In the late 1940s Charles Evans Hughes agreed to be interviewed for my college thesis on the presidential election of 1916, during which he had been the Republican nominee. In his letter to me, however, Hughes specified that he would not discuss “the Hiram Johnson incident,” referring to his alleged snub of the Republican governor of California. That event has often been cited as contributing to Hughes’s defeat. His failure to capture the Golden State proved to be the difference in the national race, giving Woodrow Wilson reelection by a thin margin.
The White House’s loss, however, was the legal profession’s gain. Having become one of America’s most famous lawyers by the turn of the century, and having already served a stint as associate justice of the Supreme Court, Hughes would survive his electoral downfall to rejoin the high court. He would become one of the most important figures in the Court’s history. Although he died before I was able to conduct the thesis interview, his life and legacy have remained a source of fascination for me ever since. A standard bearer for the Republican party who often has been portrayed as the nemesis of FDR during the New Deal, Hughes was, ironically enough, a pillar of the Progressive movement from the time he entered public life until he stepped down from the bench in 1941. That he also championed moderation and respect for precedent only burnishes his credentials.
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