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Cambridge University Press
Online publication date:
October 2023
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The Taft Court offers the definitive history of the Supreme Court from 1921 to 1930 when William Howard Taft was Chief Justice. Using untapped archival material, Robert C. Post engagingly recounts the ambivalent effort to create a modern American administrative state out of the institutional innovations of World War I. He shows how the Court sought to establish authoritative forms of constitutional interpretation despite the culture wars that enveloped prohibition and pervasive labor unrest. He explores in great detail how constitutional law responds to altered circumstances. The work provides comprehensive portraits of seminal figures such as Oliver Wendell Holmes Jr. and Louis Dembitz Brandeis. It describes William Howard Taft's many judicial reforms and his profound alteration of the role of Chief Justice. A critical and timely contribution, The Taft Court sheds light on jurisprudential debates that are just as relevant today as they were a century ago.


‘A tour de force! Robert Post has produced an extraordinary account of the final decade of pre-New Deal constitutionalism and the birth of the modern Supreme Court. The Taft Court sets the stage and introduces its characters in a manner that would make an epic novelist envious. Post satisfies the most fastidious reader’s desire for an encyclopedic treatment and comprehensive documentation while also ensuring that the unfolding of the story is compelling and eminently readable. And why should it not be compelling? Post reconstructs a period that has tremendous relevance for our time, with new conservative majorities working to expand the Court’s power to better act as a conservative bulwark, the intrusion of justices into high-stakes national politics, and deeply divisive competing visions within the Court on the fundamentals of constitutionalism and the nature of American democracy.’

Howard Gillman - Chancellor, University of California, Irvine

‘In his expansive examination of the Taft Court, Robert Post describes the Chief Justice and former President as a man of immense capacity and prodigious energy. The same could be said of Post in this, the latest volume of the Oliver Wendell Holmes Devise History of the Supreme Court. Post’s crystalline prose and probing intellect paint a nuanced picture of both this transformative chief justice and the transformative decade of the 1920s. As rich in biography and culture as it is sophisticated in legal analysis, The Taft Court effortlessly guides the reader across the broad and complex terrain of the Court’s cases and their relationship to the social, political, and economic developments of their day. This is a master work by a master legal scholar and historian at his very best.’

Risa Goluboff - Dean of the University of Virginia School of Law, and author of Vagrant Nation: Police Power, Constitutional Change, and the Making of the 1960s

‘Robert Post's long-awaited history of the Taft Court is a masterpiece - a work for the ages. It is infused with great humanity, enriched by astonishing erudition, and marked throughout by a high philosophical intelligence that never loses sight of the great questions and deep tensions of this remarkable period in American life. Post's graceful pen brings it all alive: the issues of the day, the personalities of the justices, and the dramatic sweep of constitutional law at a fundamental turning point in the American adventure. To have told the story with such intellectual rigor and human warmth is an achievement of which I stand in awe.’

Anthony Kronman - Sterling Professor of Law, Yale Law School

‘A stupendous scholarly achievement, and a miraculous recreation of the mind of the Court as it stood on the brink of a revolution in governance: the New Deal. Robert Post breaks down, with his characteristic rigor and clarity, the jurisprudence that gave us decisions like Ozawa, Adkins v. Children’s Hospital, Gitlow, and Olmstead. But he also takes us behind the scenes. We listen in on the justices’ conferences, follow the circulation of memos and draft opinions, and read the private correspondence. The result is a fully three-dimensional rendering of a Court whose ambivalence and uncertainties have lessons for today - perhaps most importantly, in its struggles to preserve the independence and authority of the institution itself.’

Louis Menand - author of the Pulitzer Prize winning The Metaphysical Club

‘As public attention scrutiny questions the work and very legitimacy of the U.S. Supreme Court, Robert Post’s magisterial book arrives with grace and clarity, shedding welcome light on the Court of a century ago, immersed then as now in contested politics and distinctive personalities. The Taft Court lays bare the contests over tradition and change and over property rights versus equality and democracy even while demonstrating how temporary and contingent are claimed eternal truths about legal methods and meanings. Between the period of 1921–1930, ‘conservatives’ and ‘progressives’ grappled with disputes over labor protests, race-based exclusions, and the hi-jacking of government away from the views of many by evangelical beliefs (banning intoxicating liquor). Offering thematic and biographical insights as well as comparisons with earlier and later periods, this book makes vivid forgotten fights and decisions while showing how the Taft Court set in motion powerful practices and the majestic Courthouse itself.’

Martha Minow - 300th Anniversary University Professor, Harvard University

‘In his monumental study of the Taft Court, Yale law professor and former dean Robert Post offers a truly mind-blowing analysis of a critical moment in Supreme Court history. Addressing such issues as the profound impact of World War I, the Taft Court’s dramatic expansion of the freedom of contract leading to the invalidation of all sorts of laws designed to protect workers and labor unions, its reluctance to protect the rights of persons accused of crime, and its unwillingness to challenge Southern apartheid, the Taft Court was arguably the most conservative Supreme Court until now. Post does a brilliant job of analyzing, explaining, and illuminating this critical period in our nation’s constitutional history.’

Geoffrey R. Stone - Edward H. Levi Distinguished Professor of Law, The University of Chicago

'Rich with close readings of cases that rely on sources scarcely ever used before - including docket books only recently discovered in a locked trunk - and benefitting from deep and fruitful quantitative analysis absent in most studies of the Court, The Taft Court restores the nineteen-twenties as a turning point in the Court’s history...'

Jill Lepore Source: The New Yorker

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