History Professor Reveals Intriguing Private Letters of a Discounted American President

Nellie_coverAs far as historical presidential power couples go, the Tafts aren’t likely among the first to come to mind, but based off of Lewis Gould’s edited collection of their personal correspondence during William Taft’s most trying years in office, perhaps they should be.

My Dearest Nellie: The Letters of William Howard Taft to Helen Herron Taft, 1909-1912″ consists of 113 letters that “not only reveal the inner workings of a presidency at decisive moments but also humanize a chief executive to whom history has been less than kind” says Gould, Eugene C. Barker Centennial Professor Emeritus in American History at The University of Texas at Austin.

Filled with his commentary on current political issues and rationale for his decisions as well as his growing distaste for Theodore Roosevelt, frustration with his weight and golf score, and even the hottest gossip from the nation’s capital, Taft’s collection of letters to his wife Nellie are rivaled only by those between Harry Truman and Bess.

Gould recently sat down with ShelfLife@Texas to talk about Taft, the value of letter writing, and the birth of the modern United States.

“My Dearest Nellie” is the most recent in a long list of books you have written or edited about the presidents of the first two decades of this 20th century. What draws you to this particular topic in American History?

I had teachers at both Brown and Yale in the 1950s and 1960s who explored the national politics of the Progressive Era in fascinating ways. Soon I was intrigued by, and then committed to understanding, the period when the modern United States was emerging. I came to it after studying state politics first in Wyoming and then in Texas, but even in writing those books I was interested in the interaction between public life on the national level with developments in the states. But turning to Theodore Roosevelt, William Howard Taft, and Woodrow Wilson felt like coming to a natural area of emphasis.

Watch Lewis Gould discuss his new book on C-SPAN Book TV.

Watch Lewis Gould discuss his new book on C-SPAN Book TV.

What is the value in reading the private letters of presidents past, and why do you think no one had really taken the time to look at those between President Taft and his wife Nellie before?

The cliché is that historians read other people’s mail for a living, and the quality of letter writing in the Gilded Age and Progressive Era was more impressive than in our own day. With email and Twitter, there is not the care and thoroughness with which people once conveyed their thoughts. President Taft wrote many of his letters in longhand. Others he dictated to a secretary at the end of a busy day. Either way, speaking to the one person he trusted above all others, he conveyed his problems, gripes, and accomplishments with a high degree of freedom. In the process, he revealed much about his relations with Congress, the press and the public. He was very direct and often indiscreet, and his letters turned out to be fascinating. Unlike Theodore Roosevelt, whose letters have been published in eight volumes, and Woodrow Wilson, whose papers have been published in almost seventy volumes, Taft’s letters are still available only on microfilm. This small volume of 113 letters is my attempt to redress the balance.

You say that although these letters will not warrant calling him a great President, they do reveal a more thoughtful occupant of the White House than scholars have acknowledged. Can you give us an example? Did anything you read surprise you, even as an expert of this historical period?

The extent to which Taft involved himself with legislation was a surprise. In the various battles of his administration over the tariff, for example, in 1909 and 1911, the President courted lawmakers, used leaks to the press, and wielded patronage to get his goals enacted. Things didn’t always work out as he planned, but it was not because he was aloof. Many people have argued that Taft was lazy. He procrastinated a good deal, but when he put his mind to it he could produce speeches, messages to Congress, and letters to other politicians with great efficiency. He was also well read — not the speed-reader that Roosevelt was, but a man who knew the classics and Western literature. How many recent presidents could toss off an allusion to a Latin poet in the course of a letter to their spouse?

What do you most hope readers will take away from “My Dearest Nellie?”

Taft was a very unpretentious and down-to-earth chief executive. The wife of a Texas congressman called him “the most perfect everyday gentleman” she had known among the presidents of her time. His letters are filled with human touches and an awareness of his own foibles. In the summer of 1912, when it was clear that the American people were not going to give him a second term, he wrote to Nellie: “I have held the office of President once, and that is more than most men have, so I am content to retire from it with a consciousness that I have done the best I could, and have accomplished a good deal in one way or another.” The rationalization of a losing candidate? Sure. But it also reflected a lack of bluster and arrogance that one rarely finds among modern politicians. Spending a decade reading Taft’s mail was a rewarding experience.

The idea for this book came to you while you were writing another book called “The Modern American Presidency.” Did any new ideas strike you while writing his one?

Right now I am resting from the work of editing the Taft letters for publication and writing a brief biography of Theodore Roosevelt that has just been published by the Oxford University Press.