Taft was born into a politically active family; his father had served as President Ulysses S. Grant's secretary of war. He attended college at Yale University, graduating second in his class. He then attended Cincinnati Law School earning his law degree in 1880. After serving in private practice and as solicitor general to President Benjamin Harrison (1890 – 1896), Taft joined the faculty at Yale University, where he taught law until 1900.
In 1900, Taft was appointed governor of the Philippines by President William McKinley. He then served as secretary of war under President Theodore Roosevelt from 1904 to 1908. A Progressive Republican, Taft was a pacifist compared to many of his imperialist contemporaries; he advocated multilateral, international efforts to solve conflicts between nations. Taft did wage war against domestic economic monopolies, however. From the time he was elected the nation's 27th president in 1909, Taft quietly continued Theodore Roosevelt's policy of busting monopolies in the steel and railroad industries and created the first federal Department of Labor to promote the welfare of America's workers.
After retiring from the presidency, Taft became the first and only former president to serve as chief justice of the Supreme Court, a position he held for nine years after being appointed by President Warren Harding in 1921. As chief justice, Taft gave the oath of office to Presidents Calvin Coolidge and Herbert Hoover at their inaugurations in 1923 and 1929, respectively.
Health complications led to Taft's resignation as chief justice in February 1930; he died a month later, on March 3, from heart failure. Taft was the first former president to be buried at Arlington National Cemetery.