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Erik Visits an American Grave, Part 156

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This is the grave of Charles Evans Hughes.

Born in 1862 in Glens Falls, New York, Hughes enrolled at what is today Colgate University at the age of 14, transferred to Brown, and graduated at the age of 19. He entered Columbia Law School in 1882 and finished in 1884. He joined a prestigious law firm and became partner in 1888, at the ripe age of 26. He briefly served as a professor at Cornell Law School but other than that remained with the law firm until 1906, when he ran for governor of New York. He rose into public prominence shortly before that, when he served on two high-profile commissions, one investigating utility rates and the other insurance fraud. Through these commissions, Hughes became known as a honest broker ready to attack corruption. So when he ran for governor as a Republican in 1906, he defeated William Randolph Hearst, whose campaign was famously parodied in Citizen Kane.

Hughes was less exciting than Hearst, but was fairly effective as a moderate progressive close to Theodore Roosevelt and William Howard Taft. Taft offered Hughes his VP nomination in 1908, but Hughes chose to remain as governor. He was particularly big on regulatory changes, creating meaningful political primaries, and not allowing politicians to have too much power over railroad rates. He supported very mild legal changes to help workers, but was no Frances Perkins or Eleanor Roosevelt or Robert Wagner.

In 1910, Taft nominated Hughes to the Supreme Court to replace David Brewer. He served for six years and largely ruled in the same way he made policy as governor–moderate but reasonable reforms on the worst forms of corporate misbehavior. He also joined Oliver Wendell Holmes as the only justices voting to reject Leo Frank’s guilty verdict in the horrible case in Atlanta that led to his lynching.

Hughes left the Supreme Court in 1916 to run as the Republican candidate for the presidency against Woodrow Wilson. He lost ultimately on Wilson’s record of keeping us out of World War I, but Hughes also didn’t have the full support of Progressives because he opposed the Adamson Act that provided the 8-hour day for railroad employees that Wilson had recently signed. It was still a very close election in a nation with a natural Republican skew, but Wilson pulling out California by 13,000 votes put him over the top. Hughes may well have blown this when he did not show up for an appointment with California governor Hiram Johnson, who in anger at being blown off, endorsed Wilson.

Most importantly, Hughes became the last major party presidential candidate to have facial hair that was more than a mustache. He long had a full beard, but at some point during 1916 went to a very thick goatee. In any case, I am giving you my very favorite trivia question, which I have never had answered correctly, even by other historians. You are welcome. Everyone forgets about Hughes.

Hughes also grew more conservative as he aged. He became increasingly concerned about Wilson’s regulations over corporations, which he felt was undermining liberty and individualism. There’s a corporate Republican for you. By the time Robert LaFollette was engaging in his (pointless) third party run as a Progressive in 1924, Hughes was flipping out about the evils of nearly all regulation. Hughes also became Warren Harding’s Secretary of State in 1921. His most notable achievement was negotiating the Washington Naval Treaties. He served a full term, resigning after Calvin Coolidge won a full term in 1924. He became a corporate lawyer at this point, arguing 50 cases before the Supreme Court between 1925 and 1930. He also remained involved in the foreign policy community, particularly on Latin American issues. The Republican right-wing, concerned about that crazy radical Herbert Hoover becoming president in 1928, tried to recruit Hughes to run again, but he refused and endorsed Hoover.

Hoover paid that debt off by naming Hughes Chief Justice of the Supreme Court in 1930, replacing Taft. He was only confirmed 52-26, a lot of opposition for that time, primarily because he had become such a corporate hack. Progressives in both parties were highly concerned that he would rule strictly for corporations, but he ended up more moderate than expected, even after Franklin Roosevelt became president. Early on, Hughes voted with his conservative colleagues to strike down legislation such as the NRA and AAA, but by 1935, he felt the other conservatives had gone off the rails, forgetting the importance of common law. He started voting with the liberals, at least on some cases. Hughes was highly alarmed at FDR’s courtpacking scheme and responded by working hard to ensure that the Wagner Act and Social Security Act were ruled constitutional, demonstrating that despite Roosevelt’s bad move and the long-term damage this did to him, in the short-term it did ensure that critical legislation remained. Hughes remained Chief Justice until 1941, when he retired. He died in 1948.

Charles Evans Hughes is buried in Woodlawn Cemetery, Bronx, New York.

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