This delightfully descriptive letter of Cincinnati in the 1840s was written by Fanny (Phelps) Taft (1823-1851), the daughter of Judge Charles Phelps (1781-1854) and Eliza Houghton (1793-1872), of Townshend, Vermont. Fanny was the first wife of Alphonso Taft (1810-1891). They married in 1841 and they had five children — three of whom died in infancy — before Fanny’s death in 1851.
Alphonso Taft was born in Townshend, Vermont, son of Sylvia Howard and Peter Rawson Taft, a farmer, lawyer, and local judge. The Tafts’ only child received the best available public school education, and his parents encouraged him as he worked to pay his way through Amherst Academy and Yale College by teaching high school. He graduated from Yale in 1833, third out of 90. He taught high school again, and tutored college students, in order to attend Yale Law School. He graduated in 1838. Following an exploratory trip to the West in 1838-39, he moved to Cincinnati, Ohio, where he apprenticed at a law office. Admitted to the Ohio bar in 1840, he set up practice. His legal success led to service on the Cincinnati City Council for five years during the 1840s. He effectively championed annexation of suburbs to further strengthen the city’s commercial base.
Taft was active in Whig politics until the party dissolved because of the slavery issue. In 1855 he was a founder the national Republican Party and its Ohio affiliate. He remained active in Ohio Republican politics for the next 34 years.
In 1865 Taft was appointed to fill an unexpired term as a Judge of the Superior Court of Cincinnati (part of the Ohio State Court System). He was subsequently elected to two terms. A trustee of two railroads, he lobbied vigorously for Cincinnati to construct a new railroad to the South. As a judge he approved the sale of bonds by the city for this purpose. The Cincinnati Southern Railway became the country’s only profitable municipal railroad. Taft resigned from the bench in 1872 to join his two grown sons in private practice. He was elected the first president of the Cincinnati Bar Association in 1872, served as a trustee of Cincinnati College, and taught at Cincinnati Law School.
One of Taft’s opinions as a judge, against Bible-reading in public schools, remains meaningful today. Several other local Unitarians, including members of his church, were actors in the drama that led to a landmark decision about church and state.
In 1876 President Grant, in an effort to put a clean face at the head of a corruption-plagued department, appointed Taft Secretary of War. Mercifully, later that year he made Taft Attorney General, in which capacity he served with distinction until the end of the administration. He was the leading contender for the Republican Party nomination for Governor in 1875 and 1879. He lost each time at the convention, largely because his opinion on the Bible in the Schools Case was intensely disliked by the evangelical Protestants. In 1882 he was appointed ambassador to the Austro-Hungarian Empire and, in 1884, ambassador to Russia. He retired in 1885 due to illness, and resumed private practice. Five years later, for health reasons, he retired to San Diego, California, where he died.
After Fanny’s death in 1851, Alphonso Taft married Louise Torrey, daughter of prominent Milbury, Massachusetts parents. They had four sons and a daughter. The first son died in childhood; the second, born in 1857, was William Howard Taft, later the twenty-fifth president of the United States.
Fanny wrote this letter to her maternal grandfather, James Houghton (1763-1848) of Guilford, Windham County, Vermont. In the letter, Fanny describes her two year-old, blue-eyed son, Charles Phelps Taft (1843-1929), who later graduated from Yale University (1864), and from Columbia University’s law department (1866). In 1867 he received another degree from the University of Heidelberg. In 1869 he resumed his law practice and then in 1879 he became editor of the Cincinnati Times-Star, which would later be bought by the Cincinnati Post. This began the Taft media empire which was his main claim to fame. In 1895 he went to Congress, but served only two years. He returned to the newspaper business after that and for a time owned the Chicago Cubs baseball team from 1914-1916.
Addressed to James Houghton, Esqr., Guilford Centre, Vermont
April 16th 1846
My Dear Grandfather,
Yesterday I received a letter from Eliza giving some account of the people in Townshend, and also of yourself. She said James had lately made you a visit and found you in feeble health. To assure you that you are not forgotten and unthought of by your kindred at a distance, I have ventured to address this letter to you and I hope the perusal of it will afford you some pleasure and satisfaction. Mother often speaks of you and regrets that a child’s hand is not near to administer to your wants and comforts. She intended to have visited you last fall, but her time and attention was so much engrossed in preparing for the marriage, and her journey to Cincinnati that she was obliged to postpone the desired visit to Guilford.
Father and Mother have spent the winter with us and they have appeared to enjoy themselves quite well. The first of this month, father started for Illinois. We have had a letter from him dated St. Louis April 6th. When he left Cincinnati, he had not determined whether he should return to Vermont by way of the Lakes, or visit the Queen City. Mother spends the time with us while he is absent.
The past winter has been very severe and there has been a good deal of suffering and distress among the poorer class. Fuel has been scarce and commanded a great price. Provisions of all kinds have brought higher prices than usual. The weather is now getting more mild, and I hope summer is near. The peach trees are not yet in full bloom. Last night we had a slight frost though not enough to injure the fruit. Last season the fruit was all destroyed excepting apples, which have been scarce all winter.
We have a beautiful city and it never was growing more rapidly than at present. Our population is mixed and various. In the city about one fourth of the people are Germans. They are for the most part when they reach here poor, but they are generally very industrious. As soon as they step foot on our shores, they immediately set about finding something to do. At first they work cheap, but every penny they earn is saved, their former habits having been such, that it costs them but a mere trifle to live. By degrees they learn enough of our language to perform common business transactions. They then receive more wages and they finally command the highest prices. By following this course, they are enabled in a few years to go a little into the country where they can buy a few acres of land at a reasonable price. They then plant vineyards or turn farmers so that in their old age they have plenty to live on and enjoy themselves as much as though they possessed immense wealth.
There is a great deal of building going on in the city. Last year there were upwards of 1500 new brick buildings erected, and there will in all probability be as many or more put up this year. The Ohio River flows immediately in front of our city and steamboats are constantly arriving at and leaving our landing. All our dry goods are brought from the Eastern cities and they reach us by means of this river or the canal across the state, which went into operation last year.
I suppose the heaviest and most profitable business that is carried on here in the winter is that of pork-packing. We have several packers who put up as many as 50,000 hogs in a season. They are brought from all parts of this state and also from Indiana and Kentucky. The meat, lard, &c. is shipped to various ports wherever there is the greatest demand. A great share of it goes to England.
There has been a railroad commenced across this state from Cincinnati to Sandusky on the lake. It is about one half completed. When this is entirely finished, we shall begin to think of taking a trip to Vermont. When this work shall be accomplished, it will take but a few hours longer to go from Cincinnati to Troy (N.Y.) than it will to go from Troy to Townshend.
I have always enjoyed living at the West. I never have seen the time since I came here when I could say that I would rather go back to Vermont to live than remain in Ohio. Many of my acquaintances are from New England or have descended from New England people. I believe we can find Yankees almost everywhere. They are a roving people, but after all, I have a great respect for them.
You probably know that father and mother Taft are here, and that we all live together. We have always lived happily together, and I hope it will always be so. We have bought a pleasant house in a desirable part of the city, and we live very much after our own liking. Father makes himself busy in many ways. He is now putting our yard in order. We are expecting to have some fruit this year, raised on our own land. We keep a cow. Father takes care of her and so well does he attend to her that she gives us much milk in the winter as in the summer.
Alphonso has enough business to keep him pretty much employed and I hope he is laying by some property. Our little Charley, who now is nearly 2 1/2 years old, is a sprightly boy, and he is a great pet with us all. He engrosses a great deal of the time and attention of both his grandmothers. He has blue eyes and his father thinks he has a god deal of the mirth and good-nature of his grandpa Houghton.
Jane is well. She is living at Mr. Stones — her husband’s uncle. Mr. Stone is a man 78 years old. He is now entirely blind and has been so for six years. He has no children, yet he is surrounded by every comfort. He sometimes says that he has “nothing to live for,” yet he is generally in most excellent spirits. He has been a very active man and has done a great deal to advance the prosperity of the city. He has lived here 44 years!
I should be very glad to hear from you any time. Will not someone write for you? I have several things more that I would like to say, but I will wait till another time. We all send love to you and wish to be affectionately remembered — particularly Mother.
From your affectionate granddaughter, — F. P. Taft