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date: 12 November 2019

Hughes, Charles Evansfree

(11 April 1862–27 August 1948)
  • Betty Glad

Charles Evans Hughes

Photograph by Arnold Genthe, 1916.

Courtesy of the Library of Congress (LC-G432-1526).

Hughes, Charles Evans (11 April 1862–27 August 1948), governor of New York, secretary of state, and chief justice of the U.S. Supreme Court, was born in Glens Falls, New York, the only son of Mary Catherine Connelly and David Charles Hughes, a Baptist (formerly Methodist) preacher who had immigrated to the United States from England in 1855. Tutored primarily at home until the age of fourteen, Charles Evans Hughes attended Madison University, later renamed Colgate (1876–1878), and received a B.A. from Brown University, which he attended from 1878 to 1881. In 1884 he received an LL.B. with honors from Columbia University Law School, passed the New York County bar exam, and joined the prestigious law firm of Chamberlain, Carter & Hornblower in New York City. He taught law on a visiting basis at Cornell University Law School (1891–1893) and remained in private practice until 1905. He married Antoinette Carter in 1888; they had one son and three daughters.

Hughes first won public recognition as special counsel for committees of the New York State legislature that were investigating irregularities in the gas, electric, and life insurance industries of New York (1905–1906). As the Republican candidate for governor of New York in 1906, he narrowly beat the Democratic candidate, William Randolph Hearst. During his two terms as governor (1907–1908, 1909–1910), Hughes embraced reform measures, including a bill providing for worker safety and another outlawing racetrack gambling. He vetoed a law giving women equal pay in New York City, however, on the grounds that the matter should be handled locally.

An unconventional politician, Hughes never actively sought office for himself. His nominations for governor of New York in both 1906 and 1908 were pushed upon reluctant Republican conventions by President Theodore Roosevelt. As governor, Hughes refused to advise party leaders of the New York State legislature on the selection of committee chairs, and he ignored the recommendations of Republican party organizations on appointments. When the Brotherhood of Locomotive Firemen and Engineers asked him to appoint a labor representative to one of the public service commissions, he rejected their suggestion on the grounds that appointments should be made on the basis of merit. He vetoed a bill, backed by Italian Americans in New York, making Columbus Day a legal holiday because he considered it poorly drafted. He believed political decisions should be based on reason, not extraneous considerations such as group pride or political rewards and punishments. His preferred political technique was to build popular pressures for the measures he backed.

Hughes’s distrust of the politician’s craft sometimes hurt him. In his 1908 reelection campaign he carried the state by only 69,462 votes as contrasted to the presidential vote in the state for William Howard Taft of 201,855. In 1910 he was saved from the probable defeat of his direct primary bill in the New York State legislature by his appointment as associate justice to the U.S. Supreme Court. In the next six years he distinguished himself as a moderate jurist—arguing for the expansion of national and state power to regulate commerce and relatively broad interpretations of First Amendment and equal protection clauses of the Constitution. In the Minnesota Rate Cases (1913), for example, he argued that states could regulate intrastate commerce in instances where it did not conflict with the federal authority; in the Shreveport Rate Case (1914) he argued that the nation could regulate intrastate commerce whenever that commerce was in fact commingled with interstate commerce.

In 1916 Hughes was an obvious choice for the Republican presidential nomination. As a member of the U.S. Supreme Court, Hughes had not had to take a stand in 1912 at the time of the Bull Moose Revolt from the Republican Convention. This, plus his moderately progressive record as governor of New York, led former president Taft and Republican National Committee chairman Frank Hitchcock to back him as the obvious candidate to heal the rift in the party. Nominated once again without any effort on his part, Hughes resigned from the Supreme Court only after the nomination had been secured. After Theodore Roosevelt turned down a nomination from the Progressive party, its executive committee endorsed Hughes.

Hughes’s campaign was designed to keep both progressive and conservative Republicans in his camp. At first he emphasized his support for rural credits, efficient administration of government, the merit system in the civil service, and the protection of the just interests of labor. Later he backed a national suffrage amendment to give women the right to vote, and he hammered away at Woodrow Wilson’s support for the Adamson Act, which had established an eight-hour day for railroad workers. His appeal to “Americanism” and an emphasis on American neutral rights was an attempt to keep both Republican nationalists (led by Theodore Roosevelt) and Americans of German and Irish extraction in his camp.

Hughes lost the election by 254 electoral votes to Woodrow Wilson’s 277—a thirteen-vote margin. The final popular tally showed Hughes with 8,538,221 votes to Wilson’s 9,129,606. This outcome was, in part, the result of Wilson’s peace campaign and the president’s ability to secure the passage, in the summer of 1916, of several progressive measures that had been in the Republican and Progressive party platforms. Hughes’s inability to find a stirring campaign theme and his distrust of organizational politics also contributed to his defeat. Bypassing political professionals, he appointed an old Union League Club friend as campaign chair. Mistakes included Hughes’s trips into Ohio and California during bitter factional fights. The latter trip was managed by Republican regulars, and plans to meet the Progressive governor and candidate for the U.S. Senate, Hiram Johnson, were never worked out. Hughes decided to address a luncheon at the Commercial Club in San Francisco, despite a waiters’ strike in the area. He was served his food by strike breakers in a room displaying anti-union signs.

If Hughes had won either Ohio or California, he would have been president. California was a particularly close race: Hughes lost by 3,775 votes. It cost him 13 electoral votes, the margin of his electoral college defeat. Hiram Johnson, running for the Senate on the same ticket as Hughes, won by 300,000 votes. The Progressive Republicans had won the Senate nomination and control of the party in the state, and Hughes paid the price for his apparent neglect of them. Hiram Johnson formally endorsed Hughes, but the Progressives as a whole did not engage in a major effort to get out the vote for Hughes.

Returning to the private practice of law in New York, Hughes’s major political activities from 1917 to 1920 were confined to his support for U.S. adherence to a modified League of Nations and a protest of the expulsion of five Socialists from the New York State legislature. As secretary of state under Warren Harding and Calvin Coolidge from 1921 to 1925, Hughes took the initiative in adapting American policies to the postwar world. Usually he formulated his policy choices and then presented them to the president for approval. Philosophically he was guided by a view of the world that suggested reason governs human affairs and is progressively embodied in customs and laws. Traditional notions of American national interest—isolationism, the Monroe Doctrine, the Open Door, and the territorial integrity of China—provided guidance for his policies toward various regions of the world. But where there were no clear precedents, he could strike out on his own. Tactically, he showed considerable finesse in his dealings with a Senate suspicious of the new League of Nations and hesitant to embrace even diplomatic negotiations with former allies. Avoiding some of the mistakes he had made as governor, Hughes wooed senators who might come over to his side. Sometimes he cut around the Congress, and on rare occasions, when he had public opinion strongly behind him, he would confront that body.

In his policies toward Europe, Hughes followed an approach of enlightened isolationism. Rejecting any permanent alliances with European powers, he nevertheless used diplomatic means to resolve problems resulting from World War I. The Treaty of Berlin (1921) was negotiated to bring a formal end to the war between the United States and Germany. A German-American Claims Commission was established to settle American claims against Germany arising out of the war. The Dawes Plan, which Hughes played a central role in bringing to fruition, provided a means for the Allies to repay their war debts. Germany was given a large private loan, the Reichsbank was organized under Allied supervision, and a schedule for German reparations payments was drawn up.

Hughes had greater difficulty in coming to terms with the existence of the Soviet Union. Insisting that the United States would not recognize the Soviet government until such time as it unambiguously recognized the rights of private property, free labor, and the sanctity of contract, his policies set an unfortunate precedent. In extending nonrecognition policies to a major power it found noxious, the United States impeded its abilities to deal directly with influential actors on the world scene.

Hughes’s major accomplishments were in the field of arms control and Far Eastern policies. His dramatic speech at the opening session of the Washington Conference on the Limitation of Arms signaled U.S. commitment to bringing about an end to the world naval race then under way. As chief negotiator for the United States, he brought to fruition the Five-Power Naval Treaty (United States, Great Britain, Japan, France, Italy), which provided for the limitation of capital ship strength of the major naval powers at a ratio freezing the status quo. In Article Nineteen of that treaty, the powers also agreed that they would not fortify any of their possessions in the Pacific. In the Four-Power Treaty, the United States, Great Britain, Japan, and France recognized one another’s rights to their insular possessions and dominions in the Pacific and agreed to consult should any threat to that status quo arise. In the Nine-Power Treaty, Hughes also obtained, for the first time in treaty form, an international commitment to traditional American policies for the Far East. In their relations with China, the signatories agreed to respect the principles of the Open Door and territorial integrity of China.

Critics have noted that the Washington Conference treaties did not suffice to contain Japanese imperialist expansionism in the 1930s. Yet it can be argued that Hughes accomplished as much as was possible, given the political circumstances in which he was operating. Japan legally could build its auxiliary craft because there had been no agreement to limit such arms. But Hughes’s attempts to limit such craft at the Washington Conference had foundered on France’s insistence on a submarine capability that the other nations would not accept. Article Nineteen of the Naval Agreement set a legal framework in which Japan could assert its naval superiority in the Pacific West of Hawaii, but Congress in the 1920s was not willing to increase U.S. fortification of Guam and the Philippines. Contrary to Hughes’s advice, the United States did not even maintain its naval strength at the level permitted by the Washington treaty. The Four-Power Treaty was merely an agreement to consult, not a guarantee of the status quo in the Pacific. But it did enable Great Britain to back out of its alliance with Japan gracefully. Moreover, given the attitudes of the U.S. Senate and the prevailing political climate in the country, no stronger guarantee could have been given. As it was, various senators raised objections to the Four-Power Treaty as a form of alliance, and it passed the Senate only after a specific reservation had been inserted that the treaty involved “no commitment to armed force … no obligation to join in any defense.”

In his dealings with Latin America, Hughes resisted any attempts to multilateralize interpretations of the Monroe Doctrine. The doctrine of the two spheres, moreover, was evident in his earlier insistence on a special reservation protecting the American system from peaceful settlement efforts in the League of Nations. Although U.S. interventions in the Caribbean were justified on the grounds of national security and a broader moral responsibility, and U.S. troops remained in Haiti, withdrawals from Nicaragua and Santo Domingo were negotiated during Hughes’s terms of office; and though Hughes insisted on the protection of American property rights as a condition for any U.S. recognition of the Obrégon government in Mexico, he never considered any form of military involvement in that country.

For Hughes, American leadership in the Western Hemisphere brought responsibilities as well as rights. As an alternative to League of Nations action, he offered the services of the United States as a peacemaker. Hughes helped settle disputes between Panama and Costa Rica (1921); Honduras, Nicaragua, and El Salvador (1922); Brazil, Colombia, and Peru (1925); and Peru and Chile (1922–1925). He also sought to breathe life into the principle of hemispheric unity associated with Pan-Americanism. His efforts contributed to the passage in 1921 of the treaty negotiated by Wilson to pay Colombia $25 million for the Panama Canal Zone. In a treaty with Cuba (1924), all U.S. claims to the Isle of Pines were renounced.

Hughes’s orientation toward the new world order was a reflection of his views about the nature of the historical process and the political climate in which he operated. His failure to seek U.S. entry into the League of Nations was the result of the domestic political climate of the time and his own intellectual reservations about Article 10 of the League of Nations Covenant. He saw the guarantee to the territorial status quo in that article as creating a legal commitment that was too far removed from the actual practice of states. Gradually, Hughes and the State Department finally came to recognize the League as a corporate entity, and unofficial observers were sent to League meetings in which the United States had an interest.

Hughes’s support for U.S. adherence to the World Court Protocol was based on his assumption that the Court, unlike the League, would not require radical changes in national behavior. William E. Borah and several other senators, however, attached a reservation to the document that would have given the United States a veto over Court advisory opinions. The condition killed the project. When President Coolidge made an absolute commitment to that condition, it ended all possibility of U.S. adherence to the World Court.

After his return to private life in 1925, Hughes continued to promote what he called the “institutions of peace.” He headed the U.S. delegation to the Sixth Pan-American Conference at Havana in 1928 and in a follow-up conference at Washington negotiated a treaty in which several Latin American nations agreed to compulsory arbitration of all differences that were not resolved by diplomacy and were judicial in their nature. For political questions, another treaty provided for conciliation arrangements.

In 1930 President Herbert Hoover nominated Hughes to serve as chief justice of the U.S. Supreme Court. Several Progressives opposed his nomination on the grounds that his legal representation of corporate interests ill suited him to the times. His appointment was approved by a Senate vote of 52 to 26.

For the next ten years Hughes led the Court into an increasingly active use of the Bill of Rights to protect personal liberties. Earlier, as an associate justice of the Supreme Court, he had joined Oliver Wendell Holmes (1841–1935) in dissents in several civil liberties cases. In the 1930s the Court adopted the “selective incorporation” theory in which the states, under the due process clause of the Fourteenth Amendment, were bound to recognize certain basic rights guaranteed in the Bill of Rights. These included freedom of press (Near v. Minnesota ex rel. Olsen, 1931), religion (Hamilton v. Regents of University of California, 1934), and assembly (De Jonge v. Oregon, 1936). In the Scottsboro cases, Hughes argued that defendants in capital cases have the right to counsel (Powell v. Alabama, 1932) and the right to a trial from which black people have not been systematically excluded (Norris v. Alabama, 1935).

As chief justice, Hughes also played a key role, albeit after some hesitation, in adapting constitutional doctrine to political demands for greater governmental intervention in the economy. At first the Court invalidated several of the more hastily drawn New Deal measures. A section of the National Industrial Recovery Act was knocked down by an 8 to 1 vote on the grounds that it constituted an unconstitutional delegation of power to the president (Panama Refining Co. v. Ryan, 1935). In May 1935 Hughes led a unanimous court in striking down three New Deal measures: the National Industrial Recovery Act (Schechter Poultry Corp. v. United States), the Frazier-Lemke Act providing for relief of farm debtors (Louisville Joint Stock Land Bank v. Radford), and the Federal Home Owner’s Loan Act of 1933 (Hopkins Federal Savings & Loan Assn. v. Cleary). In his opinion in the Schechter Poultry case, Hughes argued that the NIRA was based on an unconstitutional delegation of power to the chief executive. The federal government, moreover, could not regulate local transactions, except insofar as those activities had a direct (as contrasted to an indirect) effect on interstate commerce. In another case, Humphrey’s Executor v. the United States (1935), the Court ruled that the president could not remove a member of a regulatory commission unless Congress gave him authority to do so.

These decisions were followed by several more controversial opinions and split votes. Hughes and Owen J. Roberts, at the center of the Court, were able to assemble majorities by shifting either to join four members on the right (Willis Van Devanter, James C. McReynolds, George Sutherland, Pierce Butler) or the three on the Left (Benjamin Cardozo, Harlan Stone, and Louis Brandeis). In 1936 Hughes and Roberts joined the conservatives in declaring the Agricultural Adjustment Act (1933) unconstitutional (United States v. Butler) on the grounds that the provision for governmental control of acreage was an improper extension of governmental power under the general welfare clause of the Constitution. This same coalition rejected the Guffey Bituminous Coal Conservation Act of 1935 on constitutional grounds (Carter v. Carter Coal Co., 1936). In a separate opinion, Hughes noted that the provisions regarding labor were invalid because of the broad delegation of legislative power, though he differed with others in finding the price-fixing section of the act inoffensive.

Hughes also played a role in the defeat of Franklin Roosevelt’s Court Reorganization Plan of 1937. The president’s proposal would have permitted the appointment of a possible six new justices (for every one over seventy who refused to retire). Though the effort was clearly a measure to save the New Deal by changing the makeup of the Court, the president’s public rationale was that the change was needed to help the Court meet its workload. In a letter to the Senate Judiciary Committee, Hughes countered that rationale, indicating that the Court was not behind in its work. It was a devastating blow to the Roosevelt proposal. Robert H. Jackson, one of the president’s aides in the Court fight, later noted that Hughes’s letter “did more than any one thing to turn the tide in the Court struggle.”

Earlier, Hughes had warned in his writings that a Court out of tune with broad trends in public opinion could inflict injuries on itself. Certainly, the Court’s tendency to set up an arena in which neither the national government nor the states could act was of concern to him. As an associate justice he had supported an Oregon minimum wage law. As chief justice he dissented when the Court struck down New York’s minimum wage law for women. Freedom of contract, he argued, could not override all attempts at state regulation, especially when one side had no real bargaining power (Morehead v. New York ex rel. Tipaldo, 1936). Moreover, he understood that even national authority must evolve in response to deeper changes in public opinion. In 1935 he upheld the government’s right to forbid payment of public and private debts in gold (Norman v. Baltimore & Ohio Railroad Co.; Nortz v. United States). He also wrote a strong dissent to the Court’s opinion striking down the Railroad Retirement Act that had provided for a compulsory retirement and pension system for railway employees. (R.R. Retirement Board v. Alton R.R. Co., 1935). The power of the U.S. Congress to regulate interstate commerce, he wrote, “implies a broad discretion.”

In the spring of 1937 Hughes led the Court into the switch that would avoid a constitutional crisis. One week after his letter to the Judiciary Committee was made public, Hughes presided over the Court when it sustained a Washington State minimum wage law (West Coast Hotel Co. v. Parrish). In this case, Roberts made the shift, though Hughes’s arguments in the Tipaldo case may have convinced him to do so. The next week the Court, in a 5 to 4 decision, upheld the establishment of the National Labor Relations Board (NLRB v. Jones and Laughlin Steel Corp). In the next three years Hughes voted with the majority to uphold the constitutionality of other New Deal measures such as the Social Security Act of 1935, the Public Utilities Act of 1935, the Bituminous Coal Act of 1937, the revised Agricultural Adjustment Act, and the Fair Labor Standards Act of 1938.

Scholars have differed as to whether or not Hughes had actually shifted his legal doctrine at this time. Merlo J. Pusey contends that the difference in Hughes’s opinions was a result of the fact that the Court was dealing with different laws. Most had been written so as to avoid some of the constitutional issues apparent in the earliest cases. Alpheus Mason, however, argues that in NLRB v. Jones and Laughlin Steel Corp. Hughes did change the interpretation of the interstate commerce clause he had offered in the Schechter Poultry and Guffey Coal Act cases. From a nearly absolute distinction between direct and indirect effects on interstate commerce, he came to the view that the distinction was a matter of degree. In the Guffey Coal Act case, for example, Hughes had argued that only commerce directly related to interstate commerce could be regulated, and he declared that the Tenth Amendment was a barrier to the exercise of national power. In upholding the establishment of the NLRB, however, he argued that the power of Congress to regulate interstate commerce is not limited to those transactions that can be deemed essential to the flow of interstate or foreign commerce. National corporations organized on a national scale cannot turn their labor relations into a forbidden area in which Congress may not enter.

Hughes’s shift can best be understood in terms of his broader philosophic orientation. Law, as he saw it, must evolve if it is to meet changing conditions in society. If the Court sets itself up as a barrier to broad and deep trends in public opinion, it undermines its credibility as an institution of government. Yet changes in Court doctrine should occur through the reinterpretation of precedents rather than by overruling them. Otherwise, the Court’s opinions would lack legitimacy. His opinion in the Jones and Laughlin Steel case can best be seen as a reinterpretation of the law along these lines.

Whether adapting to new conditions or preserving its integrity against radical change, Hughes was concerned that the Court act in ways so that it appeared to be above ordinary political passions. As chief justice he tried to secure strong majorities for controversial decisions. The early decision overthrowing such New Deal measures as the National Recovery Act and the first Agricultural Adjustment Act were unanimous or near-unanimous decisions. To increase the credibility of the Court’s decisions, he also assigned opinions to members of the Court who might at first glance seem to be philosophically opposed to the decision at hand. He assigned the opinions in at least three cases striking down New Deal measures to liberal members of the Court.

Hughes resigned from the Supreme Court in July 1941. He died in Cape Cod, Massachusetts.

In some respects Hughes was a puzzling individual. His personality and world view created problems for him as a politician. Extraordinarily disciplined and suspicious of strong emotions, he was inclined to ignore the role of passion and pride in politics. His view that reason had been incorporated in American political institutions made it difficult for him to understand political groups that felt the rules did not really reflect their concerns. Yet his personal qualities contributed to his success as a member of the Supreme Court. His idea that institutions do evolve in accord with rational principles provided an ideal framework for interpreting the law. His intellectual brilliance made his arguments persuasive. His personal integrity contributed to his credibility as a neutral participant in the legal process. Perhaps the lasting testament to his career came from Judge Learned Hand at the time of Hughes’s retirement: “The Court will look back to him as one of its greatest figures.”

Bibliography

Hughes’s papers are at the Library of Congress in Washington, D.C. In 1933–1934 William C. Beerits, under Hughes’s direction, provided a guide to the collection as well as a brief overview of his career. The Oral History Collection at Columbia University includes interviews with individuals affiliated with Hughes in New York politics and the Department of State. For collections of Hughes’s speeches and works by him see Public Papers of Charles E. Hughes, Governor (4 vols., 1908–1910); Addresses and Papers of Charles Evans Hughes, 1906–16, with an introduction by Jacob Gould Schurman (1916); Condition of Progress in Democratic Government (1910); Our Relations to the Nations of the Western Hemisphere (1928); The Permanent Court of International Justice (1930); The Pathway of Peace: Representative Addresses Delivered during His Term as Secretary of State, 1921–25 (1925); Pan American Peace Plans (1929); and The Supreme Court of the United States: Its Foundation, Methods and Achievements; an Interpretation (1928).

A major biography is Merlo J. Pusey, Charles Evans Hughes (1951). Betty Glad, Charles Evans Hughes and the Illusions of Innocence (1966), focuses more on the shaping of Hughes’s character and world view and the impact of these factors on his early political career and his conduct of foreign policy. For specialized works on various phases of his career see Robert F. Wesser, Charles Evans Hughes: Politics and Reform in New York, 1905–06 (1967); William L. Ransom, Charles E. Hughes, The Statesman, as Shown in the Opinions of the Jurist (1916); S. D. Lovell, The Presidential Election of 1916 (1980); Alpheus Thomas Mason, The Supreme Court: From Taft to Burger, 3d ed. (1979); and Samuel Hendel, Charles Evans Hughes and the Supreme Court (1951). An obituary is in the New York Times, 28 Aug. 1948.