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They Don’t Make Them Like That Any More

Throughout my childhood and youth I suffered from being invariably identified as the grandson of one of the country’s most prominent citizens. It was an awkward situation, which I handled mostly by evasion: I counted it a triumph when I managed for a few days or weeks to make my mark on my own without somebody referring to my antecedents. Subsequently, when I settled on the profession of historian, I found another reason for discretion: if I spoke or wrote of Charles Evans Hughes, how could I be true both to my calling and to family loyalty? And so my self-imposed silence continued for a quarter century after my grandfather’s death.

Of late, however, my reticence has begun to strike me as strained and pedantic. After all, during the last two years of his life, when I was living in Washington, I dined with him twice a week; no one else, I think, saw him with quite this regularity. At the time, he had just completed his Autobiographical Notes, which, he told me, he never intended for publication. Their belated appearance suggests that the moment has come for me to write on so delicate and difficult a topic, more particularly since the bare record my grandfather left behind him seems to call for a personal interpretation.

There is a further reason for finally trying to put down my thoughts: it is no longer true that I come from a prominent family. To the American public the name Hughes now stands for an eccentric and fabulously wealthy recluse. Most people, especially the young, know almost nothing of Charles Evans Hughes. Diplomats remember him as a skillful, no-nonsense secretary of state who appreciated the work of the career foreign service. Lawyers recall a thoroughly professional chief justice who gave firm but tactful leadership to his colleagues. In 1960 the press briefly evoked his presidential race of 1916 as the closest of the century. And that is about all.

Such is the riddle Hughes presents. How could a figure who loomed so large in his own day have become so misty in current memory? Initially one may hazard the guess that our contemporaries find something unbelievable about a man who looked like God, to whom integrity was so much second nature that it would never remotely have entered his head to commit the sort of acts which in the early 1970s were routine in the highest spheres of government, and whose life with one great exception embraced everything to which an American statesman might aspire. The career is too nearly perfect: it seems to leave no chink through which the weakness of common humanity might make Hughes’s career credible to an age of ethical mediocrities and fallen idols.

The editors of the Autobiographical Notes offer no real answer. Their introduction is comprehensive and balanced, and they have done a conscientious job of relating these Notes to several important monographs and the unpublished memoranda on specific topics prepared by Henry C. Beerits, to whom Hughes in the 1930s entrusted the arrangement of his papers—memoranda which the Notes were intended merely to supplement. Seldom has a leading citizen left the documentation on his career in such good order, and historians have happily exploited this material to the full.

The autobiographical record, then, contains no surprises. It was thoroughly mined more than twenty years ago by Merlo J. Pusey, whose full-length authorized biography remains the basic book which anyone interested in Hughes would want to consult.1 But now that we have Hughes’s own work, the pious faults of Pusey’s stand out more clearly than before. What in the original admittedly had its fair share of conventional sentimentality, at the biographer’s hands turned reverentially uncritical: although the quotations from the Notes were full and accurate, they lost their pith from being torn out of context; in his own sequence and at his own pace Hughes comes through simpler and stronger than when dribbled along his biographer’s sticky prose.

While the editors of the Notes seem to recognize all this, they still fall into the perplexed and tentative tone which afflicts those who try to deal with Hughes in terms other than hagiographic. The skeletal character of the book gives them little help. Its author explains at the very start that he is not writing an apologia; yet he also manifests anxiety to set the record straight on episodes of his career which he believes have been inaccurately interpreted. He makes no apparent effort at self-portraiture; yet a portrait emerges nonetheless—and not least of all in the austerely practical nature of these very Notes.

They are the workmanlike account of a life of tremendous labor. If the term work ethic—or secularized Protestant ethic—had not already been invented, it would have had to be coined to catch a figure like Charles Evans Hughes. His capacity for work was awesome: he exulted in it, he felt at his best when he “was going ahead full steam,” he returned from his vacations “with abundant zest” to plunge into it anew. His work and his vacations alike were adventures to him—and with this trait of adventurousness we reach the less charted ground which the Notes only hint at and which needs to be sketched in with extrapolations from oral family lore or personal reminiscence.

The exploration is hampered by the fact that Hughes’s writings and his talk totally lacked two categories which to a contemporary mind seem indispensable for explaining almost anyone—the notion of social class and the notion of the unconscious. The Autobiographical Notes in fact give a fairly accurate idea of Hughes’s own curious class position as a very special sort of self-made man; but it has to be got at from random clues rather than explicit statement. The closest approach Hughes makes to speaking of a class situation is in describing one of his boyhood homes—his family moved frequently—as located in “a community of…self-respecting families of moderate means.”

As for the unconscious, it must be searched out in the Notes through even greater indirection. Certainly Hughes knew that powerful emotions underlay the iron self-control with which he faced the public: he was bewildered when what he took to be overwork alone more than once drove him to near-breakdown and the refreshment of Alpine hiking. But he would doubtless have considered it morbid to have probed these matters further. Like most of his generation—perhaps like most people even today—he thought that the only thing to do was to pull himself together and return to harness. Scornful of weakness, he refused the indulgence of fuller self-knowledge.

A first and simple way to discover the man beneath the phraseology of convention is by pin-pointing the episodes on which he felt compelled to correct the record—those which still nettled him after he had turned eighty and his public career was behind him. The readiest to hand is the single quotation most often attributed to him: “The Constitution is what the judges say it is.” This remark, dating from his early period of prominence as governor of New York, has frequently been interpreted as flippant or even cynical. Quite the contrary, Hughes insists; taken in context it was intended to emphasize the crucial role of the judiciary and the need for surrounding the judicial process with respect. And this reading is borne out by the fact that when three years later, in 1910, he was himself appointed an associate justice of the Supreme Court, he was so impressed with the responsibilities of his new office and so uncertain of his capacity to carry them out that Justice White once had to take him for “a midnight walk…to calm him and bolster his confidence”—an event, incidentally, which does not appear in the Autobiographical Notes.2

When Hughes first mounted the bench, the chief justiceship was vacant, and President Taft had come close to promising it to him. Two months later, the President even went so far as to summon Hughes to the White House, apparently with the intention of making a formal offer. Half an hour later, while the new justice was dressing to go, the meeting was canceled; the post went to Justice White instead. Hughes nobly affirms that Taft “was entirely free from any commitment,” and the documents are sufficiently obscure to support conflicting accounts. Yet I recall that within the family it was guarded as the secret of secrets—which a child was solemnly sworn never to reveal—that the President had gone back on his word. Perhaps this disappointment may help to explain the alacrity with which twenty years later, with the approaching death of the same Taft—who in his turn had in the meantime become chief justice!—Hughes at the age of sixty-eight accepted the long-deferred honor from Herbert Hoover, even though he knew very well that his son (my father) would be obliged to resign the office of solicitor-general in which he had served for only eight months.

Quite naturally, in discussing the decade of presiding over the Supreme Court with which he closed a public life that had begun five years after the turn of the century and that ended in the year of Pearl Harbor, Hughes is most concerned about the charge that he and his colleagues “changed front” in order to beat President Roosevelt’s “court-packing” plan of 1937. In an uncharacteristically curt phrase, Hughes dismisses the assertion as “utterly baseless.” Here the documents and the weight of scholarly opinion seem to support him.3

But it is also unquestionable that Hughes’s generalship and sense of timing—more particularly in proving that the court was not behind in its calendar—contributed mightily to turning the tide. Roosevelt took his discomfiture with his customary urbanity. Far from nourishing a grudge, the President, Hughes testifies, treated with “the utmost cordiality and friendliness” the chief justice whom his predecessor had appointed and who had inflicted on him the most stinging defeat of his twelve years in office. And perhaps some of this warmth was reciprocated. “After I had administered” to Roosevelt, Hughes recalls, “the oath of office for the third time, I told him that I had an impish desire to break the solemnity of that occasion by remarking: ‘Franklin, don’t you think this is getting to be a trifle monotonous!’ ”

Between Hughes’s two periods on the bench, there had come his campaign for the presidency against Wilson in 1916 and his four years as secretary of state under Harding and Coolidge. In these phases of his career once more it is not difficult to detect the historical distortions or half truths that got under his skin. In the Notes he repeatedly nails as legends the glib assertions about him which the journalists purveyed both contemporaneously with the events in question and long after they had occurred: that he lost the state of California—and with it the presidency—by “snubbing” its Progressive governor, Hiram W. Johnson; that he sympathized with the Senate “irreconcilables” who blocked America’s entry into the League of Nations; that in negotiating the Washington Treaty of 1922 he left his country dangerously unprepared for a naval showdown with Japan.

  1. 1

    Charles Evans Hughes, 2 volumes. (New York: Macmillan, 1951.)

  2. 2

    I have this from Paul A. Freund: “Charles Evans Hughes as Chief Justice,” Harvard Law Review, LXXXI (November, 1967), p. 5.

  3. 3

    Ibid., pp. 26-30.

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