Charles Evans Hughes achieved just about every high office that could come to one man save one: the presidency, and he came mighty close to achieving that as well. Judge Learned Hand once paid tribute to both Hughes and his son, Charles Evan Hughes, Jr., saying, the elder Hughes was the greatest lawyer he had ever known with the exception of the junior Hughes. Governor of New York, jurist, and Secretary of State for two presidents, Charles Evans Hughes was a remarkable man. His personal appearance with his majestic white beard gave him the look of Jove, according to one observer.
Born on April 11, 1862, the Civil War was not even a year old. Hughes was the son of Reverend David and Mary Connelly Hughes. Daniel Hughes was a Baptist minister, but was able to send his son to a private school. Charles Evans Hughes attended what eventually became Colgate University, before transferring to Brown University. Hughes graduated at the age of nineteen, in the top five of his class. Hughes went on to Columbia Law School where he came out with his law degree and highest honors. To help support himself, Charles Evans Hughes taught school.
When he began to practice law, he met Antoinette Carter, who was the daughter of one of the more senior partners in the law firm Hughes worked for; the two were soon married. In 1891, Hughes briefly left the practice of law, having accepted a professorship at Cornell Law School. Two years later, Charles Evans Hughes returned to his firm of Carter, Hughes and Cravath. Hughes did not completely abandon his teaching, as he became a special lecturer at both Cornell and the New York University Law School.
Hughes’ first foray into politics came when he was appointed special counsel to investigate utility rates. Hughes quickly discovered corruption, which led to the lowering of gas rates for New Yorkers. The prominence of Charles Evans Hughes caused Republicans to nominate him for governor in 1906, facing William Randolph Hearst, a shrewd manipulator of public opinion and press lord. Hughes defeated Hearst and served two terms as governor, which were significant for his social reforms. When William Howard Taft was nominated for president in 1908, he offered the vice presidential nomination to Charles Evans Hughes, who demurred, as he intended to seek reelection as governor of New York.
Theodore Roosevelt, who did not especially like Hughes, admitted he could have given the nomination to his fellow New Yorker.
“I could not have nominated an extreme progressive or an extreme conservative but I could by a turn of the hand have thrown the nomination to either Taft or Hughes,” Roosevelt immodestly said. “I chose Taft rather than Hughes.”
Governor Hughes proved to be an exceptionally able executive and set about to force a law through the legislature, which completely changed campaign finance in New York. Previously, corporations could make unlimited contributions and candidates did not have to report or account for campaign expenditures. The reform supported by Governor Hughes forced candidates to report and account for campaign funds and limited the amount that could be contributed by corporations. Governor Hughes also sought greater control over local officials throughout the state, as well as those who ran many of the state bureaucracies, which allowed him to root out those who were corrupt.
The governor also sought to redefine the workweek for child employees and was successful in introducing a forty-eight hour workweek for those under the age of sixteen. The administration of Charles Evans Hughes was so progressive that one writer complained, “One can distinctly see the coming of a New Statism” and declared “Governor Hughes has been a leading prophet” of the effort to give the state more control over the lives and businesses of the inhabitants of New York.
Hughes reached the pinnacle of the legal profession when he was appointed to the United States Supreme Court on April 25, 1910 to succeed Justice David J. Brewer. Hughes’ nomination was approved by the United States Senate on May 2, 1910.
Charles Evans Hughes resigned from the high court on June 10, 1916 to accept the Republican nomination to run for president of the United States. Hughes faced incumbent Woodrow Wilson who campaigned on the slogan “He Kept Us Out of War.” Former president Theodore Roosevelt had regretted his decision not to be a candidate again in 1908 and had hand picked William Howard Taft as his successor. TR led a third party effort when denied the GOP nomination in 1912 and had once again hoped the Republicans would turn to him in 1916. Instead, they nominated Charles Evans Hughes. Theodore Roosevelt campaigned hard for Hughes, as he hated Wilson, yet the former president grumbled the candidate was not aggressive enough in pushing America into the European World War. Roosevelt derisively privately referred to Hughes as “the bearded lady”. The presidential contest between President Wilson and Hughes was one of the closest in American history. The election came down to California and perhaps an oversight on the part of Charles Evans Hughes. While visiting California, Hughes was staying in the same hotel as Governor Hiram Johnson, the most popular politician in the Golden State. Johnson was running for the United States Senate and had been Theodore Roosevelt’s running mate in 1912 on the Progressive Party label. Evans may not have even known that Johnson was at the hotel, but he never stopped by to visit, a slight, which likely caused him to lose the presidency. Hughes lost California by less than 4,000 votes out of more than 900,000 ballots cast.
There is an old story, perhaps apocryphal, that a reporter called the Hughes residence the morning following the election and was promptly told, “the President is sleeping.” The reporter is supposed to have snapped, “Well, when he wakes up, tell him he’s no longer president.”
Hughes settled into a highly lucrative law practice, but reentered government following the election of 1920 when Warren G. Harding was elected president. Harding selected Hughes to serve as Secretary of State. Hughes remained in office well into the administration of Calvin Coolidge, who succeeded to the presidency following Harding’s death in 1923.
Once again, Hughes returned to his law practice and had the pleasure of working with his son and namesake. Charles Evans Hughes, Jr. would eventually serve as Solicitor General of the United States.
The senior Hughes would appear before the Supreme Court of the United States more than fifty times as an advocate. When it appeared that Secretary of Commerce Herbert Hoover was the leading Republican presidential prospect in 1928, Hughes was sought after by many powerful businessmen to run again for the GOP nomination. Hughes, then sixty-four, replied he was too old to seek public office. Yet it was President Herbert Hoover who returned Charles Evans Hughes to public office.
When William Howard Taft resigned as Chief Justice of the U. S. Supreme Court, Hoover nominated Hughes to serve in his place. There was considerable opposition to Hughes’ appointment, even inside his own party. Senator William E. Borah of Idaho, a progressive Republican, castigated the Hughes nomination. Borah believed Hughes was too conservative, as well as too close to the industrial and business interests of the country.
In the end, the opposition from progressive Republicans and Democrats did not defeat Hughes’ nomination; he was confirmed 52 – 26 by the Senate. Progressives may have been surprised when Chief Justice Hughes voted in support of legislation before the Court upholding civil liberties and civil rights. Progressives had good reason to be disappointed when Chief Justice Hughes resisted much of the New Deal legislation sponsored during the administration of Franklin D. Roosevelt. Hughes became something of a centrist, floating between more conservative and liberal justices. Yet it was the conservatives who were appalled when the Chief Justice joined the most liberal members of the Court – – – Louis Brandeis, Benjamin Cardozo and Harlan Fiske Stone – – – in finding several New Deal bills constitutional.
Public opinion of the Supreme Court began to shift in the country and Chief Justice Hughes sensed much of the hostility that helped goad President Franklin Roosevelt to commit perhaps his greatest political mistake. FDR, angry the Court had struck down several prime pieces of New Deal legislation, stunned much of his own party and most of Congress with his announcement he would seek legislation to allow him to expand the membership of the Supreme Court. In fact, Roosevelt proposed to add six more justices to the nine-member court. FDR’s proposal sparked a bitter debate in Congress, especially the Senate. The Republicans wisely allowed the Democrats to fight amongst themselves and the senators in opposition were led by Montana senator Burton K. Wheeler, who had been a strong progressive for most of his career. Republican opposition would have made little difference as there were only sixteen GOP senators in the ninety-six member Senate following the 1936 elections. Republican senators allowing the Democrats to take the stage kept the issue from becoming partisan, giving FDR one less tool to work with.
Yet it was Charles Evans Hughes who proved to be Roosevelt’s most wily and effective adversary. Chief Justice Hughes hurried the court along to uphold the constitutionality of the Social Security Act. Hughes quickly ushered the court in upholding the constitutionality of the Wagner Act as well. President Roosevelt was attacking the court for being behind on its work, as well as the advanced age of some of the justices. The Chief Justice released a letter to Senator Wheeler, which decimated much of FDR’s argument. Hughes’ letter was very effective in blunting Roosevelt’s drive to enlarge the Supreme Court.
The Senate rejected the court packing bill and overwork led to the death of Majority Leader Joe Robinson of Arkansas. The defeat was astonishing, especially after FDR’s landslide reelection in 1936 where he carried every state in the nation, save for Vermont and Maine. Roosevelt’s anger continued to smolder and he sought revenge against those Democrats in the Senate he considered too conservative. Roosevelt’s anger inspired his attempt to purge a number of high profile and powerful Democrats, including Senator Ellison D. “Cotton Ed” Smith of South Carolina, Walter F. George of Georgia, Pat McCarran of Nevada, Guy Gillette of Iowa, and Millard Tydings of Maryland. In the end, only a lone Democratic congressman from FDR’s home state of New York lost. It was a humiliating defeat.
The Chief Justice had played a vital role in beating back the Roosevelt onslaught against the high court.
Oftentimes viewed as rather too majestic and austere, Charles Evans Hughes apparently enjoyed a happy family life. Once the former Chief Justice was discovered by one of his children, his head covered with a bath towel while playing with one of his grandchildren. “I’m a nun,” he explained with an impish grin.
Far from austere to those who knew him personally, Charles Evans Hughes possessed a truly dazzling smile when he laughed, which was often. Hughes was a genuinely warm man to family and friends. He was courtly and correct with those whom he did not know personally.
Unlike many other members of the court, Hughes began to notice his powers were failing and he resigned in 1941. After his retirement, Hughes never sought out public attention and cared little or nothing for any further recognition. Charles Evans Hughes never again visited the Supreme Court Building after he had voluntarily retired from the court. Hughes made only one public appearance, when his successor as chief justice, Harlan Fiske Stone, died in 1946 and the former chief attended Stone’s funeral.
The former Chief Justice and Mrs. Hughes traveled, enjoyed their family until Antoinette died in 1945. It was a loss Hughes felt keenly and he began spending summers at the exclusive Wianno Club, located on Massachusetts’ Cape Cod. The summers at the Wianno Club helped the aging Hughes avoid the fetidly hot and humid summers of Washington, D.C. for a more congenial climate.
Charles Evans Hughes traveled to Cape Cod as usual in the summer of 1948, but the eighty-six year old former Chief Justice was ailing. He suffered from a serious heart condition and had been unwell when he arrived in Cape Cod. Hughes seemed to enjoy the change of scenery and began to rally but suffered a heart attack, necessitating calls to his family. Charles Evans Hughes, Jr. and two of his daughters were by his bedside when the former Chief Justice quietly slipped away during the evening of August 27, 1948.
Charles Evans Hughes was truly a great and accomplished man.