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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. :)

Originally posted to stephenyellin on Tue Jun 26, 2012 at 05:28 AM PDT.

Also republished by History for Kossacks and Community Spotlight.


Does Hughes' record (up to 1930) classify him as a Progressive?

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Comment Preferences

  •  Let me know what YOU think (10+ / 0-)

    As noted in the article, Part 2 will be published tomorrow. It will tell the story of Hughes' struggle with FDR over the constitutionality of the New Deal, the major legislation struck down and upheld, and the critical turning point that saw Hughes join a liberal coalition in several crucial cases.

    As a preview, note that Hughes would be in the majority on the decisions that saved Social Security, allowed the Due Process clause to be used to bring economic regulation to the states, and provided the precedent for Brown vs. Board of Education, among others.

    "We are the leaders we've been waiting for." - Paul Wellstone

    by MrLiberal on Tue Jun 26, 2012 at 05:33:01 AM PDT

  •  Um, he believed that even FDR's actions were (2+ / 0-)
    Recommended by:
    misslegalbeagle, zooecium

    constrained by the Constitution?  Was this a trick question?

    You don't need to firebomb Dresden to prove that you can fly the plane.

    by SpamNunn on Tue Jun 26, 2012 at 05:36:47 AM PDT

    •  As I will discuss tomorrow (6+ / 0-)

      Hughes' position was more nuanced than that. He believed that the federal government had the right to intervene in protecting the public from private abuse. However, he also felt that the New Deal relied on a hefty bureaucracy and social engineering to achieve the government's ends - policies and practices that went against the traditional progressive beliefs that he held.

      There is also a slight error in the article - Owen Roberts would join the liberal faction on the court, but starting in 1937 and not earlier. I will correct the mistake when covering the rest of my story.

      "We are the leaders we've been waiting for." - Paul Wellstone

      by MrLiberal on Tue Jun 26, 2012 at 06:00:24 AM PDT

      [ Parent ]

  •  Had he become President, how would CEH (1+ / 0-)
    Recommended by:

    have handled WW1 I wonder?

    "But Brandine, you're supposed to be in Iraq stopping 911!"

    by leftyguitarist on Tue Jun 26, 2012 at 08:40:09 AM PDT

    •  A few differences with Wilson (6+ / 0-)

      While I doubt Hughes would have entered the war any sooner than Wilson, or that the war would have ended any differently, there are a few areas that Wilson clearly did not do the right thing.

      Chief among them were the Sedition and Espionage Acts, which were used to silence dissent from anti-war citizens, including Socialist Party leader Eugene Debs (who was sent to jail for speaking against the war and ran for President from his cell) and hundreds of other Socialist/anti-war activists.

      This fear-mongering carried over into 1919/20, with the original "Red Scare" being fostered by Attorney General Mitchell Palmer in an attempt to get himself elected President. This led to the 5 Socialist New York Assemblymen being denied their seats and arrested for sedition - as noted above, Hughes defended them in court and got them back their posts .

      There was also a great deal of hostility and (often) acts of violence against German-Americans, which the Wilson Administration did nothing to stop.

      As I indicated in my article, Hughes was an ardent defender of civil liberties, both as Governor and as a Supreme Court Justice. He would continue to do so as Chief Justice, as I will discuss tomorrow.

      Thanks for reading!

      "We are the leaders we've been waiting for." - Paul Wellstone

      by MrLiberal on Tue Jun 26, 2012 at 09:12:00 AM PDT

      [ Parent ]

  •  I wish he was around in 1980. (2+ / 0-)
    Recommended by:
    TBug, blueoasis

    Would we be so happy to have a military that dwarfs all others combined if it was a line item deduction on our paychecks next to FICA."

    by Back In Blue on Tue Jun 26, 2012 at 08:49:08 AM PDT

    •  Far better than Reagan, certainly (1+ / 0-)
      Recommended by:

      But I have no doubt Hughes would have been kicked out of today's Republican Party long ago. Think about how Teddy Roosevelt would fly in 2012's GOP, and put Hughes in the same category.

      Then again, I doubt Reagan could be nominated in today's GOP either...

      "We are the leaders we've been waiting for." - Paul Wellstone

      by MrLiberal on Tue Jun 26, 2012 at 09:14:20 AM PDT

      [ Parent ]

  •  Let's also not forget....that FDR, AFTER (4+ / 0-)
    Recommended by:
    zooecium, bfbenn, bluezen, blueoasis

    the Supreme Court begin striking his reforms down...

    Threatened to expand the court, pack it with his supporters, and basically kick their asses.

    They relented.

    Had they not, FDR could have turned the country against them, fought them, and beaten them into submission.

    Thank God FDR didn't have some Rethuglican Senator threatening a filibuster, eh?  /angry snark

    Then again, FDR actually delivered Change.  And the people backed him.  Again.  And Again.  And Again.

    And after?

    They limited Presidents to two terms - just in case someone else every came along that actually gave a shit about the 99%.

    The 1% Feast on Results while the 99% Starve on Rhetoric They Can Believe In.

    by Johnathan Ivan on Tue Jun 26, 2012 at 08:49:27 AM PDT

    •  Not quite the case (3+ / 0-)
      Recommended by:
      MKinTN, zooecium, bfbenn

      As I will discuss tomorrow, FDR tried to sell the court-packing plan to the country,  with a Fireside Chat and numerous speeches in the process.

      Despite overwhelming Democratic majorities in Congress (Just 20 Republican Senators and 90 Congressmen!), Roosevelt couldn't get Congress to pass his initiative either. It didn't help that his wing man in the Senate, Joe Robinson, died of a heart attack right in the middle of the legislative battle.

      It is true that Hughes and (Owen, not John) Roberts changed their position on New Deal legislation starting in 1937. As Simon points out in his book, however, that came at the same time Hughes publicly fought back against Roosevelt's court-packing plan.

      In other words, it was far from a capitulation on the Court's part. What happened, as I will explain, is more complex and interesting than the traditional storyline.

      "We are the leaders we've been waiting for." - Paul Wellstone

      by MrLiberal on Tue Jun 26, 2012 at 09:20:12 AM PDT

      [ Parent ]

      •  I'm looking forward to that discussion: (3+ / 0-)
        Recommended by:
        arealniceguy, bfbenn, blueoasis

        One of the books on FDR I have seemed to indicate that the Supreme Court was concerned that if FDR was given additional fodder to rile up the American People...

        That the American People would back him to such an extent that FDR would become unstoppable...

        And hence.. after initially attacking FDR's New Deal legislation, the court began to be more... amicable.

        As the court backed down, it robbed FDR of the issue..his enemies used the court's newly discovered sympathies to FDR's programs to discredit FDR's stated attempt to "pack the court" as a "power grab"... and FDR begin to lose support among the people for packing the court...

        Be that as it may,

        FDR was elected to four terms.

        We need a modern day FDR, however, the 1% has been so successful at the use of social issues and confusing propaganda that - even if an FDR did step forward - he would stand no change of being elected.

        The 1% Feast on Results while the 99% Starve on Rhetoric They Can Believe In.

        by Johnathan Ivan on Tue Jun 26, 2012 at 11:17:01 AM PDT

        [ Parent ]

  •  Thanks to everyone who recommended this! (3+ / 0-)
    Recommended by:
    Lily O Lady, arealniceguy, blueoasis

    I hope you will enjoy Part 2 as much as Part 1, if not more!

    "We are the leaders we've been waiting for." - Paul Wellstone

    by MrLiberal on Tue Jun 26, 2012 at 09:21:00 AM PDT

  •  Well Written and Informative. Thanks. n/t (3+ / 0-)
    Recommended by:
    Lily O Lady, arealniceguy, blueoasis

    "Facts are meaningless. You could use facts to prove anything even remotely true." -- H. Simpson

    by midnight lurker on Tue Jun 26, 2012 at 09:49:45 AM PDT

  •  Well done, and the meanings of words change (0+ / 0-)

    Yes, Hughes was absolutely a Progressive during the Progressive Era.  The threshold was much lower then, as all you really had to do was oppose the corporations and unbridled laissez-faire capitalism, and you could be as racist as you wanted.

    Now, we're really "liberals" and "left liberals" but we say we're "progressives" because "liberal" hasn't recovered from the rhetorical excesses of the Cold War.

    -7.75, -8.10; All it takes is security in your own civil rights to make you complacent.

    by Dave in Northridge on Tue Jun 26, 2012 at 10:25:00 AM PDT

    •  WRFG, Atlanta... (0+ / 0-)

      "Your community-supported station for progressive information", runs their tagline.  

      When I hear the word "progressive" these days, I actually think of something more left than "liberal".  "Liberal" is a bit more Green, "progressive" more Red.

      The '60s were simply an attempt to get the 21st Century started early....Well, what are we waiting for? There's no deadline on a dream!

      by Panurge on Tue Jun 26, 2012 at 10:24:20 PM PDT

      [ Parent ]

      •  My distinction between progressive and liberal (0+ / 0-)

        has to do with neoliberal economics and regulation in the people's interests.

        Modern day liberals seem to be quite happy with a market dominated sociopolitical system.

        I'm sure thousands of definitions could be added here. But I did not start calling myself a Progressive back in the 90s because of the tainted liberal crap. I did it because I believed that massive business interests should be checked, that markets should be properly regulated and that the economy should serve people instead of people serving the economy  - a formerly liberal stance that Clinton totally erased.

        Democracy - 1 person 1 vote. Free Markets - More dollars more power.

        by k9disc on Wed Jun 27, 2012 at 11:10:55 AM PDT

        [ Parent ]

  •  You might follow up with Felix Frankfurter (0+ / 0-)

    whom Roosevelt expected to support progressive causes on the Court.

    And then Earl Warren and William Brennan, who were supposed to be conservatives.....

    You never know what a Supreme Court Justice will do.

  •  Just this first part has knocked my socks off! (1+ / 0-)
    Recommended by:

    Thank you so much for the write up and I look forward to the next part.

    As of 02/22/2012 in Washington State pharmacists can exercise their "religious freedom" by denying women access to Plan B because the judge thinks there aren't any bigots in this state.

    by FlamingoGrrl on Tue Jun 26, 2012 at 12:44:36 PM PDT

  •  Four Horseman (0+ / 0-)

    Certainly this was a phrase used by journalists, but I'm less certain that this was either what "the public" called them or that the reference is as much directly to the Biblical 4 Horseman of the Apocalypse as to the more contemporary 4 Horseman of Notre Dame's 1924 football team.

  •  Nice piece. (0+ / 0-)

    "He Kept Us Out of War." And then a year later,"Kill the Kaiser!" Stunning propaganda.

    I betcha that if Hughes would have won that the FED would not have been enacted at that time. What a different planet we'd be on if Hughes only took that meeting in California...

    Democracy - 1 person 1 vote. Free Markets - More dollars more power.

    by k9disc on Wed Jun 27, 2012 at 11:14:11 AM PDT

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