Charles Evans Hughes

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Charles Evans Hughes (1862-1948) was Governor of New York (1907-1910), Associate Justice of the Supreme Court (1910-1916), Republican Presidential candidate (1916), Secretary of State (1921-25), and Chief Justice of the U.S. Supreme Court during the 1930s. He became a leader of the Progressive movement by calls for reform and by modernizing state government by enhancing the powers of the governor and the experts in its administrative bureaucracy.

Early career

Hughes was born at Glens Falls, New York on April 11, 1862. The son of a poor itinerant Baptist minister he was intensely religious all his life. He attended a local Baptist college for two years, then switched to the Ivy League at Brown University, where his strong social skills created friendships with sons of the rich. Asked later what he learned, he noted, "first, that there was so much that we did not learn, and, second, that we learned so many things that were not so." He did develop a moral framework grounded in reason, obligation, and faith in the friendly auspices of Divine Providence.

Hughes taught Latin and Greek while studying law and received his LL.B. degree in 1884 from Columbia University Law School. He was admitted to the bar and joined the eminent law firm of Carter, Hughes, and Cravath in 1887 where he proved highly successful at commercial law. In 1888, he married his partner's daughter, Antoinette Carter. The marriage was happy and durable; four children were born over the next 19 years: Charles, Jr., Helen, Catherine, and Elizabeth.

Offered a partnership in 1891, he felt too exhausted to continue; instead he became professor of law at Cornell University in remote Ithaca, New York. In 1893 he returned to the city as a partner with his old firm until 1905, when he was appointed counsel for the Stevens Gas Commission, a committee appointed by the New York state legislature to investigate the Consolidated Gas Company and the price of gas in New York City. Hughes made headlines by exposing gross overcapitalization in the gas trust, swollen rates charged to the city for gas and electricity, and poisonous adulteration of the gas. He proposed strong remedies that emphasized state regulation of the monopolistic utilities (rather than breaking them up into competitiors); his proposals were promptly adopted by the state legislature.

As counsel for the Armstrong Committee of the state legislature, in fifty-seven public hearings, Hughes grilled a long line of political and financial titans about the web of manipulation and profiteering that governed the insurance field. The findings were sensational and chastening. Once more a cool, implacable investigation triggered corrective legislation. Both the gas and insurance investigations were structured to show the need to impose public standards of order on these fast-growing, oligopolistic sectors of American business. Progressive reform had a new hero.


In 1906 Hughes was elected governor of New York as a Republican champion of progressive causes. He was the only Republican to be elected, defeating the Democratic candidate, newspaper magnate and populist William Randolph Hearst by 57,900 votes out of a total of 1,500,000 cast. Hughes was reelected in 1908. In 1910 President William Howard Taft appointed Hughes an associate justice of the United States Supreme Court; as a justice he avoided the intense political battles between Taft and Theodore Roosevelt for control of the GOP. That made him acceptable to both sides in 1916, so he resigned from the court and accepted the GOP nomination. His colleague Justice Oliver Wendell Holmes commented, "I shall miss him consumedly, for he is not only a good fellow, experienced and wise, but funny, and with doubts that open vistas through the wall of a non-conformist conscience."

Hughes was narrowly defeated by Woodrow Wilson, and returned to his law practice.

In 1907 the newly organized Northern Baptist Convention[1] elected Hughes, a prominent Baptist layman, as its first president.


In March 1921 Republican President Warren G. Harding appointed Hughes secretary of state, and he remained in office under President Calvin Coolidge until March 1925.

add: Washington conference

From 1926 until 1930 Hughes was a member of the Permanent Court of Arbitration at The Hague, and from 1928 to 1930 he was a judge on the Permanent Court of International Justice.

Chief Justice

With the retirement of Chief Justice Taft in 1930, Hughes was appointed Chief Justice by President Herbert Hoover in 1930; he retired in 1941.

Hughes's jurisprudence during both court tenures reveals that the resolution of the constitutional crisis of 1937 represented an important break not only from laissez-faire constitutionalism but also from Progressive-era liberalism. There was a parallel but more rapid ideological transition in Britain, where pre-World War I New Liberalism was eclipsed by rise of the Labour Party and its program of national economic planning and social welfare. The author also offers a perspective on the recent rich constitutional scholarship on the 1930's and on Hughes's career. Raised as a good-government mugwump, the advocate in his mature years of a "regulatory" American version of British New Liberalism, Hughes ended his public life reluctantly supporting the "statist, social welfare" liberalism of the New Deal, a system that for many leading Progressives represented the antithesis of the liberal ideal.[2]

In reaction to President Franklin D. Roosevelt's proposed court-packing attempt in 1937, Hughes wrote a letter to Montana senator Burton K. Wheeler, a Democrat on the Senate Judiciary Committee, in opposition to the plan. Hughes based his opposition on the simple premise that there would be more judges to hear, confer, discuss, and decide, thus making sound decisions by the court extremely difficult. Although dramatic and forceful, the letter had little impact on the final decision to abandon the packing plan. It failed because Democrats feared Roosevelt was seizing too much power.

While Hughes supported many of the social advances suggested by President Franklin D. Roosevelt, he was strongly opposed to the creation of government agencies which appeared to be usurping the functions of the courts. He was one of the greatest jurists of his time, and his written decisions in many cases have become legal classics.

See also

  1. Now called the American Baptist Churches, USA; it is a mainstream Protestant denomination with no connection to the much larger Southern Baptist church.
  2. Henretta (2006)