Taft's Curious Connection with the Church

Dan Graves, MSL

Taft's Curious Connection with the Church

Anyone who researchesd history will stumble across curious connections. William Howard Taft, a man who became President of the United States and later its chief justice, played an unusual part in church history.

In 1900 and 1901 Taft served as a commissioner to the Philippines which the United States administered following the Spanish-American war. Upon his return to the United States, he was called to testify before a Senate committee. One of the problems he had noted in the Philippines was that of the friars' lands.

The Spanish presence in the Philippines had been deeply resented by Filipinos on account of these lands. During Spain's control of the islands, the friars had acquired 400,000 prime acres. Filipinos worked this land for them and were charged excessive rents. Worse yet, friars behaved as political bosses in many of the villages lying on these lands, dictating policies and expenditures.

A rebellion stripped the friars of their holdings. However, they still retained title under the law. Complicating the situation, when the United States had taken possession of the islands, its treaty with Spain guaranteed existing property rights. President Theodore Roosevelt was in a bind. Under the terms of the treaty, he could not confiscate the lands, but neither would he force the peasants to accept back their old masters, the friars.

He only option was to attempt to cut a deal with the Vatican, a deal which would satisfy the Filipinos and meet the friars legal claims. On this day, May 9, 1902 he sent Taft to Rome to negotiate the friars' withdrawal.

Taft offered to buy the friars' lands at a price to be set by arbitration. America had a strict policy of separation of church and state, he said, and while friendly to the Catholic church, insisted that Roman Catholic control of the lives of Filipinos must end. Pope Leo XIII said he could not accept this.

His successor, Pius X (pope from 1903 - 1914), was more open to negotiation. He agreed to an arrangement in which the Filipinos raised a bond for over $7 million to pay for the land, which was then sold to native farmers on easy terms. More than 50,000 took advantage of the deal to acquire their own property. Taft became such a hero to the Filipinos that they held protests when Roosevelt recalled him to make him a member of his administration.

That Taft succeeded in obtaining a resolution is a tribute to his character. He was generally a charmer and conciliator, although as Roosevelt's hand-picked successor in the presidency, he was a disappointment to his mentor. Later, as Chief Justice of the Supreme Court, he brought a measure of unity to the high court which had been lacking.

In personal religion he was Unitarian.

Bibliography:

  1. Isely, Bliss. The Presidents: Men of faith. (Boston: W. A. Wilde, 1953).
  2. McCollister, John. "...So help me God." The faith of America's presidents. (Bloomington, Minnesota: Landmark books, 1982).
  3. Ruoff, Henry W. Masters of Achievement. (Buffalo, New York: Frontier Press, 1911).
  4. "Taft, William Howard." Dictionary of American Biography. (New York : Scribner, 1958-1964).
  5. Note: we regret we have misplaced the core bibliography of this story.

Last updated April, 2007.

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