Reporters noted that it left no doubt that Taft had earned a proud position in the hearts of the Filipino people.”
In 1909, Taft was elected the 27th president of the United States and several years after leaving the presidency, he was appointed chief justice of the US Supreme Court, the only individual to serve in both positions.
Subscribe to INQUIRER PLUS to get access to The Philippine Daily Inquirer & other 70+ titles, share up to 5 gadgets, listen to the news, download as early as 4am & share articles on social media. Call 896 6000.