Charles Evans Hughes (1862-1948) was born on April 11, 1862 in Glen Falls, New York. His long life, beginning during the Civil War and ending just after World War II, spanned many well-known historical events, several of which he was a part. He served on the Supreme Court from 1910-1916, resigning to run for president in that year. Hughes was then appointed Chief Justice of the Supreme Court from 1930 to 1941,
Charles Evans Hughes was the son of an English immigrant. His father, David Charles Hughes, arrived in the United States in 1855. His mother, Mary Catherine Connelly Hughes, oversaw much of his early education.
Hughes childhood was a strong indicator of his intellect and drive. He was reading by three and a half and was found to have a photographic memory. The majority of his early education was received at home, and his brilliance helped him graduate from high school at age 13.
Upon entering college, he performed even greater feats of intellectual prowess. He was first in his class in college and graduated Phi Beta Kappa from Brown University. After attending Columbia Law School, he sat for the New York Bar Exam and received the highest grade ever given up to that point, 99.5%.
Hughes joined the law firm of Chamberlain, Carter, and Hornblower after setting the bar. He left the firm for a time due to stress-related illness and served as a visiting law professor at Cornell University for two years.
Mr. Hughes was well known as an anti-corruption attorney, serving the State of New York in fighting abuses in public utilities and failures to self-police in the life insurance industry.
Public Office Holder
While he was a personally reticent man, his brilliance and success brought him into the public eye and he ran for governor of New York in 1906, defeating William Randolph Hearst for the position.
Hughes was a true Governor of the people during his service to the State of New York. In addition to working against financial abuses by public utilities, he promoted labor reform and led the fight for the first worker’s compensation law in the country. Other legislative efforts included improving the regulation and labeling of drugs, improving the conditions of immigrants in the State of New York and fighting the spread of tuberculosis.
Hughes was elected Governor of New York again in 1908 and was appointed to the Supreme Court in 1910.
Hughes’ first service on the Supreme Court appears to have been a placid time; he generally voted with the majority. Notably, during this time, he spoke in support of the 14th amendment. In 1916 he resigned from the court to run for President against Democrat Woodrow Wilson.
Wilson opposed Women’s Suffrage. Frances Kellor, the organizer of the Women’s Campaign, had worked on Teddy Roosevelt’s 1912 campaign and put other women to work on Hughes train campaign. These women, including Elisabeth Freeman and Maud Howe Elliot, daughter of Juliet Ward Howe, visited 28 states and gave nearly 2,000 speeches in support of Hughes during his campaign.
Unfortunately, Hughes was a reserved man who accomplished much by hard work and quiet dedication, not fiery rhetoric or passionate speaking. His reticence didn’t help him; Hughes lost to Wilson in 1916 and returned to private practice.
Secretary of State
President Warren G. Harding was elected in 1920 and appointed Hughes as Secretary of State. During his term, Hughes worked tirelessly to clean up the carnage of the Great War and to prevent further military conflict. His focus on protecting and supporting ordinary citizens all around the world was steadfast.
For example, Hughes
- negotiated a separate treaty with Berlin when the U.S. Senate failed to ratify the Treaty of Versailles
- negotiated a treaty to reduce naval build-up in the years following the Great War
- resisted recognizing the Soviet Union until they had addressed their abuses of property rights
- met twice daily with the Washington Press corps and worked to keep lines of communication open, providing information whenever possible to citizens across the country
Hughes served as Secretary of State under President Harding and President Coolidge. He returned to private practice in 1925.
Hughes was appointed Chief Justice by President Herbert Hoover in February of 1930. His time on the court was challenging; the country was in financial turmoil and there was strong polarization between liberals and conservatives on the court and across the nation.
Hughes took cases as they came, sometimes siding with the liberal justices and sometimes with the conservative. As Chief Justice, Hughes worked for the rights of ordinary citizens, supporting legislation that promoted and protected a minimum wage in Washington State and the State of New York.
The Battle Against Roosevelt
Chief Justice Hughes was sometimes in direct opposition to long-serving President Franklin D. Roosevelt. In fact, in 1937, FDR attempted to “pack” the court. This action was taken after the Supreme Court struck down several of Roosevelt’s programs designed to ease the financial distress of the country.
On February 5, 1937, Roosevelt requested that Congress give him the power to appoint an additional Justice to the Supreme Court for any justice currently serving that was more than 70 years old. This was couched under the premise that federal courts were overworked; more justices would simply make the judicial process quicker and more efficient.
This battle, which Roosevelt lost, held the nation spellbound for nearly half a year. Citing that this attempt was both prejudicial and unnecessary, Hughes noted that the Supreme Court was not behind on its schedule and that the addition of judges to the Supreme Court would simply cost more time in consultation and conferences.
Hughes was the child of an immigrant and a man who supported the well-being and prosperity of his fellow citizens. From his work on the establishment of the National Conference for Community and Justice in 1927, an organization that still stands in opposition to the Ku Klux Klan, to his attempts to negotiate peace following the Great War, this was a man who truly sought to serve.