Charles Evans Hughes
Charles Evans Hughes; drawing by David Levine

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.

This last charge, as I can testify from conversations with my grandfather during the Second World War, was the one which bothered him the most. When, two decades after the Washington Conference, the long-predicted conflict in the Pacific finally broke out—and the American battle fleet lay crippled—it was all too easy to accuse Hughes of having denied the United States supremacy on the seas. Certainly he had agreed to a slashing reduction in the navy’s building program. But what he contends in his Notes—and what I heard him say more than once—was that in making such an accusation the press of the early 1940s was neglecting to reckon with the totally different state of mind of twenty years before. Hughes reasons like a sensitive historian when he asserts: “If Congress, as was practically certain, was not going to provide the appropriations necessary…and we had no agreement for limitation, we were destined to fall behind the other great naval powers and thus get the worst of the competition our projects had started.”

The connecting thread in Hughes’s account of this series of episodes is an insistence that the truth was rather less sensational than it had been made out to be. Almost perversely—however valid his rectifications—he seems to be trying to delete the element of drama from his own life. Yet unquestionably he himself had a keen sense for the dramatic. His style of public speaking remained such long after it—along with the beard that became his hallmark—had passed out of fashion. His utterly devoted and strong-willed wife certainly took a dramatic view of him in regarding him as “a man of destiny” and in urging him to aspire to the highest public office. “Fame is the spur,” he would recite to me, “that last infirmity of noble mind.” He did not shun fame—although it had a way of arriving modestly clothed in the garb of duty. Why did he feel it necessary to soft-pedal this side of his nature, to depict himself as a work horse rather than as an adventurer, a sober servant of his country simply trying to get on with the job?

The answer may lie in his antecedents and in the intensely personal way Hughes both outgrew them and remained loyal to them. His Autobiographical Notes are full of his ancestry—so full, indeed, that the editors thought it wise to relegate a whole genealogical chapter to an appendix—and family history (where a grandchild soon became helplessly lost) was a subject on which he loved to hold forth. Of his mother’s influence nearly everyone who has written on Hughes seems convinced; her injunction to him when he was away at college: “Be thorough. BE THOROUGH. BE THOROUGH in all you undertake” is the most frequently quoted passage from his youthful correspondence. “Of old American stock,” part Dutch and part “Scotch-Irish,” she came of a solid but far from affluent or aristocratic Hudson River family. The usual picture of Hughes is the one familiar to American folk history of the adored only child pushed and prodded to greatness by a mother’s inflexible resolve.

In this depiction Hughes’s father has remained in the background as a weaker figure and possibly a henpecked husband. The nearest thing to a revelation in the Autobiographical Notes is the advance to center stage of the Welsh preacher David Charles Hughes—“black hair, snapping black eyes,…emotional, impulsive,…generous, sociable, and with a flair for adventure”—who arrived in New York in 1855 as a nearly penniless immigrant and five years later won for his wife a woman whose settled background no less than her austere temperament sharply contrasted with his. (Their son followed his father’s example by “marrying above him” in the social scale.) “Who was this upstart, this dark-hued Welshman?” the prospective bride’s mother inquired, “Who knew but that he had left a wife in Wales?” Initially all that seemed to unite the ill-assorted pair was the fundamentalism of their religion—Methodist in his case, Baptist in hers—and predictably (although the husband was the one who did the preaching) it was to her denomination that he converted.

Not the least of the diplomatic triumphs of Charles Evans Hughes was the way in which he managed to shed his religious faith without seriously wounding his parents. That he was able to do so suggests, if only by inference, a good deal about his relation to his father. Fortunately the Autobiographical Notes provides us with a photograph of David Charles Hughes—the best I have ever seen—taken in his later years on the occasion of his receiving the honorary degree of doctor of divinity, something which as a self-educated man he must have appreciated to the full.

The face that gazes out from this picture is far more interesting than that of the future chief justice’s mother: quizzical, dignified, with a look of both puckishness and vulnerability about the eyes. It is the face neither of a nonentity totally overshadowed by his wife’s determination and his son’s success nor of a father whose personal insecurity led him to play the eccentric. It is rather the face of a man whose modest achievements had brought him sufficient satisfaction to preserve him from jealousy of his son and to enable him to foster the latter’s triumphal progress by the reassurance that life held other rewards besides those won through hard work and that a penchant toward merriment was not irredeemably sinful.

The associates or scholars who have written most perceptively about Charles Evans Hughes have taken pains to bring out the warmth and humor which the public seldom saw. The legend of his coldness understandably arose because he reserved for his immediate family by far the greater part of his sense of fun. The same writers who stress his streak of playfulness comment on his almost total lack of close friends. Here once again an explanation based on social origins may help in resolving an apparent contradiction.

Hughes seems to have been uncertain as to where he “belonged”; although the respect that surrounded him grew to be universal, he found scarcely anyone with whom he could feel thoroughly relaxed and comfortable. The first wealthy people he encountered were a group of highly assimilated Jewish families—one of them named Cardozo—and throughout his life he enjoyed a special affinity with this milieu. In a period of ferocious social anti-Semitism, he had no truck with such an attitude. Of all the famous men whom he had known and of whom I heard him speak, Brandeis was the one he recalled with the strongest emotion. “Brandeis,” he would say, characteristically putting the emphasis on integrity, “is a rock.”

Of the others with whom he served on the Supreme Court, Holmes was the most eminent. But Holmes was a generation older than he, and although they shared little jokes on the bench, Hughes apparently never got over his awe of a man who had risen to the rank of captain in the Civil War. (“Hughes,” Holmes once whispered to him just before his own retirement, “seventy years ago today I was left for dead on the field of battle.”) Indeed, arranging this retirement in early 1932 was perhaps the most delicate task the new chief justice had to shoulder—and Brandeis was naturally the associate who aided him in it.

Holmes, Brandeis, Cardozo: these are the names that keep recurring in his Autobiographical Notes as they did in his conversation. They were the men whom he admired and whom in his self-contained fashion he counted as his friends. But he could not be quite as they were. Despite his advanced and courageous stands on civil liberties—his championing in 1920 of Socialist legislators denied their seats, and in 1931 of a pacifist denied citizenship—he remained “to the right” of the trio that ranked in Hughes family lore as the supreme pantheon of the legal profession. He was more cautious than they—for all the majesty of his bearing, less self-assured. Here lies another riddle. We may approach it indirectly through the apparent detour of domestic tragedy.

In the spring of 1920 Hughes’s oldest daughter and the second of his four children died at the age of twenty-eight. Her loss left him, as he says in the strongest single passage in his Notes, with “a wound which…never healed.” Helen Hughes’s death broke his life in two; his gracious wife, with whom he had the closest of marriages, never fully regained the gaiety of spirit he had treasured in her. It is curious—but perhaps symptomatic of Hughes as an extremely private man—that it took the general public a long time to realize why in that election year he did not reach once more for the presidency, which, as Pusey puts it, “could have been his for the asking.” After months of quiet grief, he assumed instead the unfamiliar role of directing his country’s foreign policy under a second-rate, affable chief who gave him all the leeway a secretary of state could desire.

To the press and the public a “new Hughes” seemed to emerge in 1921. The frostiness had vanished: one portrait painter even went so far as to imagine him in the guise of a jovial, pink-cheeked French “President of the Republic”! In this case popular distortion included a misunderstood element of the truth. It was not so much that Hughes had changed; it was rather that he let the outside world glimpse more frequently the man behind the stern exterior. Intense private sorrow had followed closely on a spectacular public defeat: of the two blows, the personal one had been by far the more severe.

Whatever restraint his self-discipline demanded—however reluctant he might be to explore the recesses of his soul—the death of his daughter had forcibly cast him into the nether world of his own emotions. He who had seemed invulnerable had known despair. From the ordeal he came out stronger than before. Gone were his periodic crises of “nerves” and self-doubt. He had lived nearly sixty years a life of success piled on success—but one whose psychic underpinnings sometimes shook in a storm. Now that he had experienced the full measure of grief it was as though his emotional make-up held no further surprises for him: he had gained intimate acquaintance with his capacities and his weakness alike, and he began to act accordingly.

Human disaster hit too late to alter the style and the work habits of a lifetime. Hughes still could not manage to bring into full incarnation the impulsive Welshman that had hovered so long just below the surface of his Anglo-Saxon manners. Yet at an advanced age the memory of the Wales he had visited as a boy returned to him when he saw, with tears swelling in his eyes, the film of How Green Was My Valley.

He suspected that in public speaking, like his Uncle John, whom he had met back in the “old country,” he too possessed the “mysterious power of the Celtic temperament” that the Welsh call hwyl. To me visiting him evening after evening in the utter loneliness of bereavement after my grandmother died—his only other caller, appropriately enough, seemed to be Justice Frankfurter—he looked very Welsh: with the massive head of a mortally wounded old lion, staring off without flinching toward his own end.

Hughes was of a special variety of American self-made men which now seems virtually extinct. Reared without money in an educated household, he early acquired the accent and the “breeding” that smoothed his translation to an infinitely higher sphere and gave it the appearance of effortlessness. He could pass for a patrician even though he himself would have been the first to declare that he was nothing of the kind. Deep down, however, his ascent into the Wasp establishment seems to have taken a great deal out of him. And in two senses: first, in leading him to curb, at least in public, what was volcanic in his own nature; second, in provoking doubt, mostly unconscious, about whether he might not still remain an outsider who was constantly required to prove himself and, along with this, the practice of driving himself to the verge of psychic collapse.

No wonder, then, that a certain conventionality of thought and more particularly of expression undercut his intellectual brilliance: it was the necessary form his self-protection assumed. Like so many other men who have taken a great leap in one generation, he simply assumed the economic system which had made this possible; like other reformers of his generation, he was concerned rather with correcting the abuses of a business society than with questioning its fundamentals. As Zechariah Chafee, Jr., pointedly observed, Hughes “had a powerful rather than an exploratory mind.”4 Few American leaders of the twentieth century have elevated public service as he did; few stand in such need of a nuanced re-creation of an emotional life that for the most part has gone unrecorded.

This Issue

May 30, 1974