At this critical juncture in American history, the Chief Justice of the United States seemingly leads a group of 4 colleagues in halting vital efforts to make our country more prosperous, healthier and democratic. With 4 liberal justices consistently in dissent, he has led the others in some of the most disgusting, ideologically driven, overtly partisan decisions the Supreme Court has ever made. Who could have thought that this man, once a leading progressive in our country, could damage our country in this way?
Wait a second…John Roberts has never been a progressive. So who the heck am I talking about?
This is the story of Charles Evans Hughes – the Chief Justice who blocked so much of Franklin D. Roosevelt’s New Deal with his deciding vote, then changed sides just in time to open the door to so many reforms in the United States. It is, in many aspects, a story for our time: a well-timed look into the last time the Supreme Court actively defied the will of the President and the people in its decisions. It is also the story of a bona fide progressive - ahead of the curve on many different issues - whose beliefs were increasingly obsolete in a modern world.
The inspiration for this 2-part story comes from a new book by James F. Simon entitled FDR and Chief Justice Hughes - The President, the Supreme Court, and the Epic Battle Over the New Deal. Simon gives a dual biography of the two men, and in the process paints a remarkable portrait of an American largely unknown by citizens today.
During his political career – Governor of New York and the 1916 Republican nominee for President – Charles Evans Hughes was ridiculed in the same fashion as Michael Dukakis would be in 1988. “The bearded iceberg” was Theodore Roosevelt’s public description of him, and many others denigrated Hughes as a dull, dreary technocrat with no emotional connection to the people. It was that image, in part – as well as the brilliant (if accidental) campaign message of President Woodrow Wilson (“He kept us out of war”) – that denied him the Presidency.
There was a lot more to Hughes than 1916, however, as Simon's biography makes clear. What emerges is a brilliant, thoughtful jurist whose career was marked by brave stances for progressive causes time after time. When it came to protecting civil liberties, supporting labor rights and reforming government from the inside, Hughes was a leading figure in the Progressive Era (and beyond, as you will see tomorrow).
How, then did a man who started out as a progressive do-gooder, exposing Republican party bosses and their corporate allies as corrupt lawbreakers, become aligned with the arch-conservative “4 Horseman of the Apocalypse” in striking down countless pieces of “FDR”’s legislation?
Rise To Prominence
Charles Evans Hughes overcame many obstacles – money, shaky physical and mental health, and horribly controlling parents – in becoming enormously successful. Born in 1862 in upstate New York, he was the child of a Baptist evangelical minister from Wales and his equally zealous (but native-born) spouse. David and Catherine Hughes were of modest means, but very well-educated – the Reverend Hughes studied at Wesleyan, and his wife had a degree in French from the Hudson River Institute, a co-ed university at the time. They tried to convince Charles to become a Baptist minister, but failed; he instead embarked on a path to Columbia Law School by way of Brown University, and left the Baptist Church behind. Hughes would, however, carry with him his parents' Social Gospel mentality, one that made him an ardent progressive during much of his career.
A brilliant student (he graduated from Brown at 19 and Columbia Law at 22) and a hard-driving attorney, Hughes would probably have worked himself to death at a young age were it not for his wife. Antoinette Carter, whom he married in 1888 and remained with until her death in 1945 was an intellectual match for Hughes, and also gave him emotional stability in his most stressful periods. In what would seem contrary to Hughes’ stiff public image, they wrote passionate love letters to each other and often went bicycling - and mountain climbing - together.
Although a staunch Republican, Hughes didn’t enter politics until his 40s. In 1905, he was recommended to be Counsel for a New York State investigation into the hopelessly corrupt Utilities industry, which a New York Times expose had revealed to be price-gouging the city and its residents. Despite the fact that he taught Sunday school to John D. Rockefeller’s son, Hughes pursued the case with remarkable tenacity, privately and publicly declaring his independence from what normally would have been an effort to sweep corruption under the rug.
A sharp (if less than charismatic) attorney in the courtroom, he proceeded to publicly expose and humiliate the Consolidated Gas Company, which had monopolized the manufacturing and sale of gas in New York City. He followed this up by publicly crusading for massive reforms in the utilities industry, including a principle that would have Hughes labeled a Socialist/Marxist/Communist today. “He concluded,” Simon writes, “that the [utilities] industry could earn a reasonable profit and still cut gas rates by 25 percent, and electricity rates that [the industry] charged to light the city’s streets by one third. (Simon 29)” [Emphasis mine] All of Hughes’ proposed reforms, including the profit ceiling, became law, and a state commission was created to regulate the industry.
Hughes followed this up by exposing massive abuses in the Life Insurance industry, also as counsel for a state investigation. He proceeded to hammer away at one corrupt tycoon after another, exposing the “big 3” companies (Mutual, Equitable and New York Life) for outright bribery of politicians and reporters, cooking the books and manipulating their companies’ trustees into voting to raise the tycoons’ salaries and benefits over and over again – all while the value of the public’s investments had kept falling. Hughes even dared to reveal a massive (for 1904) $48,000 contribution to President Theodore Roosevelt’s campaign fund that had never been reported to shareholders. Both of the state’s U.S. Senators confessed to taking bribes from the insurance industry on the stand. In the end, all the leading insurance executives (Presidents and CEOs too) were indicted, resigned or fired by their trustees. Hughes’ new reform legislation included banning all political donations from insurance companies, mandatory lobbyist registration, and unrestricted lawsuits from shareholders against their companies.
Hughes’ public exposes catapulted him into the Governorship of New York, openly backed by Theodore Roosevelt as a reformer (TR forgave him for revealing the illegal contribution). He faced none other than newspaper tycoon William Randolph Hearst (the character “Citizen Kane” is based on), who spent a then unheard-of sum of $500,000 on his campaign; Hughes spent exactly $619.
Hughes won anyway, going on to enact more progressive legislation in 2 terms as Governor. Child labor and workplace safety laws, a “clean elections” bill that sharply limited what candidates could spend, and major regulations on the railroad industry were all enacted. He also launched an investigation that ended the careers of 3 of New York City’s 5 Borough Presidents. Hughes’ reforms were a major inspiration for Louis Brandeis’ similar efforts in Massachusetts, and were embraced by pro-reform Democrats like future Governor Al Smith and a young State Senator named Franklin D. Roosevelt. “FDR” started his career in 1910 when he got elected in a staunchly Republican district, in part by latching onto the record of then-Governor Hughes.
Hughes vastly preferred lawmaking to elections, however; when he was offered the chance to serve on the Supreme Court by President Taft in 1910, he jumped at the opportunity. In the next 6 years, Hughes would write a number of decisions that supported the goals of the Progressive Era. Among his decisions were to overturn the conviction of an African-American from Alabama who had been sentenced to hard labor for not returning $15 to his white employer, violating (in Hughes’ belief) the 13th Amendment’s prohibition on any type of bondage (not just slavery).
Hughes, along with Justice Oliver Wendell Holmes, supported the cause of Leo Frank, falsely convicted for murder in a Georgia courtroom dominated by an anti-Semitic mob. They were in the minority in allowing Frank’s execution to go ahead, arguing that the case needed to be reviewed by the Court in its entirety. Interestingly enough in light of future events, Hughes also authored several decisions that upheld Congress’ right to regulate interstate commerce, supporting the ICC’s efforts to stop unfair rate manipulation by railroad companies; he also supported the Constitutionality of child labor, maximum hour and minimum wage laws.
Off the Bench, On the Bench
Hughes stepped down from the Court in June 1916, when he was nominated for President by the Republicans in an attempt to bring progressives like Theodore Roosevelt back into the fold. It had been the split between TR's Bull Moose Party and "old guard" Republicans led by Taft that had given Woodrow Wilson an easy victory in 1912. Although Hughes campaigned hard, his image as a stiff, humorless lawyer was harder to overcome. His photographic memory, while useful for making speeches, also exposed his...well, unexciting delivery of said speeches, contrasting greatly with Wilson’s charisma on the stump (Barack Obama should take notes from this race, as well as from 2004). Hurting Hughes as well was the belligerent rhetoric of Theodore Roosevelt about intervening in war-torn Europe, which Wilson used as a club to bludgeon Hughes on the possibility of the Republicans dragging the country into World War One. “He kept us out of war” would be discarded months later as government policy, but it worked wonders for the Democrats in 1916, particularly with German and Irish-American voters.
What might have cost Hughes the election, however, was an unintentional error made while visiting California, where popular progressive Governor Hiram Johnson was running for the U.S. Senate as a Republican. Hughes was staying at a hotel after a long day of campaigning, but his staff never told him that Johnson was waiting to be invited upstairs to see him. Upset at the apparent slight, the Governor left the hotel and refused to coordinate his campaign with Hughes. Hughes, proclaimed the winner on Election Night by the New York Times, lost to Wilson by a 277-254 margin in the Electoral College, the closest result until 2000. It took several days before Wilson’s victory in California (then with 13 electoral votes) was confirmed; Hughes lost the Golden State by less than 4,000 votes (about .4%), while Johnson prevailed by nearly 300,000.
Hughes’ electoral career ended in 1916, but his service in government had not. At the end of the war, with the first “Red Scare” running rampant in the United States (urged on by the Attorney General), Hughes volunteered to defend 5 Socialist Party legislators who had been barred from their seats in the New York Legislature for opposing the war. Hughes was successful in the case, with his Republican Party record bolstering the otherwise hopeless cause of the Socialists.
In 1921, Hughes joined the Harding Administration as Secretary of State. He was a committed internationalist in that post, successfully brokering the first-ever arms reduction agreement at the Washington Naval Conference of 1921-2. Overcoming objections from the British and Japanese, Hughes’ agreement saw the great powers agree to slash the size and scope of their navies, with the United States volunteering to go first in the disarmament process. While the agreement was dead by the late 1930s, it was considered a breakthrough success at the time in preserving world peace. A famous quote from the period tweaked the somewhat dim Harding after he gave a foreign policy speech: "It was the finest speech Secretary Hughes ever wrote."
With the death of Chief Justice Taft in 1930, President Hoover appointed Hughes to replace him. The new Chief Justice brought vigor and energy to his new (old) job, hoping the bring unity to the Court as Taft had done. He had already worked with, or knew well, all but 1 of his new colleagues.
4 of them – Justices James McReynolds, Willis Van Devanter, George Sutherland and Pierce Butler – had operated as a conservative bloc for several years, striking down regulations and upholding business rights over the public good in case after case. Their belief, of course, stemmed from a fundamental distrust of government intervention, whether in economic or civil libertarian terms. They would go on to be known as the “4 Horsemen of the Apocalypse”, as the public would call them during the mid-to-late 1930s.
The other Justices were the distinguished Oliver Wendell Holmes, who was replaced by fellow liberal Benjamin Cardozo in 1932; Louis Brandeis, the progressive champion and first Jew appointed to the Court; Harlan Fisk Stone, a moderate Republican who would later replace Hughes as Chief Justice; and newcomer Owen Roberts, a Hoover appointee who would join with Cardozo, Brandeis and Stone as supporters of the New Deal program.
It would up to Hughes to manage this group – 2 liberals, 2 moderates and 4 conservatives, with the Chief Justice often as the all-important 5th vote. How he would decide in the years ahead would prove pivotal to the initial deaths, and eventual survival, of Franklin Delano Roosevelt’s economic policies – policies that millions of Americans would benefit from, both in the dark days of the Great Depression and beyond.
That, however, is for tomorrow’s article. :)