Charles Evans Hughes

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Charles Evans Hughes
Charles Evans Hughes 1946.jpg
Former Chief Justice of the U.S. Supreme Court
From: February 13, 1930 – June 30, 1941
Nominator Herbert Hoover
Predecessor William Howard Taft
Successor Harlan Fiske Stone
Former Associate Justice of the U.S. Supreme Court
From: October 10, 1910 – June 10, 1916
Nominator William Howard Taft
Predecessor David Brewer
Successor John H. Clarke
44th United States Secretary of State
From: March 5, 1921 – March 4, 1925
President Warren G. Harding
Calvin Coolidge
Predecessor Bainbridge Colby
Successor Frank B. Kellogg
36th Governor of New York
From: January 1, 1907 – October 6, 1910
Predecessor Frank W. Higgins
Successor Horace White
Party Republican
Spouse(s) Antoinette Carter Hughes
Religion Baptist

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 1930-41. 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. He served as a Republican Governor of New York (1907-1910) after defeating leftist newspaper publisher William Randolph Hearst. Running as a middle-of-the-road Republican, Hughes was narrowly defeated for President by liberal Democrat Woodrow Wilson in 1916.

As Secretary of State he was successful in shaping world diplomacy, especially through the Washington Naval Conference of 1921. Although he supported the League of Nations when it was under debate in 1919, as Secretary of State he generally ignored it.

Hughes was a "moderate" Republican like Republicans from the northeast today, and was not as conservative as President Harding in domestic issues. On the whole he was middle of the road. His nomination for president came because he was neutral between the conservative/Taft and radical/Roosevelt wings of the Republican party. As Chief Justice he was the leader of the conservative bloc that opposed Roosevelt's New Deal, although he did approve some measures. He took the lead in defeating Roosevelt's plan to pack the Supreme Court in 1937, and he designed a classical Supreme Court building that stood in dramatic architectural contrast to the gigantic bureaucratic office buildings the New Dealers were building.

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. Bored by public school at age 6, Hughes requested that his parents homeschool him. His parents homeschooled Hughes from age 6 to about age 12, and when Hughes then enrolled in public school, he progressed so quickly that he graduated from high school at age 13.

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 competitors); 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.

He chaired the Washington conference in 1921 that effectively disarmed the major naval powers of the world, stopped a naval arms race, and pacified the Pacific region. The policies were a success for ten years but were rejected by the major powers in the 1930s in the race to World War II.

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 1930s 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 who led the opposition. 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. Hughes' letter helped convince the legal profession nationwide that Roosevelt's plan was unwise. It failed in the Senate.

While Hughes supported some of the New Deal, he strongly opposed to the creation of government agencies which appeared to be usurping the functions of the courts.

Hughes ranks as one of the greatest conservative jurists of his time, and his written decisions in many cases have become legal classics.


  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)


  • Blodgett, Geoffrey. "Hughes, Charles Evans, (Apr. 11, 1862 - Aug. 27, 1948), Dictionary of American Biography, Supplement 4


  • Freund, Paul A. "Charles Evans Hughes as Chief Justice," Harvard Law Review 81 (1967), 4-43;
  • Glad, Betty. Charles Evans Hughes and the Illusions of Innocence: A Study in American Diplomacy (1966),
  • Goldstein, Erik. The Washington Conference, 1921-22: Naval Rivalry, East Asian Stability and the Road to Pearl Harbor (1994)
  • Henretta, James A. "Charles Evans Hughes and the Strange Death of Liberal America." Law and History Review 2006 24(1): 115-171. Issn: 0738-2480 Fulltext: History Cooperative
  • Leuchtenburg, William E. The Supreme Court Reborn: The Constitutional Revolution in the Age of Roosevelt (1995).
  • Parrish, Michael E. The Hughes Court: Justices, Rulings, and Legacy (2002).
  • Perkins, Dexter. Charles Evans Hughes and American Democratic Statesmanship (1956), short biography
  • Pusey, Merlo J. Charles Evans Hughes (2 vol 1951), the standard scholarly biography
  • Ross, William G. Ross. The Chief Justiceship of Charles Evans Hughes, 1930-1941 (2007) excerpt and text search
  • Wesser, Robert. Charles Evans Hughes: Politics and Reform in New York, 1905–1910 (1967).
  • White, G. Edward. The Constitution and the New Deal (2000), advanced scholarly study

Primary sources

  • Danelski, David J., and Joseph S. Tulchin, eds. The Autobiographical Notes of Charles Evans Hughes (1973)
  • Hughes, Charles Evans. Conditions of Progress in Democratic Government (1909) full text online
  • Hughes, Charles Evans. The Pathway of Peace, and Other Addresses (1925)
  • Hughes, Charles Evans. The Supreme Court of the United States (1927)
  • Hughes, Charles Evans. Pan-American Peace Plans (1929).
  • Hughes, Charles Evans. Addresses and Papers of Charles Evans Hughes, Governor of New York, 1906-1908 (1909) full text online
  • Schurman, Jacob Gould, ed. The Addresses of Charles Evans Hughes, 1906–1916 (1916) full text online

See also

External links