"A step in the right direction."
It is fascinating and at times almost frightening to see how thoroughly people can misread
each other. Consider the case of Teddy Roosevelt and William Howard Taft. Chosen by the energetic
and outgoing Roosevelt to be his successor, Taft in just a couple years became so hated by TR that
he formed his own political party, the Progressive or "Bull Moose" party, to battle Taft's
There was certainly no intent on Taft's part to betray Roosevelt. He was in fact initially eager
to follow TR's lead. It was just that William Howard Taft had a mind of his own, political ideas of
his own and a strong sense of personal honor. These not only led him away from strict adherence to
Teddy Roosevelt's interests, but eventually brought him into sharp and irreconcilable conflict with
them -- and with Roosevelt. Neither Roosevelt nor Taft understood how badly they had misunderstood
Beyond the difficult but reasonably straightforward matter of very different political
orientations, there was another difference, much more profound and absolutely certain to lead to
difficulty: Roosevelt the hell-for-leather Artisan had hand-picked a sober-sided Guardian to be
his political heir.
It was of course an impossible choice.
The choice seemed quite sound at the time; certainly there were numerous superficial similarities
between the two men. They were both affable, both reputed to be decent men, both (largely) above-board
and hard-working, both quite bright, both energetically and honestly concerned with the well-being of
their country. Roosevelt and Taft were physically big men as well, powerfully built and capable of
vigorous physical expression. Roosevelt had pursued an athletic life and Taft as a young man had done
well at both boxing and wrestling. Furthermore, Taft had a warm relationship with TR and, like
many Conservators, he had a difficult time saying no to people he liked.
Taft had reached his prominent public position by virtue of political appointment rather than by
the slugfests and maneuvering of elective politics. He therefore had little firsthand experience of
the practices of professional politicians. In his relative innocence Taft could usually be counted
upon to cooperate with the professionals and to acquiesce to their requests for (presumably) legitimate
political favors and political appointments. To Roosevelt and his people it looked as if Taft's election
would ensure a comfortable continuation of the Roosevelt administration. Only a few names would be
The differences between the two were striking, however, even if Roosevelt underestimated their
importance. TR the Artisan was daring, action-hungry, eager to make changes, to effect events and have
an impact on people. Taft the Guardian was careful, conservative, judicious, concerned with discharging
his responsibilities properly. TR found exhilaration in political office, had a charismatic power to
move people, was joyously responsive to opportunity. Taft had little charisma; instead he was a bit
stuffy in his appearance, he felt burdened by the demands of the presidency (as Guardians typically do),
and he was concerned about the possibility of any President gathering too much power.
Whereas Roosevelt could be counted on to make changes if for no other reason than that change was
exciting, Taft was dedicated to a tradition of institutional stability and legal precedents whose demands
had to be satisfied before he would consider action. While TR was vigorously active by choice, Taft
was by choice placidly quiet -- except of course when duty called or protocol demanded.
While the Artisan TR devoted himself to adventuring, Taft the Guardian preferred to devote himself
to the study and teaching of law and to being a good judge. And as both a teacher (he taught law at Yale)
and a judge Taft preferred to understand and adhere to the received wisdom of the legal tradition rather
than to try to break new ground with his interpretations. While Roosevelt saw the law as an instrument to
be used in pursuit of his own enterprises, Taft so respected legal precedents that he would readily
surrender his own wishes to their requirements. His respectability was also of enormous importance to him.
Appointed as U. S. Collector of Revenue, for instance, Taft realized within a year that he was likely to
be compromised by the position no matter what his intentions were. He so feared having his reputation
tainted that he resigned the position. Roosevelt was also a man of honor, but "respectability" was never
an issue for this Artisan.
Each of these differences is paradigmatic of the distinctions between Artisan and Guardian. Just as
the Artisan Teddy Roosevelt was the quintessential Player, the Guardian Taft was a magnificent Conservator.
But to underscore their differences even further note that Taft had no particular interest in being
President. Even his presidential campaign was not of his own choosing, but was devised and conducted by
TR's people. Roosevelt could move Taft to action by appealing to his sense of duty and obligation, and it
was only through this sort of appeal that TR was able to secure Taft's reluctant agreement to run for
office. Then when the campaign began Taft was told he had to campaign hard; he was obligated to those who
had nominated him and were supporting him. Now he was drawn into the trap: he was running for an office in
which he had little interest but he campaigned hard because he felt obligated to do so. "I am not much of
a politician," he said, "but I feel very deeply the responsibility that I have upon me now as a
It was well known that one could play not only upon Taft's sense of obligation and duty, but also
upon his strong desire for friendly, warm, and amicable relationships with others. Those who knew him
knew that he was a kindly and open man and that they could count on his generosity, his honesty, and
his forthrightness. They could also count on him to work hard and long, no matter how onerous the task,
if his sense of obligation required it of him. He did not accept the position of Governor General of the
Philippine Islands in 1900 because he wanted it, but because he was persuaded to see it as a duty he owed
his friends and his party. Secretary of War Elihu Root pointed out to Taft that he had enjoyed something
of a free ride thus far; his positions had come by appointment, not by sweat.
Now his country needed him. It was a kind of parting of the ways. He could continue sitting on the
bench in a humdrum, mediocre way or he could do something that would be a real test, requiring effort
It may be that TR's people, more accustomed to the maneuvering of the professional Artisans, were
fooled by Taft's easygoing and open Conservator style. Taft had great affection for and loyalty to his
friends, and he could be cajoled by them, but in spite of his amicable ways he was no doormat. He was an
able man in the field of law and he had his own ambitions in that domain. Thus it was understood that the
appointments he so reluctantly accepted would not be exercises in duty alone, but would also be stepping
stones to his own ultimate ambition.
As it happened, Taft's time in the Philippines was gratifying for him and very beneficial for the
Philippine people. First, he was meeting an obligation which he felt the United States had taken on when
it took the Philippines from Spain in the Spanish-American War. Next, he was bringing traditional American
organization to the islands, something badly needed. Third, as Governor General of the Philippines he
proved to be a very able administrator. Finally, the Philippine people could see that he was genuinely
working in their interest. After suffering under Spanish despotism and putting up with the almost imperial
Governorship of Arthur MacArthur, they genuinely appreciated Taft's openhanded efforts and became quite
fond of the big American. Taft the Conservator of course enjoyed their recognition of his efforts and
their appreciation of his benevolent intentions.
Taft's ultimate aspiration was not to be the President of the United States; William Howard Taft
aspired to nothing less than a seat on the Supreme Court of the United States. The position combined
his wish for status with his enduring interest in duty, service, and the laws of the land. There were
the focus of both his ambition and his interests, as the wonderfully Guardian titles of two books he
wrote indicate: Four Aspects of Civic Duty, published in 1906, and Ethics in Service,
published in 1915.
Clearly Taft's preference to be a Supreme Court Justice rather than the President made sense, given
his Guardian character. Though he was a warm and bright and honest man, he had little (in fact none)
of the powerful charisma of a Teddy Roosevelt. Taft, free of the Presidency, served as Professor of Law
at Yale until President Harding made him Chief Justice of the United States, a position he held until
just before his death in 1930. To Taft, the appointment was his greatest honor; he wrote: "I don't
remember that I ever was President."
Excerpted from Presidential Temperament by David Keirsey, PhD and Ray Choiniere
Guardian Overview |