A Taft Legacy: U.S. Chamber of Commerce

Times Star, Nov. 4, 1908

In mid-August, 1,000 chambers of commerce executives from around the country will gather in Cincinnati for the annual meeting of the Association of Chamber of Commerce Executives. The ACCE is the link between the United States Chamber of Commerce and the leaders of the more than 7000 local chambers. The ACCE was formed in Cincinnati a century ago in October 1914.

Taft, William Howard and Helen
First lady Helen Herron Taft and President William Howard Taft in 1908

This is not the only link between Cincinnati and the United States Chamber of Commerce. William Howard Taft, the only Cincinnati-born President, provided the impetus for organizing a national chamber during his years in the White House.

Taft was not a great orator, but he was an organizational genius. As Chief Justice of the Supreme Court 15 years later, he reorganized the federal judiciary. While in the White House between 1909 and 1913 he cleaned up what he considered an incomplete reform of his predecessor by advocating for the creation in the private sector of a United States Chamber of Commerce to complement the new federal Department of Commerce and Labor.

Between 1773 when the first local chamber was formed in Charleston, South Carolina, and 1900, local chambers proliferated. President Taft once joked that every little town and city, “may not have any commerce and it may not have any trade, but it always has a Board (of Trade) or a Chamber.”

Although chambers flourished on the local level, efforts to organize a national chamber failed multiple times. In the 1880s and 90s support grew among business and political leaders for business to have a formal voice in the federal bureaucracy. This was especially important with the emergence of the United States as a global player. At the urging of President Theodore Roosevelt, in late 1901 Congress created a Cabinet level Department of Commerce and Labor.

Throughout this discussion, proponents consistently expressed the need for a parallel, private, organization that could speak with a clear voice for business on national policy issues. Chris Mead, the author of the forthcoming book, The Magicians of Main Street: America and its Chambers of Commerce 1768-1945, observes that the first two Secretaries of the Department of Commerce and Labor argued that without a national chamber, department bureaucrats would become “simply a group of office holders theorizing about the needs of business.”

Leaders of local chambers in Boston, Chicago and other cities made it clear to Charles Nagel, President Taft’s Secretary of Commerce and Labor that they were ready to cooperate in the formation of a national chamber as long as it was both representative and effective.

In December 1911 President Taft sent Congress a report clearly expressing his view that it “would be of great value” if a central business organization existed that was “in touch with associations and chambers throughout the country and able to keep purely American interests in closer touch with commercial affairs.”

Taft and Nagel followed that up by inviting the leaders of 2000 chambers and business organizations to a meeting in St. Louis in April 1912. Addressing the 700 delegates, Taft expressed that the government needed their “free and unrestrained” advice regarding policies affecting “business and business welfare of the country.” The delegates voted to form the Chamber of Commerce of the United States.

When the new organization met in January 1913, Taft was a lame duck in the last months of his Presidency. In a reflective mood, he made clear that he considered the creation of the United States Chamber of Commerce as one of his greatest accomplishments. The Chamber was not a “baby” of the administration, but a “full grown man” that sprang into being.

Hurley, DanBy Dan Hurley, local historian, host of the weekly “Local 12 Newsmakers” program and former director of Leadership Cincinnati for the Cincinnati USA Regional Chamber.

This is the sixth in a series of 12 essays about the history of the Chamber and Cincinnati business, to commemorate the Chamber’s 175th anniversary.

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