Alphonso Taft served as attorney general of the United States from 1876 to 1877, under President ULYSSES S. GRANT.
Taft was born November 5, 1810, in Townsend, Vermont, to pioneers Peter Rawson Taft and Sylvia Howard Taft. He was well aware of his family's long history and tradition of public service in the American colonies. His father was a descendant of Edward Rawson, a 1636 settler who had served as secretary of the Massachusetts Province. Other Taft family members held positions of responsibility and influence in communities all along the eastern seaboard.
Although Taft's parents were of modest financial means, they had a strong commitment to education, and Taft was well schooled. Taft left Vermont to attend Yale University in 1829, where he received a bachelor of arts degree in 1833 and his law degree in 1836.
Like many young men of his day, Taft saw his future in the West. In 1839 Taft moved to Cincinnati, Ohio, and opened his law practice. On August 29, 1841, he married Fanny Phelps, the daughter of family friends Charles Phelps and Eliza Houghton Phelps. Fanny died in 1852.
Taft remarried in 1853, to Louise Maria Torret. They had three sons and one daughter, including WILLIAM HOWARD TAFT, who became the twenty-seventh president of the United States and the tenth chief justice of the U.S. Supreme Court.
Taft played an important role in organizing his influential friends to support the national Republican effort, and he is personally credited with the birth of the REPUBLICAN PARTY in Cincinnati. He was chosen to represent Hamilton County at the first Republican National Convention, in 1856. He later sought to represent Ohio's first district in the thirty-fifth Congress. He ran as a Republican candidate, but was defeated. He remained active in Republican party politics for most of his life.
In 1865 Taft was appointed to fill the remaining term of a Cincinnati superior court judge. Later that year, he was elected in his own right, and he served as a judge of the Superior Court of Cincinnati from 1865 to 1872.
In 1872 Taft left the bench to practice law with his grown sons. He took an active role in the establishment and organization of the Cincinnati Bar Association, and he was elected the first president of the new organization in March 1872. Taft's political, judicial, and legal activities during the late 1860s and early 1870s elevated him to national attention, so few were surprised when President Grant appointed him secretary of war in March 1876. (It was a position his son William Howard Taft would also hold thirty years later, under President THEODORE ROOSEVELT.) Only two months later, Grant named Taft to be attorney general.
Taft served as attorney general from May 1876 to January 1877. In November 1876, the government's policy of suspending pay to sailors who were jailed or removed from duty was challenged. Taft rendered an opinion finding "nothing in the law of the naval service which justifies the view that confinement or suspension from duty under sentence of COURT-MARTIAL is attended by FORFEITURE or loss of pay" (15 Op. Att'y Gen. 175, 176).
Following his term as attorney general, Taft made several unsuccessful bids for elected office. He was defeated in his run for a U.S. Senate seat in 1878. And he was defeated in two attempts at the Ohio governor's seat, in 1877 and 1879.
In April 1882, he was named U.S. ambassador to the Austro-Hungarian Empire. In 1884 Taft was offered the ambassadorship to Russia. He accepted, and served until August 1885.
At the close of his foreign service, Taft settled in California. In retirement, he devoted his time to a number of educational institutions, including Yale University, where he was a fellow of the college, and the University of Cincinnati, where he was a charter trustee. After his death on May 21, 1891, in San Diego, the University of Cincinnati's Alphonso Taft School of Law was named in his honor.