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    Twenty-one-year correspondence between William Taft and Robert McDougal

    William Howard Taft Archive. Containing over 150 letters, manuscripts, and telegrams, dated between 1918 and 1939 and consisting of correspondence between Taft and Robert McDougal Sr. All of Taft's letters are typed and signed "Wm. Taft," except for two Taft autograph letters signed. Some letters contain handwritten addendums. Most of McDougal's letters are retained copies. This presentation of both sides of a correspondence lasting several years makes available a rare coherent conversation.

    Taft and McDougal began their friendship after a chance meeting on a Washington, D.C., sidewalk in 1918. According to a four-page handwritten manuscript included in the archive written and signed by "James E. Boyle / Cornell University / Ithaca, New York / July 11, 1936," McDougal, who was in Washington while serving on the Committee on Classification of Personnel in the Army, was "taking his evening walk on North Connecticut Avenue" when he recognized former President Taft. McDougal introduced himself and "the story of a friendship [had] begun!" Later that evening, the two chanced upon each other again in the "new Willard Hotel dining room" and dined together, as they did again the following morning. Comfortable with his new acquaintance, McDougal asked Taft for help in finding a solution to "the problem of overcrowding in Washington." Taft offered to read a draft of the solution to the problem that McDougal had prepared to send to President Wilson.

    McDougal sent the draft to Taft, along with a typed letter (one page) dated October 4, 1918. A retained copy of the letter is included and begins, "You asked me to prepare a draft of the matter discussed yesterday morning at the breakfast table. This I have done by the enclosed." (The letter is written on letterhead reading "War Department, the Adjutant General's Office.") A retained copy of McDougal's four-page typed manuscript is included in this archive detailing the overcrowded working and living conditions of those who perform "essential war services" at the end of World War I in Washington. McDougal emphasizes that there were "difficult [working] conditions, particularly in the War Building." There were also squalid living conditions, high rents and food prices, and appalling transportation conditions. After Taft received the original letter and manuscript, he revised the manuscript, which he sent with his own letter to President Wilson. A copy of Taft's two and one-half page revised manuscript is included, dated October 5, 1918.

    Throughout the 1920s, friendly letters passed between the two men. McDougal, ostensibly hesitant, asked Taft for various favors, such as for tickets to the Army/Navy football game in 1926. In that instance, Taft wrote back on October 5, "As I was once Secretary of War, I think perhaps they would be willing to recognize a vague claim for seats." On another occasion in January 1920, Taft, a proud graduate of Yale, invited McDougal's "Princeton nephews" to "dine with Mrs. Taft and me" in "a Yale atmosphere." McDougal, who spent time in Florida, repaid the favors by regularly sending Taft boxes of Florida oranges. These came so regularly that in December 1924, Taft wrote McDougal, "I don't think you ought to send me any more Florida fruit."

    On other occasions, though, Taft adamantly refused McDougal's requests. McDougal's son, Robert Jr., also attended Princeton in the early 1920s, and in 1923, he worked for the Princetonian. McDougal Sr. asked Taft to write an article, which the Supreme Court chief justice declined in a letter dated October 29, 1923. Earlier that same day, Taft had written Sr. explaining why he could not write an article. The following year, Robert Jr. worked on the newspaper's editorial staff and wrote articles about Taft, which annoyed the chief justice, who wrote Sr. on February 19, 1924, "I am very glad that Robert has made the editorial staff of the Princetonian, but, my dear Mr. McDougal, I wish you would not have your boy use anything concerning me in the Princetonian, for it is only beating the devil around the stump. A Chief Justice is just like a mole - he keeps working and ought not to be given any conspicuous publicity. I have been all through that and now I must keep myself quiet. Tell your boy to take people who are in active politics or business." (Included in the archive is a one-page manuscript entitled, "Proposed Article for 'The Princetonian' / Chief Justice Taft and the Princetonian," which likely was the article to which Taft was objecting.) In 1929, Robert Jr. graduated cum laude from the University of Chicago Law School.

    In an illuminating letter dated October 17, 1927, Taft shares his daily schedule with McDougal. That letter begins, "I do not rise at four o'clock in the morning. I have my masseur come at a quarter after six, which enables me to take my bath at a quarter to seven, to go to my study at 8 o'clock, and to breakfast at half past eight." According to the letter, Taft went to court at eleven o'clock and left home at "half past four." The letter continues with Taft's evening plans, which included a "half hour's walk" and a "light supper," with bed time at ten o'clock every night. This fascinating letter ends as Taft ponders the prospects of France and Great Britain, noting that he "never can forget the debt of obligation we are under to them [Great Britain] for giving us the common law and a representative government."

    This archive, though, documents more than just the friendship between Taft and McDougal. Through these letters, both men express their views on politics, politicians, elections, books, current events, and more. Following are some views expressed by Taft.

    On Abraham Lincoln: "The reason why I mentioned Lincoln as America's greatest citizen [in an article written by Taft for the Companion] was because he was a real American, the product of the Republic. Washington and Hamilton and Franklin were born under a King and were the initiators of the race of Americans. I yield to not many in my admiration for the three whom you mention, but it seems to me that Lincoln is so clearly a type that it gives him the right to the position" (from a "Copy" of a Taft letter with no signature, dated December 10, 1919).

    On the League of Nations: "I am hopeful that the defeat of the treaty in the Senate is not final, and that after the Senators go home and get a better sense of proportion, they will come back with a willingness to put it through. The President is much at fault in this matter, and so is Lodge. It is their personal vanity and partisanship which have led to this present situation" (November 24, 1919).

    On Woodrow Wilson: "To me the great blot in Wilson's career was his refusal to accept the reservations of the League. I think we would have been a long way further on in the dreary course that the World has to take in its effort to get over the effects of the War and to enjoy the really benefit sought in that enormous sacrifice" (April 2, 1926).

    On Calvin Coolidge: "The basis of Coolidge's solid popularity is the confidence of the plain people of the country that he is one of them and that he has the courage of his convictions, and finally that he has the homely but most valuable principle, and carries it out, of enforcing economy in public matters" (March 8, 1927).

    On Herbert Hoover: "Hoover is worthy of our support as a candidate, and is a great satisfaction to the body of the party" (July 17, 1928).

    On the new role of loudspeakers (or radio) in the presidential election of 1928: "The election was a very satisfactory result, and we escaped a crisis that I dreaded very much. . . . I think we had a great advantage over Smith and his cohorts. The new method of speaking by the air stood us in great stead, especially in Hoover's case, because he could not make a good speech except as he did it. He could not make it in a direct speech to his audience" (November 27, 1928).

    On Florida: "I am glad to hear that Florida is recovering something from her bursted boom" (October 5, 1925); "There seems to be a real boom there [Florida], and while I suppose there will be a good deal of money lost before they get through, it is likely to be a great State" (February 25, 1929).

    On the stock market crash of 1929: "I am glad to get your letter of October 22nd. It comes just at the same time that the notice of a panic comes. It looks as if we would have to have some kind of a shaking up before we get over the nervousness" (Black Thursday, October 24, 1929).

    The men also write about books (including Senator Albert Beveridge's two books, The Life of John Marshall and his two volume biography of Abraham Lincoln), the League of Nations (before and after its formation), Al Smith, prohibition, Taft's son Charlie ("a hard working lawyer"), the World Court Treaty, William Borah ("not a useful or forward-looking statesman"), Elihu Root, Alvin C. York, Ferdinand Foch, Grover Cleveland, and much more. During most of the correspondence, Taft was the chief justice of the U.S. Supreme Court (some of the letters are on Supreme Court letterhead), so he naturally writes about the Court. Robert McDougal was a commodities broker and was the president of the Chicago Board of Trade in 1922, so there are no letters between McDougal and the chief justice in 1922 because important board of trade litigation was pending before the Supreme Court (the Future Trading Act and the Grain Futures Act). In the meantime, according to one of his letters, McDougal kept a photograph of Taft next to another of Lincoln on the wall in front of his desk.

    Of special interest are two typed manuscripts recording the conversation of two evenings that McDougal, Donald Sherwood of Baltimore, and James E. Boyle of Cornell University spent with Taft. Both manuscripts concentrate on Taft's comments during the evening. The first is a ten-page typed manuscript containing Taft's comments during an hour meeting at his home on May 9, 1928, from 7:20 p.m. until 8:20 p.m. Taft talks of Theodore Roosevelt ("he was red-blooded; he would make personal sacrifice to help a friend"), Woodrow Wilson ("had no personal courage"), William Jennings Bryan, Calvin Coolidge, Herbert Hoover, the Federal Reserve System, the League of Nations ("[Wilson] rejected the Republican party amendments to his League scheme, and in so doing missed the great opportunity of this life time"), his own ancestry, and more. The manuscript was likely typed by Boyle.

    The second manuscript is seven typed pages containing Taft's comments during another hour meeting at Taft's home on May 1, 1929, from 7:30 p.m. to 8:30 p.m. The manuscript is entitled, "Visit to Chief Justice of the United States William H. Taft." Below the title reads, "(Note, -- Mr. Taft spoke frankly about certain prominent men. Mr. McDougal, as a general rule, guided the conversation by questions and suggestions. . . .") In this manuscript, Taft comments on President Hoover and his cabinet ("I see the president frequently. . . . Hoover is cold. He is shy, reticent"); on the remarriage of Frances Folsom (Grover Cleveland's widow); on Grover Cleveland's secret throat cancer surgery; on President Wilson's cabinet; on John Marshall and others. At one point in the evening, Taft informs his guests, "I have learned never to look for gratitude in public service." The conversation ends as Taft discusses Cass Gilbert's plan for the "new building for the Supreme Court [finished in 1935]." The manuscript notes that the phone rang at 8:30 to announce the arrival of Secretary of State Henry Stimson. After this, McDougal, Sherwood, and Boyle left Taft's home. At the end of the manuscript is typed, "Interview reported May 1, 1929 by James E. Boyle."

    William Taft was too ill to write McDougal in early 1930; instead, Wendell Mischler, who had been Taft's personal secretary since 1904, wrote two typed letters signed to McDougal on behalf of the ailing Taft who was in "a very weakened condition" (February 25). "Day after day passes and he does not seem to improve." Even though by February, Mischler was no longer Taft's personal secretary (he was the secretary to Chief Justice Hughes), he continued to "return to the Taft's home each evening and do all the things that needed attention. . . . So I have been coming to the house each evening and remaining from eight until half past ten. I would not forsake the Chief Justice and Mrs. Taft for anything in the world." The friendship between Taft and McDougal only ended with the death of Taft on March 8, 1930.

    Also included are two Helen Taft autograph letters signed. One is dated Christmas 1936 and the other March 11, 1929, and concerning a "Destroyer that landed him [William Taft] in Panama." The archive has been well cared for and is organized in a three-ring binder.

    More Information:

    The archive contains a total of 97 William H. Taft signed letters, of which 2 are entirely in his hand. Of these 97 letters, 86 are on Supreme Court letterhead. Please email for a full inventory listing of the archive.

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