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Determining the Facts

Reading 1: Will Taft Grows Up

Cincinnati was a busy river port of 50,000 people when Alphonso Taft arrived from Vermont in 1838. Business was good for the ambitious young attorney, who built a practice and made his place in town society. After living in Cincinnati for three years, he married Fanny Phelps, a girl from his Vermont hometown. A decade later he moved the family, which now included two young sons and his parents, to a 10-year-old house on two acres of land a mile north of downtown in Mount Auburn. Alphonso put up a large addition to accommodate his growing family, and also modernized the plumbing.

Fanny died in 1852, only a year after moving to Mount Auburn. In 1854, Alphonso married Massachusetts schoolteacher Louise Torrey. An affectionate stepmother to Alphonso's two sons, Louise gave birth to four healthy children of her own, including William on September 15, 1857. As a child, Will, as he was called by family members, was outgoing and good natured–traits he carried into adulthood. Encouraged by his parents, Will earned high marks throughout his school years. "All play and no work makes Jack a mere toy," his father would threaten, but Will escaped his books by playing baseball, riding the family's pet pony, sledding down the nearby hills in winter, wrestling, or tearing through the house with his siblings.

"I am more and more impressed with the responsibility of training children properly," Louise wrote her mother in 1860. "It is what we are, not what we do in reference to them which will make its impression on their lives." In setting an example, the parents could not have been more diligent. Louise and Alphonso Taft raised their six children to live by the principles of hard work, fair play, and public service. The Taft house was a whirl of activity. Their formal parlor might be the setting for the card games of whist or euchre, a discussion of anti-slavery legislation and women's suffrage, or book reading. Civil War hero and future president, James A. Garfield once accompanied friends to dinner at the Taft home. Often, rugs were rolled up and furniture pushed aside, and the parlor became a makeshift dance hall. Quiet evenings were spent in the library. Alphonso finished up the day's business, Louise sometimes had sewing to do, and the children read or brooded over the chess table. Alphonso, an avid book collector, was a founding member of the city's literary society. Family discussions and letters to friends and relatives were full of references to Dickens, Darwin, and other best sellers of the day. There was scarcely a civic or cultural organization in town that could not claim the participation of one or more Tafts.

Alphonso's tireless work for the Republican Party led to political appointments (for instance, he gave up a well-paying law practice for a city judgeship in 1865) that brought him increasing social prominence, but ultimately led to his departure from Cincinnati. President Ulysses S. Grant summoned Taft to Washington, first as secretary of war, then as attorney general. In the 1880s Taft served as minister to Austria-Hungary and later Russia. Much to Louise's delight, the couple lived abroad and indulged their love of travel. The Auburn Avenue house was intermittently rented out when not occupied by the grown children.

By 1889 the Tafts had left Auburn Avenue for good. Alphonso and Louise retired to California where the climate was better for Alphonso's health. Will completed his education and began a law career of his own. In 1886 he married Helen Herron and built a house in Cincinnati. The other Taft children also were out on their own. Alphonso died in San Diego in May 1891 and was buried in Cincinnati. Tenants were kind enough to allow the family and friends one last gathering in the old home for the funeral.

In 1902 Louise Taft reminded Will, then governor-general of the Philippines, of his late father's role in his career: "You owe so much to his influence that you might be thought a striking exemplification of the influence of heredity, and the environment which surrounded you in living in the same atmosphere, and breathing the same air–an inspiration to everything that was good."

Questions for Reading 1

1. What position held by William Howard's father do you think had the most influence on William Howard's career? Explain your answer.

2. What values were taught in the Taft household as William Howard was growing up? Why do you think these values were important to Taft's later life? What values do you think are important for success in today's world?

3. In your own words, what point was Louise Taft trying to make to her son in 1902 regarding her late husband's influence? Do you agree with her point of view? Why or why not?

Reading 1 was adapted from the National Park Service visitor's guide for William Howard Taft National Historic Site.

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