Taft’s official White House portrait. (Photo: Anders Zorn/Public Domain)

“Anti-Semitism is a noxious weed that should be cut out. It has no place in free America.” - William Howard Taft, 1920

A noble sentiment, but, according to a historic letter that has just gone on auction, former President Taft wasn’t always so woke. The anti-Semitic letter, written in 1916 and addressed to Taft’s good friend and Washington journalist Gus Karger, makes an offensive case against the appointment of the first Jewish Supreme Court Justice, based on the “clannishness” of a “Jew of Jews.”

Taft had left the presidency in 1913, replaced by Woodrow Wilson, who championed Jewish lawyer and political advisor Louis Brandeis for the Supreme Court in 1916. A former lawyer and judge himself, Taft and Brandeis had clashed in the courtroom before, and Taft was also stung that he himself did not receive the nomination. So, just two days after Brandeis’ nomination, he penned the letter that is now on auction, with bidding starting at $15,000. 

In it, Taft attacks Brandeis’ liberal views as well as, Taft says, his use of his place in the Jewish community for political gain. He writes that the “intelligent Jews of this country” aren’t behind Brandeis’ nomination, but that the “clannishness” of the larger Jewish community prevents them from doing anything about it. Taft accuses Brandeis of not claiming his Jewishness until it was politically expedient saying, “If it were necessary, I am sure he would have grown a beard to convince them that he was a Jew of Jews.”

Taft’s attack on Brandeis was not the only opposition to his nomination. Because of Brandeis’ socialist-leaning politics and some senators’ blatant anti-Semitism, the Senate Judiciary Committee, for the first time, held a hearing to discuss the nomination. Brandeis was finally confirmed by the Senate four months after his nomination.