Essays, Papers & Addresses

Charles Evans Hughes

by Charles Buell, Trustee
Calvin Coolidge Memorial Foundation

Editor’s Note: Antoinette Denning of Westcliff, Colorado is a life member of CCMF and granddaughter of Charles Evans Hughes. She recently donated a letter to the Foundation written by Calvin Coolidge to her grandfather.

Both Charles Evans Hughes and Calvin Coolidge came from modest backgrounds, did good academic work in college and started studying law upon their graduation. Their career paths then diverged until they both came to serve in the Harding Administration in 1921. But their shared background and strong sense of ethics led to a close working relationship during Coolidge’s first 18 months as President.

Hughes’ father, David, had migrated from England in 1855 to carry the Methodist creed to the United States, but when he met his strong-willed and intelligent future wife, he converted to the Baptist faith and he preached and worked in those churches, especially in the New York City area, for the rest of his life. Both parents passed on their love of learning and of their Church to their only child, born April 11, 1862. The future Supreme Court Justice and Secretary of State thrived under this attention from his earliest years, reading widely in the library that his father had put together from his parson’s meager salary.

At age twelve, during a forced break in his education, Hughes showed that he was not mere bookworm by his observant wandering of the streets of New York City. “Naturally, any part of New York that had a bad reputation was particularly interesting,” as he recalled the city years later. He then enrolled in the most competitive high school of the time, PS 35, and graduated 2nd in his class when only 13 years old. After a year of study on his own, which included further exploring the city and swimming in the East River, he entered Madison University (now Colgate University) in the fall of 1876. Both his outgoing personality and his high academic achievement made him popular in spite of his youth. He was rushed by all the fraternities and he selected Delta Upsilon in the fall of his freshman year. But small Madison University proved too confining for Hughes, so he transferred to the larger and more rigorous Baptist-affiliated Brown University with its city location. He continued his brilliant academic career and his outside activities, practicing his oratory at Delta Upsilon’s national meeting and his writing as editor of the College paper, The Brunonian.

In his senior year, encouraged by many of his friends, he began to think seriously of studying law. To test this, after graduation in 1881, he eagerly accepted the opportunity to teach part-time at a school in Delhi, NY and to read law there in the afternoons at the office of a well-known former judge. This experience convinced Hughes to attend Columbia Law School where he was a leading student. While at school, he made contacts in leading law firms, which paid off in good placement after his 1884 graduation and he passed the Bar Exam on his first try.

In three years of very hard work, he became the number one lawyer in a respected firm, capping that achievement by marrying the daughter of the lead partner in 1888. Antoinette Carter was to be the calm, loving and supportive mate for Hughes during his varied public career. He did take a break from his hectic schedule by teaching at Cornell Law School in 1892-93, and he retained happy memories of that more relaxed year.

On his return to New York, he plunged into his practice again, but was called to a public career in 1905 when he was appointed to investigate the Gas Monopolies and Insurance scandals. This public exposure made him an attractive Republican candidate for New York Governor, facing the publisher, William Randolph Hearst in 1906. Hughes won, but when in office did not win friends in his own party, since he pursued his Progressive views on trust-busting and voted against legalizing gambling.

Those Republican party bosses were therefore happy when Hughes was nominated to the US Supreme Court in 1910, taking him away from their pet projects. While on the Court, Hughes generally supported Progressive views in adapting US law to the control of national economic policy.

But Hughes was pulled back into politics in 1916 to oppose the Democrat Woodrow Wilson’s try for a second term as President. He lost to Wilson since he could not heal the rift between William Howard Taft’s and Teddy Roosevelt’s factions dating from the 1912 election, and America’s entry into World War I also loomed ominously on the horizon. He spent the war years leading an impartial investigation into problems in the aircraft program and then, post-war, opposed the League of Nations Charter. He did not choose to run for President in 1920, partly due to his grief over the untimely death from tuberculosis of his 28-year old daughter Helen. But he was willing to stay in Washington to join the Harding Administration in a new position for him, as Secretary of State.

While working on the League of Nations issue and sponsoring the Washington Naval Conference, he came into contact with Calvin Coolidge in Cabinet meetings and was pleasantly surprised at the new Vice-President’s abilities in back of that impassive face!

But Hughes first close dealings with Coolidge came on August 3, 1923. Hughes was the highest official in Washington that night of President Harding’s death, and over the telephone just brought in to Plymouth Notch from another line a few minutes before, he dictated the oath of office to Coolidge’s secretary, adding that the swearing-in should be taken before a notary.

“Father is a Notary,” Coolidge responded and Hughes replied, “That’s fine.” Then the famous early-morning oath was then administered by Calvin’s father, John, making his son the thirtieth President of the United States.

That late-night conversation started a close 18-month connection between the new President and Charles Evans Hughes, with Hughes consulting with Coolidge on major issues of both domestic as well as of Foreign Affairs. One issue was the holdover Attorney General Harry Daugherty, who was unwilling to prosecute the perpetrators of the Teapot Dome scandal of the Harding years and who was unwilling to resign . Hughes suggested that he could ask the Cabinet officers to submit their resignations to the new President and then Coolidge could re-appoint who he wanted to retain.

In a classic bit of terse humor, Coolidge replied, “No, don’t do that. It might leave me alone with Daugherty!”

It is a pity that the details of the many other conversations between Coolidge and Hughes are lost to history for they must have shared many acute observations about the people and events of the “Roaring Twenties.”

In need of funds to provide for his family, Hughes resigned as Secretary of State effective at the beginning of Calvin’s second term, in 1925, and got a warmly appreciative letter from the President, thanking him for his good work in guiding foreign affairs for the country for four years.

But Hughes only stayed in private life for five years, returning to Washington to cap his career as Chief Justice of the Supreme Court, appointed by his former Cabinet colleague, Herbert Hoover. Hughes led the Court for eleven stormy years through the depression and Franklin D. Roosevelt’s New Deal, surviving FDR’s Court Packing scheme by proving that the Court was up-to-date on its workload. Hughes was always admired for his organizational brilliance and management ability, and he was able to keep the Court free of excessive Executive interference.

While Charles Evans Hughes was only with the Coolidge administration for 18 months, and he was better known for his work on the Supreme Court, he left a mark of accomplishment in that eighteen months that went beyond his duties as Secretary of State, by bringing his extensive abilities to the whole range of issues confronting the new President.