Born today in 1862, Charles Evans Hughes first became famous as a crusading lawyer who uncovered corrupt business practices in the utilities and insurance industries.
In 1906, the Republican Party of his home state nominated him to run for governor against William Randolph Hearst, a sleazy newspaper magnate. Fortunately for New York, Hughes won.
As the state’s chief executive from 1907–10, he approved and implemented a series of Progressive measures to protect workers, regulate business, help immigrants, reduce corruption and improve government efficiency. Moreover, Hughes signed model legislation limiting corporate political contributions and requiring candidates to publish accounts of campaign spending.
On the US Supreme Court from 1910–16, Hughes wore down conservative judicial opposition to Progressivism by building a compelling constitutional case for reasonable state and federal reforms. In Bailey v. Alabama (1911), his majority opinion invalidated a draconian debt peonage law.
Hughes quit the court when the GOP drafted him to run for president in 1916. Campaigning as a domestic moderate and an advocate of military preparedness, he reunited a badly divided party, but still lost narrowly. Voters evidently preferred the Democratic incumbent’s liberal Progressivism and stated determination to keep the country out of war.
During his tenure as Secretary of State from 1921–25, Hughes called the great global powers to the Washington Naval Conference, where he negotiated several arms control treaties, hoping to avert another world war.
In the late ’20s, the great Republican statesman split time between his private law practice and public life. He argued several cases before the Supreme Court and worked as a judge on various international courts. Accepting an appointment from a Democratic governor, Hughes completed the reorganization of New York’s bureaucracy that he had begun as chief executive. To counter a resurgent Ku Klux Klan, Hughes co-founded the National Conference on Christians and Jews to promote interracial and interreligious cooperation.
Hughes returned to the Supreme Court as Chief Justice in 1930. For the next decade, he held the balance of power between hidebound conservatives and exuberant liberals. His swing vote doomed a few New Deal programs that smacked of central planning, but affirmed the constitutionality of most of FDR’s reform agenda. In fact, the Chief Justice’s constructive opinions helped Roosevelt and Congress refine the New Deal to reconcile the general welfare with individual freedom.
He retired from the court in 1941 and died in 1948.
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