Alphonso Taft

Alphonso Taft
31st United States Secretary of War
In office
March 8, 1876  May 22, 1876
President Ulysses S. Grant
Preceded by William W. Belknap
Succeeded by J. Donald Cameron
34th United States Attorney General
In office
May 22, 1876  March 4, 1877
President Ulysses S. Grant
Preceded by Edwards Pierrepont
Succeeded by Charles Devens
Personal details
Born (1810-11-05)November 5, 1810
Townshend, Vermont, US
Died May 21, 1891(1891-05-21) (aged 80)
San Diego, California, US
Political party Republican
Spouse(s) Fanny Phelps (1823-1852)
Louise Taft (1827-1907)
Children Charles Phelps Taft (1843-1929)
Peter Rawson Taft, II (1846-1889)
William Howard Taft (1857-1930)
Henry Waters Taft (1859-1945)
Horace Dutton Taft (1861-1943)
Frances Louise "Fanny" Taft (1865-1950)
Alma mater Yale University
Profession Lawyer, Tutor, Politician

Alphonso Taft (November 5, 1810 – May 21, 1891) was a jurist, diplomat, Attorney General and Secretary of War under President Ulysses S. Grant. He was also the founder of an American political dynasty, and father of President and Chief Justice William Howard Taft.

As Secretary of War, Taft reformed the War Department by allowing commanders at Indian forts to choose who could start and run post traderships. While serving as Attorney General, he strongly held that African Americans must not be denied the right to vote through intimidation and violence.[1] Attorney General Taft coauthored a bill to Congress, signed into law by President Grant, that created the Elections Commission that settled the controversial Hayes-Tilden election.[2]

In 1882 Taft was appointed as minister to Austria-Hungary by Chester A. Arthur in 1882. He served until July 4, 1884, and was then transferred by President Arthur to Minister of Russia in St. Petersburg and served until August, 1885. Taft had a reputation for serving political office with integrity and character.

Early life

Alphonso Taft was born in Townshend, Vermont, the only child of Peter Rawson Taft of the powerful Taft family and Sylvia Howard, on November 5, 1810.[2] He was descended from Robert Taft who had migrated to America from England in 1640.[2] His mother Sylvia was either of Scotch or Irish descent.[2] While the Taft family was of substance and education, they were not considered wealthy.[2] Taft attended local schools until the age of sixteen. He then taught school to earn money to attend Amherst Academy.[2] Taft entered Yale College in 1829 and he graduated four years later in 1833. Taft helped create the secret society known as Skull and Bones in 1832 with William Huntington Russell.

Upon graduation, again to earn money, Taft was an instructor at Ellington, Connecticut from 1835 to 1837.[2] He subsequently studied law at the Yale Law School and was admitted to the Connecticut bar in 1838. While studying law Taft held a tutorship at Yale. Taft had no desire to remain in New England, and he stated to his father Peter in a letter written on July 22, 1837 that Vermont was a "noble state to emigrate from." Taft did not want to practice law in New York because he believed people were under the corrupting influence of wealth.[2] In 1839 Taft migrated to Cincinnati where he was a member of the Cincinnati City Council, and became one of the most influential citizens of Ohio. He was a member of the boards of trustees of the University of Cincinnati and of Yale College.[3]

Marriages, family, estate

Alphonso was married twice. His first wife was the daughter of Judge Charles Phelps, of Townshend, Vermont, Fanny (born 8 March 1823) whom he married in 1841 and with whom he had five children, three of whom died in infancy:

Fanny Phelps Taft died on June 2, 1852, a few days before her last child's death. On December 26, 1853, he married again to Louisa Maria (née Torrey) (September 11, 1827 – December 8, 1907), his fourth cousin twice removed, and the daughter of Samuel Davenport Torrey, of Millbury, Massachusetts. They also had five children, one of whom died in infancy:[4]

The estate of Alphonso Taft and family, in Mount Auburn, one mile north of downtown Cincinnati, has been restored to its original appearance. It is open to the public. It is now called the William Howard Taft National Historic Site.[5]

Cincinnati attorney and career

He was a delegate to the Republican National Convention in 1856, and also that year made an unsuccessful run for the United States House of Representatives against George H. Pendleton. Taft did not serve in the Union Army during the Civil War. He was a judge of the Superior Court of Cincinnati from 1866 to 1872 when he resigned to practice law with two of his sons.[6] He was the first president of the Cincinnati Bar Association, serving in 1872.

In 1870 court case Board of Education of Cincinnati vs. Minor, Taft played a role in overturning the decision made by the Superior Court of Cincinnati in 1869 regarding the reading the Bible in public schools.[7] Taft asserted that the school board had overstepped their boundaries in their decision to continue the reading of the Bible in public schools.[3] Taft’s discourse made at the Ohio Supreme Court challenged the previous ruling, arguing that according to the United States Constitution, Protestants did not have the right to control religion in the public education sphere.[8] In his discourse, Taft specifically referenced Jewish groups opposed to the reading of the Bible in public schools. As tax payers Taft argued that Jews also had the right to take advantage of a public secular education.[9] In addition, religion was a matter of the home and protected by the Bill of Rights.[9] To suggest that the Bill of Rights only reflects Protestant values was inappropriate, according to Taft, as religious liberty was give to all religious denominations and Christianity "is not to be regarded as sectarian under our constitution." [8]

Many believe that his opinion was the cause of much opposition to him, and contributed to his 1875 loss of the Republican nomination for Governor of Ohio to Rutherford B. Hayes. However, the opinion that defeated his nomination was unanimously affirmed by the Supreme Court of Ohio.[6] The independence of his opinion commanded widespread respect, a sentiment freely expressed when President Grant in March 1876 made him Secretary of War and three months later Attorney General of the United States.[6]

Taft was elected a member of the American Antiquarian Society in October of 1876.[10]

Secretary of War

Secretary of War Alphonso Taft

When President Grant's Secretary of War William W. Belknap resigned in 1876 over receiving profit money from the Fort Sill Indian tradership, Grant needed to find a replacement. Initially, Grant had Secretary George M. Robeson run both the War Department and the Naval Department. Robeson, however, had told Grant that the two Cabinet positions were difficult to manage by one person. Grant then asked Taft to be Secretary of War. After consultation, Taft, who was of good reputation, accepted the position and was confirmed handily by the Senate without objection. Taft found that as Secretary of War he was very busy and was unable to attend a convention in New York. The U.S. military was fighting the Great Sioux War when Taft became Secretary of War. Taft reformed and reversed War Department policy by having commanders at U.S. military forts in the West to choose who would run post traderships.

U.S. Attorney General

Grant appointed Taft U.S. Attorney General after he had made a Cabinet shift by appointing Edwards Pierrepont Minister to England. Taft was replaced by J. Donald Cameron as Secretary of War. In October 1876, after the highly contested Hayes-Tilden Presidential Election, U.S. Attorney General Taft supported President Grant's use of the military in South Carolina and Mississippi to suppress violence against African Americans in the South. Taft gave a lengthy speech in New York outlining the atrocities committed by Southerers against blacks in the South. In order to prevent the U.S. from fighting a second Civil War, Taft cosponsored a bill, signed into law by Grant, that peacefully settled the 1876 Election with an Electoral Commission.

Bid for office

Taft was again an unsuccessful candidate for Governor of Ohio in 1879, this time against Charles Foster.

U.S. Minister

Taft was appointed U.S. Minister by President Chester A. Arthur to Austria-Hungary from 1882 to 1884 and to Imperial Russia from 1884 to 1885.

Family dynasty

Taft was the first in the Taft family political dynasty. His son, William Howard Taft, was the 27th President of the United States, the 10th Chief Justice of the United States, and was a member of Yale's Skull and Bones like his founder father; another son, Charles Phelps Taft, supported the founding of Wolf's Head Society at Yale; both his grandson and great-grandson, Robert A. Taft I (also Skull and Bones) and Robert Taft Jr., were U.S. Senators; his great-great-grandson, Robert A. Taft II, was the Governor of Ohio from 1999 until 2007. William Howard Taft III was ambassador to Ireland; William Howard Taft IV worked in several Republican administrations, most recently that of George W. Bush.

Alphonso and his family were members of Cincinnati's First Congregational-Unitarian Church; he served as one of the congregation's trustees for many years, and was for a time the chairman of the board of trustees. Although government business kept him out of town and thus frequently away from the church in his later years, he remained in contact with the church's minister on the occasions that he was able to return to Cincinnati.[11] At a famous 1874 Taft family reunion at Elmshade, at Uxbridge, Mass., Alphonso delivered an impassioned speech on his family history and his father's origins in this community, as recorded in his biography.[12]


  1. New York Times (October 26, 1876)
  2. 1 2 3 4 5 6 7 8 Dictionary of American Biography (1935), p. 264
  3. 1 2 Religion and the Law in America: An Encyclopedia of Personal Belief and Public Policy. Vol. 1. (Santa Barbara, CA: ABC-CLIO, 2007), 149.
  4. Ancestry of William Howard Taft, Library of Congress (
  5. "William Howard Taft - National Historic Site". National Park Service. February 23, 2010. Archived from the original on August 28, 2010. Retrieved February 2010. Check date values in: |access-date= (help)
  6. 1 2 3  Wilson, James Grant; Fiske, John, eds. (1889). "Taft, Alphonso". Appletons' Cyclopædia of American Biography. New York: D. Appleton.
  7. Mark A. Noll, A Documentary History of Religion in America since 1877, 3 ed. (Grand Rapids: William B. Eerdmans Publishing Company, 2003), 49.
  8. 1 2 Mark A. Noll, A Documentary History of Religion in America since 1877, 3 ed. (Grand Rapids: Wm. B. Eerdmans Publishing Company, 2003), 52.
  9. 1 2 Mark A. Noll, A Documentary History of Religion in America since 1877, 3 ed. (Grand Rapids: Wm. B. Eerdmans Publishing Company, 2003), 51.
  10. American Antiquarian Society Members Directory
  11. "Taft Once Unitarian Fairy", The New York Times 1908-08-04, A3.
  12. Leonard, Lewis Alexander (1920). The Life of Alphonso Taft. New York, NY: Hawke Publishing Co. Retrieved 2007-11-25.


Biographical dictionaries


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